The world is a canvas to the Burman-Maity imagination. Two throw colour at it; the third plucks images out of it. No dream is too unwieldy for this creative family of three, no idea is too small to act upon. Even when their eye sees the same thing, all three — the two artists and their photographer son — reframe the experience in their own terms, resulting in unique, nuanced works of art across media.
Chalk and cheese come frequently to mind as Jayasri Burman and Paresh Maity talk about their working styles. Of the two, Paresh — the painter-sculptor-photographer-film-maker with almost 80 shows to his credit — is the more disciplined. His work schedule follows the sun as it arcs across the sky. “For me, natural light is very significant. Which is why I like to get up early and sleep at 10. I like to stay with nature; to observe the difference between morning and evening light.” Paresh chooses music to be his only companion when he works. “Where I paint is my temple. I don’t like anyone there when I communicate with my painting; as it tells me what it needs.”
Son Rid Burman admires this work ethic and hopes that some of it has rubbed off on him. “Light is a huge influence in my work too, but that goes with the territory of being a photographer. What I’ve really learnt from my father is commitment to one’s skill and ideation, and the integrity you want to bring to every project you undertake,” he says.
“Both Paresh and Rid are tremendously disciplined, not just in their work, but even in their lifestyle. I’m not like that,” says Jayasri, who studied art in Santiniketan, Kolkata, and Paris, and won the National Academy Award at age 24. This painter-sculptor’s schedule is independent of outside influences. “I don’t wait for day or night or the right light. As a woman, I don’t have that luxury. Today, I don’t need to look after anyone or work in the house. But there was a time when I did. So, I taught myself to grab whatever time I could whenever I could, and to sit down to paint. Even today, I like working at night, when it’s quiet and there’s no one around to make demands on me.” Interestingly, she says, age is a disciplinarian. “Middle age has brought niggling aches and pains to my limbs, and forced a routine of exercise and fixed meals on me. I feel I need to do my most demanding, strenuous work now. Smaller, easier paintings can come later.”
They say children, like pristine glass, absorb the prints of their minders. Rid certainly did. “My mother being an artist made a huge difference to my life. My childhood memories are of Rabindra Sangeet evenings, visits to Kolkata art galleries and exhibitions, discussions with senior painters like Ganesh Haloi and MF Husain. Having artists at home altered the way I looked at and enjoyed things.”
Where the parents and son are identical is in their commitment to art, and the journey that began early in life. Jayasri says she wanted to paint from childhood. “I was good at all the arts, dancing, singing, acting, writing poetry. Art was a natural step. I come from an affluent business family. Artist Sakti Burman is my uncle. Many believe that I had it easy because of those two factors. But the fact is I didn’t. Everything I have got, I have achieved for myself. There have been no handouts; no leg-ups.” Jayasri has lived in Delhi for 22 years now. “The first 17 years I didn’t even know who my neighbours were. I never lifted my head from my work long enough to find out.”
Paresh’s path has been a turbulent one. Born into a very middle-class family in Tamluk, West Bengal, he’s struggled on every step of his journey. “Not only was my family not artistic, no one even had a clue about what art meant. But I knew, at age six, what I wanted to do the day I watched Durga idols being made.” Not that the early decision made things easy. Not only did the family have no money for Paresh to realise his dreams, he had to fight for every quarter: to go to art college in Kolkata and, later, in Delhi; to learn English to write his dissertations in college; to make ends meet in the early years in Delhi, when he didn’t even know enough Hindi to converse with anyone. (Though it must be mentioned here that his very first show of 24 paintings in the capital, in 1990, was sold out).
Did Rid ever think about becoming a painter? “No. Too much peer pressure. Everyone thought because I was Paresh and Jayasri’s kid, I would be Van Gogh from Day 1.” But he does believe that he brings a fine arts perspective into his work as a fashion photographer. “I did try sculpting and it felt like meditation. But it is photography that interested me, even as a child.” Paresh played a huge role in that. “He was the first one to get me a proper camera and encouraged the idea of capturing light.” Jayasri seconds that. “On holidays, as a child, Rid would roam around with Paresh, taking photographs, discussing techniques and the light,” she says. “Yes, when he started, our photography styles were quite similar. Now, of course, his education and experiences have taken him in a different direction. But we still have long professional chats on art and photography,” adds Paresh.
Ask Rid about family vacations and he laughs. “We still do them. They’re amazing, but we keep them short. We are all strong individuals with strong opinions. So, living under one roof for a long time is not a good idea.” Ask them about their dreams and both say it’s to make “the best painting” and to work even on the last day of their life. Jayasri says she wants to continue doing what she enjoys most, creating works that “spread beauty and serenity. However tense I may be, I don’t let that slip into my work. I don’t like creating art that makes the viewer unhappy. Unhappiness is catching.” Paresh, who thinks of his work as “social art”, wants two more things. One, to make a full-fledged feature film, based on the documentation of his life and art, and two, to create an Art Centre, maybe out of his studio, to leave behind for the nation.
If the purpose of art is to scrape the dust of daily life off our souls, the talent-packed Burman-Maity home must be spotlessly clean. Just flooded with colour, light and art.
Photographs: Sahil Behal