Lalitha Lajmi, who passed away at the age of 90 this month, was a self-taught artist who used the diffuse translucency of watercolours to speak of tenuous family relationships. Her works are largely autobiographical and feature small clusters of people in uneasy groupings against the backdrop of the Bombay sealine.
I first met Lalitha when she had come for her first solo show held at the Alkazi’s Art Heritage Gallery in New Delhi in the early 1980s. We became friends, and over the years, she kept in touch through inland letters in her large scratchy handwriting. These would bring news of her exhibitions abroad, and the achievements of her closest companion, her daughter Kalpana Lajmi, who would become an award-winning filmmaker. The memory of her famous sibling, the actor and director Guru Dutt, was also to dominate our conversation, and would reappear as she came to terms with the agony of his death through her work. Lalitha’s paintings appeared to draw from the pathos of the cinema of Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor. She was, in fact, always referred to in the same breath as her famous family (which included her distant cousin, Shyam Benegal), even though her success may have seemed more modest in comparison to these cinema luminaries.
For her painting, Lalitha drew from her own experience, of childhood with her siblings in a middle-class family, and of her role as a mother to a single child. Her paintings mainly comprise of groups of children at play, oddly stilted and melancholic, quite devoid of the carefree vitality of childhood. The Arabian sea -- her husband was in the Navy -- formed a natural background for her compositions, lending them a palpable fluidity. Later, her watercolours and oil paintings became what she described as “performance works”. These frames are filled with the bodies of men and women, who are seen in close proximity, but in attitudes of indifference, or turning away from one another.
Lajmi trained herself and built her career as an artist with extraordinary perseverance, working virtually till the end of her life. To support herself, she taught at the Campion school, even as she entered the Bombay art world with a 1960 show at the Artists Centre, Kala Ghoda, organized by the prominent Progressive artist, K.H. Ara. Ara was a self-taught artist himself and mentored Lajmi, who quickly manifested her painterly concerns around the melancholic recall of childhood. Lajmi enhanced her skills by learning printmaking at the Sir J.J. School of Art through evening classes between 1973 and 1976, which led her to set up a makeshift printing unit in her home kitchen.
Frida Kahlo was an inspirational figure whom Lajmi invoked as a tribute in her work. Like the younger Gogi Saroj Pal and Arpana Caur, Lajmi belonged to the generation of women artists who questioned gender inequality and asserted female agency. Fraught domestic tensions, masked emotions, and the privileged mother and child relationship were to remain the mainstay of her work. She fittingly received the honour of a retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, a month before her death.