Recently artist Paul Bhonsle had a showing of his Christian iconographic art works at the Kothachi Wadi festival in Mumbai. Though it was supposed to be Paul’s solo showing after a gap of 11 years, as the dates coincided with the Kothachi Wadi festival it was also the right time to revisit the mural, Odyssey of Faith, which he had painted on the wall near the Chapel in 2009.
The passing years have taken its toll on the wall, and the mural painted on it has faded. Now Paul wants to enhance the painting to give it a sense of permanence. He feels the best way to do it is to turn it into a mosaic. However, as the wall is also not in the best of condition, there is a need to rebuild and restore it first.
As the mural later became a painting it shouldn’t be a problem to get a clear picture of the painting on the mural in order to redo it. “As the original size of the painting is 2 ft x 2 ft, we are trying to see the maximum we can blow it up to as the wall is at least 10 ft. wide. Even if it becomes a small mural it can look very pretty if done in mosaic. Mosaic will last longer and is easy to maintain. We are trying to see how to go about it. However, we need funding for this project,” says Paul.
The show itself had 24 works in all - 15 paintings and 9 works on the Indian mustard and white jars, also known as the pickle jars. The work on the ceramic jars is in oils and 24 karat gold leaf. “I look at the pickle jar as a metaphor for preservation,” he says.
Paul works with oils and 24 karat gold leaf. Though not many artists work with 24 karat gold leaf, some do use it in a very abstract form. However, the use of gold leaf is getting restrictive now as it is just getting dearer. Paul uses it in the manner one would use it for religious icons. “In the Christian context, gold has many connotations. It talks about paradise, it talks about power, and it refers to God. Gold is a very important element, as that’s what gives that energy. So I would never use artificial gold within the painting and it becomes essential for me to use gold leaf,” says Paul. Paul’s works are priced starting from Rs1.75 lakh. The ceramic jars are priced at Rs2.5 lakh each.
It takes Paul anywhere between two to three years to prepare a 2’ x 2’piece of art. The image of the work starts in his head. He starts painting directly on the canvas without drawing any outlines. The only probable areas that he makes out is the halo, or if he is painting a crown. These areas are painted and gilded first so that they don’t catch on to the rest of the paint. This has been Paul’s style since his debut in 2004.
Though his subject has always been Christian, it is spiritual too. Previously he was painting in the surrealistic style, with a lot of texture. Over time, he has borrowed a lot from Hinduism, tantra and meditation as well. “Although I am Christian so to say, I don’t practice any organised religion. When I look at myself I think I’m more of a Sufi. Because for me it’s not about having to practice a ritual, it has to be something that comes from within otherwise you simply don’t do it,” he says.
So how did he go towards Christian iconographic work? Paul comes from a family of Protestant pastors who were practicing under the Church of England. In fact, his grandfather was the last Pastor in the family. Though he stopped going to church at the age of seven, he did go to a catholic school in Mumbai which had a church. He would steal himself off during the recess, or he would finish his recess in class or before hours so he could just loiter around in the church. “The church doors are always open and you were curious. It was the most beautiful place to be in,” he says. It was meditative. The constant exposure to Christian art around him, and him constantly questioning the faith have been influences that have made his work veer towards Christian iconography.
Though he doesn’t read the Bible before starting to paint a subject, he does try to re-collect moments from his childhood, sometimes fantasizing to the point that what he is painting may not be approved with its flaws. Sometimes, there are moments in his life when he gets inspiration from visions of God, or a Saint, or Madonna, or Christ, or the saint Sabya Sahib, a disciple of Fareed baba.
Paul also paints a lot of Indian goddesses too mostly in their child form. “Because the clearest form of God would be their avatar as a child,” he says. I like painting a baby Krishna, a Saraswati like a baby on a lotus, a baby Lakshmi. But these come suddenly. I will be in the midst of painting 10 very intense Christian art works and suddenly something gets triggered and I want to paint a Lakshmi. Suddenly I see elements of Lakshmi coming into that painting as well - elements of a lotus pond, a swan, an elephant and somewhere in the background there are also my saints. That is how the painting the Odyssey of Faith happened,” he says.
So does this mean that, in a way, Paul has come back to the church? “I don’t know if have come back to the church, but I definitely have great faith in the Lord above whoever it may be,” he says.