With 80 solo shows and counting, painter Paresh Maity recounts his journey to becoming one of the most celebrated watercolourists in India
As an eight-year-old boy in the village of Tamluk, Bengal, my surroundings were my first muse. I would sketch and draw what I saw, but one thing fascinated me most – the making of Durga idols for Pujo. I would watch artisans make beautiful forms with clay and mixed colours in coconut shells, and be utterly riveted. That was my initiation into art. I grew up with water all around me – the water-laden sky, the lush green fields and the image of row after row of boats have stayed with me ever since. I find that boats symbolise the philosophy of life, in a sense – in constant movement, weathering storms and still surviving. Boats still figure in my work as an important motif, even though the context, colour palette and compositions have changed vastly since my early days.
As a child, I knew I wanted to be an artist but my family didn’t have the means to support my passion. My father was a government clerk and I had to travel 200 km every day to Kolkata – changing a bus, train, cycle-rickshaw and then walking – to reach the Government College of Arts, from where I did my Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts.
Studying there was a turning point in my life. Before that, I had lived in Delhi for some time as I had run away from home. When I look back, I feel that Delhi always had a place for me. When I was accepted for a Master’s degree at Delhi College of Arts in 1990, it was like life had come full circle. I think life always comes full circle. The circular motifs in my work are inspired by this thought. As an adult, when I travelled to Summer Hill, Shimla and to places like Japan, I realised that I had done some paintings of these places in my childhood from only photographs and now I was seeing them for real!
Everyone evolves with time. I have too, and so has my work. When I started my masters degree in Delhi, I became fascinated with Rajasthan. I used to make frequent trips to this vibrant state and from monochromes and landscapes, my work began to burst with colours, and the figurative element also came in during this phase. If you see the oils on canvas that I have made in the last two decades, they are bold and geometric, with eyes being the predominant motif. And I have executed almost all my paintings on location, from the desert of Jaisalmer and markets of Kolkata to the seaside of Goa and the fishing nets of Kochi, from the ghats of Varanasi and the temples of Kanyakumari to the cherry blossoms of Japan and the waterscapes of Venice. I travel a lot, almost four to five months a year, and that keeps me motivated.
Nature, folk and tribal art and miniature art have been my biggest inspirations. Turner and Picasso have been my role models – the former for his landscapes and the latter for his strong geometrical lines. As an artist from Bengal, I have also been influenced by the wash technique, particularly of Abanindranath and Gaganindranath Tagore. Though I have worked in almost every medium, including oils, sculpting and filmmaking, creating a watercolour is closest to my heart. It is the most difficult medium to master – it dries up quickly, can’t be rectified easily and several factors must be taken into account like season, size of paper and temperature.
In 2011, I made, perhaps, one of the largest watercolours – the 8 X 5 ft Symphony of Colours – in the world. Every work I create is a culmination of years of experience and hard work, even though a particular painting may literally take five to six hours. Even my most recent work – depicting the palm trees of Santiniketan – was done on the spot on January 1 this year. I don’t need any break from painting. I paint 24 hours a day – I’m composing even in my dreams. In fact, I feel fatigued if I don’t paint.
As told to Poonam Goel