Twenty-five years ago, with a mix of enthusiasm, apprehension and happiness, Madhuri held her first solo exhibition, in Pune, eager to experience the response to her work. In retrospect, the then self-taught artist needn’t have worried as the show opened her life to the enriching and engaging world of art she so loved. For through her school years, her undergraduate studies in Economics at Fergusson College, Pune, (1974-78), her time pursuing a diploma in French at Alliance Française de Pune, and years playing national level badminton, she had sketched and painted with natural ease.
Perhaps Madhuri’s inherent athleticism and artistic streak lay in her genes- her father Shivram Phalnikar played national level badminton and her mother Durga Phalnikar was an acclaimed Indian classical vocalist. Yet, to her credit even as she inherited talents she went on to hone her skills and draw strength from every experience life offered. Of her paintings, she accepted appreciation and critique with level-headedness and evolved her style over the years. And this evenness she says stemmed from being a sportsperson. “As I grew up I realized that it is the achievement that is important and not fame. In sport, wins and losses are transient, so it keeps one very grounded. I feel I have assimilated that approach in my everyday life and art”.
In her earliest works -like those of the Impressionist masters she so admires-Madhuri sought to capture the mood of a moment and the transient effects of light and colour of natural vistas she so loved using unmixed primary colours and hundreds of minute strokes. A play of fresh colours infuses these works with effervescence. “I am an optimistic person with a positive attitude so I invariably choose cheerful colours. However as the colour sense of landscape artists may be the same, it is form and texture that create my style. My energy is my most precious trait and it is this energy that I transfer to my work”.
And so it was that landscapes and seascapes emerged on her earliest canvases as works of simplicity and sentimentality. Each canvas was a straight-from-the-heart expression of a memory of a place seen or a road traversed. The paintings were always about bringing home a vignette of natural beauty rather than attempting to prophesize or convey a social message. From majestic trees to fields of flowers, blossoming boughs and bulrushes, from vast vistas of land, sky and sea, nature offered her-as it has continued to-solace and has been her muse even if not the constant subject of her works. Yet, within the body of works she created, there would invariably be one or a few rendered in an abstract style, where the form and details would be pared down to suggest rather that recreate the actual subject; a facet that would years later come to blossom and encompass all her work.
In the absence of a mentor, Madhuri realized the importance of formal training and pursued a Masters in Art & Painting from SNDT, Pune (completed in 1988) and sought reviews of her work from the cross section of people she met. “An artist always seeks guidance, an honest appraisal. So I truly appreciated all the responses I received from viewers. Over the years I have been fortunate to have formed a great art connect with Sunetra, my cousin, and Gitanjali Kirloskar, a dear friend. We discuss art for hours and I value their suggestions”. Her first solo exhibition at Bal Gandharva Rang Mandir, Pune, (1986) was inaugurated by S.L. Kirloskar, a legendary doyen of Indian industry, who encouraged her as did visitors. It was the first of several solo and group shows, in India and overseas, that would showcase her work and trace the trajectory of the evolution of her style.
And over the years, her journey into the art world came to be enriched by meeting with generous and gracious people from different walks of life, from casual and curious visitors to her exhibitions to luminaries from industry, celebrated artists, gallery owners and art lovers from across the world who acquired her work. Madhuri specially recalls the graciousness of Maharani Gayatri Devi, who visited her home in Pune in 1987, appreciated her works and wrote to Jamshed Bhabha recommending he see her work. Bhabha personally called Madhuri, saw her work, encouraged her to retain the freshness of spirit of her works and patronized her work over the years. And marriage and motherhood, ideas that once frightened her the most, enriched her life and painting. She found earlier fears were unfounded when she married Shekhar Bhaduri in 1989 and their son Saurabh was born in 1990 filling her with a sense of joy of creating life and bringing her a sense of completeness.
Extending her formal study of human figures during her Masters, Madhuri painted nudes and figurative through the 1990s after which she felt the urge to move on and create works that expressed her inner feelings. She also worked on a series of clown paintings - poignant works of painted faces concealing pain- that conveyed her sensitivity to life’s experiences, of the exigency of at times presenting a cheerful demeanour to the world, and of making others laugh in the most testing of times. Yet, drawing from the spirit of her figurative works, she found her true self and fulfilment while creating abstract compositions.
Discovering abstraction is much deeper than a play of colour or lines, Madhuri returned to her first love of landscapes and created a body of abstract landscapes and seascapes. “Abstracts are about the person you are. They help you understand and work out the complexity of your own emotions. As I explored the expression I came to love the process of painting abstracts” And then there was no looking back as she started painting abstract seascapes. Travels to port towns across the world, from Maharashtra’s picturesque Konkan coast to seaside towns in Greece dotted with white washed homes and edged by the sparkling blue waters of the Mediterranean, brought Madhuri in touch with the beauty of the sea, its openness and vastness, the majesty of spectacular sunsets across sky and water, the timelessness of rocks weathered by the water yet strong and unmoveable, and views of fishing boats at sea or tied at the shore.
“The splendour and ever changing nature of the sea, the haunting beauty of abandoned boats and the stunning colours of sunsets have always fascinated me. The sea is always alive, active, overpowering and dynamic. I love the sea more than land”. And as Madhuri recalled those seascapes, she created spectacular vignettes of sky, water and boats, in rich colours and tones, creating a spectrum of moods. Drawn against the shore, the boats stand against beautiful blue waters, against intense orange sunsets, and romantic misty mornings; sunsets tinge the horizon, sky and sea; and at night the sea shimmers mysteriously. And perhaps most of all the maturity of strokes, colours and compositions conveyed that Madhuri -the artist- had entered a glorious phase. Infact it was these mesmeric seascapes that caught the eye of Kekoo Gandhi and Harsh Goenka in a show in 2002, an interaction she says was immensely reassuring and encouraging.
