9 Years Later...

Come to the Jehangir Art Gallery to see my works, says painter Laxman Shreshta. His paintings go on view from tomorrow till January 20, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., including Sundays. (VISHWANATH SALIAN) The great painter LAXMAN SHRESHTA is holding an exhibition after nine years. "These are visible experiences that are completely new," he explains to MARK MANUEL.

I LIKE Laxman Shreshta, the painter, and the man. There is a lot of good karma about him. I sensed it immediately the morning he called on me. Actually, he bounced into the office. A happy, bubbly and somewhat shy person, ruggedly built, like all people born and brought up in the Himalayas are, and dressed in blue denims, keds on small feet. The hands are large and muscular. Not the hands I would say that belong to a painter. But they are. And they are expressive hands, used to holding paint-brushes, but now clutching a coffee mug and criss-crossing the air with artistic strokes as he talked to me.

He had come to invite me to his exhibition that opens this evening at the Jehangir Art Gallery, 6 o'clock, followed by dinner at Hemant Oberoi's Masala Kraft in the Taj. "I'm exhibiting 38 paintings, 30 oils and eight watercolours, and this is my first exhibition in nine years, I hope you'll come," he said. I will go, naturally. Not because I like oils and watercolours, but because Shreshta is a nice man, and I have never seen his paintings before. "Isn't nine years a long time to be inactive?" I asked curiously. "But I like it that way," he replied, "I don't like exhibiting my works every two, three years. And I have not been inactive, I have worked on these 38 paintings for nine years!"

The physical work on a canvas of 6 x 7 feet takes him very few hours, I understand, but it is the waiting period, the time it takes for him to get into the mood and groove, that is long. "I can go up to the canvas with brush in hand for five days, but nothing happens, then on the sixth day, yes! It takes real search and meditation to be in the right frame of mind at the right moment," he explained. When he is in work mode, Shreshta, like a true artist, will shut himself from the world inside his studio. "I don't see people for days, I am calm and my mind is in order, the noise of the world stops, what comes out then is pure and beautiful and as close to the truth as I can get," he told me.

Shreshta's home is his studio. Or his studio is his home. It is a large, 12-room house on Khar's 12th Road, full of paintings, a library of books on art that is bigger than Strand Bookstall, with music playing all the time, his wife Sunita cooking Nepali food in the kitchen, a garden and an outhouse in which he paints only watercolours and charcoals. "When I get tired, I go to the outhouse, it relaxes me," he said. "The big paintings are done in the big house, the small ones in the outhouse, going there somehow helps me develop the big ones at home." He's lived in Khar for 35 years and is very happy with his home. "Ratan Tata, Kumaraman-galam Birla, they are big people, they live in flats, and when they come to my home they say, 'This is like being in Khandala'!" "Are they friends?" I asked. "Now they are," he replied, "but I didn't know them, they sought me out, we now admire each others' works!"

He talked about the exhibition. "I grew up in the mountains, in Siraha, Nepal, and I ran away to become a painter. But I've always missed the mountains. These paintings are a revenge of that loss! Till today, mountains are an inspiration. As I progressed, mountains took the shape of nature, and when my vision became wider, all of nature became my subject, including human beings and their habitats. I went still further, and life became my subject, every moment of living, the struggle, the joy and sorrow, achievements, surprises... this exhibition is about that. I'm showing the viewer my experiences. And through them, I want people to relive their own experiences and go beyond."

Giving expression to his experiences, then putting them together for the exhibition, had stressed out Shreshta. He has done everything for this exhibition himself, from framing the paintings and carrying them to the gallery to writing the invitation cards and sending them out. He was tired and jaded. The family doctor sent him away without any medicine. "This is stress, he told me, go away, when the exhibition opens, you'll be fine," Shreshta reported. So Sunita surprised him with an eight-day vacation at the Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur. "Khana, peena, swimming, I did everything, now I am feeling great," Shreshta said exuberantly. And he's looking it too. He is one of our most handsome painters, with jet-black long hair and bronzed skin, more Aztec than Nepali. All through our chat, he kept smiling broadly, like he was in the sunny and snowy hills of the Himalayas. Which, in a way, I suspect he was, the mind on some far-off peak.

After the exhibition, which is on till January 20, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., the Shreshtas are going to Paris for three weeks, then New York. He's actually dreaming of doing that. To go walking along Madison Avenue and shopping at Ralph Lauren! But before that, he's got ten days of the exhibition to look forward to starting tomorrow. "This exhibition will pose some questions to the viewer.

Why? Why? Why? Many whys make a point. I've not even titled the paintings. The viewer has the freedom to look at them and decide. He must sit down and work them out. Life should not pass by cursorily. Everything must attract your attention. The paintings must hold you. They must command you to sit down quietly and study them. Then if you have still missed the point, you are not my man, you understand," Shreshta asked. I hope I do this evening when I go to the Jehangir Art Gallery, for I would hate not to be Laxman Shreshta's man.