Reflecting on the works Madhuri says as form dissolves in abstracts, colour takes on a fundamental importance. And she wields colour magically, she brings earth, water and sky alive in all their glory, breathes life into sunsets and captures the essence of suggested forms. Through colour and brush strokes, she touches a chord in the viewer, stirring memories and emotions, bringing the beauty and intensity of the sea, land and sky, of old monuments, forgotten or living, into the inner space of the viewer. Each colour in the abstracts has a beauty, significance and resonance- from red symbolic of life blood, green of rejuvenation, blue of peace and divinity, yellow the radiance of the sun, orange of deep insight and black embodying an infinite, unfathomable void that sometimes overtakes our lives. And in this spectrum of colours and emotions, Madhuri sometimes finds solace in white. “White light is the point where the mundane and banal get transformed into something spiritual and beautiful. We all want to be free from the cycle of birth and death, and we need to purify our souls to attain that freedom. White light is symbolic of that pure place we all have in us”.
Around 2002 Madhuri took to sculpture, crafting works of scrap metal, savouring the possibilities of the expression as sculpture-unlike painting-offers viewers the joy of viewing works from all around. “If this attribute is explored in its entirety then it transforms sculpture into an object that offers continual, changing and never-ending surprises and engagement. To me sculpture is an attempt to understand and realize more completely what form and shape are all about. Everything-from scrap metal to elements of nature-can offer a start for a new idea. These odds and ends ignite thoughts that go on to initiate a thread of creativity”. She continues to enjoy sculpting and working with metal, and in periods of taking a break from working on canvases she refreshes her creative energies creating metal works.
The artistic appeal of her works steadily drew Madhuri into the growing art circle. After like a hugely successful show at Jehangir Art Gallery in 2006, her works were sought after at an elegant private show held by Vikram Singh in New Delhi 2007; the show gave her the long dreamt of opportunity to work on large canvases and the appreciation of her works gave her immense confidence. Yet even as the possibilities of art were widening, she faced immense personal pain as Shekhar started keeping unwell. And perhaps this inner grief reflected in her canvases of that period as the compositions became crowded, the forms were defined in strong lines, shapes overlapped, and dark, dense and melancholy colours filled the canvases. “Looking back I think in life there comes a time when you learn to live in the moment. Happiness, pain, both become transient. And then you feel your soul reaching out beyond the human horizon. It seeks the Divine, the sublime, the subtle nuances of being. And I feel it is those visions that then make their way on canvas”.
Shekhar tragically passed away in 2007, leaving a void in her life. “Through all the ups and downs, I realized I just needed to take life as it came. Art gave me moments of introspection so necessary to understand life. It was-and remains- a steady companion in life’s journey. It buffers my journey and keeps me centred. Some days are fulfilling and others are not, yet good days emerge from the struggle of bad days. Life is simple when you are young, and becomes complex as you grow up. Earlier, my work depended on the outside environment. But later, my work started drawing from my inner self. My abstracts emerge from the deep recesses of my self trying to negotiate and understand those complexities”. And it was a solo exhibition of these works, born of introspection and assimilation, held at the Museum Gallery, Mumbai, in 2009 that celebrated painter S H Raza inaugurated and likened to “poetry on canvas”.
“Art is an expression of what you are and my abstracts are what I am. Sometimes there are multiple feelings and thoughts in a work. Much of my work is inspired by travel. From museums like the Paul Klee Museum in Bern with its undulating forms merging into the land to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam with its treasure of paintings, and the many beautiful places I have visited in different countries I bring back memories, the romance, visual impressions and images of colour of a place. Aerial views of the mountains of Ladakh appear like patches of colour in a composition. I can still relive the light drizzle as we walked through thick green foliage passing by the beautiful Plitvice Lakes in Croatia. I recall the magical walk in the cold night, with candles showing the way, through the ancient city of Petra carved into the hillside as if it was last night I was there. And I carry with me the dream-like river cruise past beautiful mountains in Guilin, China, where one instantly realizes that Chinese water colour paintings could only have originated there”.
And going through her recent body of abstracts, in the rich colour palette, in the haunting open vistas, in the cluster of rooftops of Prague, in the blue domes of mosques in Turkey and Uzbekistan, the jewel-like Plitvice Lakes, in a graceful temple shikharas by the Ganges in the ancient temple town of Benares, the green ribbon of the river curving past emerald mountains of Guilin, the gathering of boats on waters drenched by the sunset, the vast waters of the sea with their changing moods………you know instantly that Madhuri has come into her own and as a viewer savour her journey and destination. “I have created a story on each canvas, starting by visualizing a place, recalling a memory, and allowed the flow to take me forward and be part of the sequential forms and layering that go on to emerge. I find myself using multiple colours on some canvases, with one colour being predominant. I also find beauty in colour palettes like black and gold that recall the mystery and splendour of the sea by night”.
In these stunning works it seems as if all the unessential forms and details have been pared away, and just the essence of a place has been gently gathered, cupped in kind hands, and brought to life most effortlessly with one form and stroke leading to the next till the artist stepped back and the canvas said the work was complete. “I can feel that I have reached where I needed to reach. As the frills of life decrease so do the frills of art diminish. You need to go through all the expressions to finally arrive at the core of yourself, with all the frills removed. It is just you, canvas, paint and the essence of your emotion. You put less on the canvas. Painting is now like meditation. I feel closest to God when I paint”.