Art Interview: Laxman Pai and the vibrating line

The understanding of Paul Klee’s ‘vibrating line’ technique in my paintings is woven with my mastery in music, the sitar, dilruba and the flute - Laxman Pai

By Jugneeta Sudan

Laxman Pandharinath Pai was born in Margao, Goa, in 1926. After studying and teaching at the JJ School of Arts, he travelled to Paris where he studied fresco and etching. He is the recipient of several awards including the Padma Bhushan awarded by the Government of India.

In contrast to the miserable lives artists lead, Laxman Pai at 94 is doing extremely well for himself staying at Thapar house Goa. He eats samosas every Sunday and Mankurad mangoes for breakfast, paints every day and creates art on monumental thirty feet canvases. Considering the warm playful nature of his artwork, I have brought along a recording of Raag Tilak Kamod whose melody blends with the abiding quality of exuberance in his painting suffusing the room with richness warm and deep.

Forms vie with colours on his canvas, a preponderance of blue counteracting the yellows. My chat series with him has been slotted between his scheduled work on two huge abstract works. In his red aachakan embellished with golden thread work and matching pyjamas he looks sharp, his silvery white beard and moustache offsetting his profile aglow with the sun rays filtering in through the open window. With a male nurse cum caretaker, Abhay Tambe (practicing Buddhist) in attendance to his every need around the clock, he reminds me of Renoir, painting in the twilight of his life, well-tended to and cared for in his home at Cagnes Sur Mer, the French Riviera.

Laxman Pai and Shaistha Thapar, the art collector from Goa, have struck the most successful symbiotic relationship, with their love for art binding them into a team to create yet more works. With Shaistha’s active support, encouragement and conducive artistic ambience, Laxman Pai’s brush strokes move seamlessly in synchronicity with the sound of lapping sea waves and his open freewheeling chakras.   

Laxman Pai’s art is firmly rooted in the Indian context, with tributaries from Indian mythology and philosophy feeding the river of Indianness, augmented by techniques from Asian & Western art practice. The seamless flow of forms, colour and lines creates a celebratory tide, with deep textures bringing in the drama in his finished artworks. Numerous colourful canvases lining the walls of Thapar house right from the entrance hallway relay notes of a sweet flowing raga. The coiling and uncoiling spool of brilliant colour in his art is like the flow of a trickling brook, chattering, twittering cascading along, and marking the contours of his present home.


Jugneeta Sudan: Miniaturists were the best colourists. To arrive at the highest mark of colour concept, you have got to see the accomplishment of Indian miniaturists who implemented colour schemes in all its subtlety. If they didn’t have it right they knew it would be  completely jeopardized considering the small paintings. Souza called the miniatures – ‘after dinner sweetmeats’.[1] They were perfect.  

Continuing the legacy of the miniaturists, Pai you bring out the highest possible effect of colour schemes in your paintings. Tell us about your colour concept and how you arrive at it.

Laxman Pai: Each colour is important. Colour can change its life according to its neighbour. The neighbour is very important. If we take a blue and neighbour is blue – it’s different but blue with red next to it – is very different. There is nothing as bad or good colour. Black is very important. The artist should know what he wants. And the placement of colours brings them to life. White on its own isn’t much, but mixed with other colours the different shades in VIBGYOR come to life. For this rainbow to sparkle and shine, white is very important. It holds each colour, makes it express itself in many ways. White makes a colour dance in different shades. Mix red blue and green, you get white. Colour is important. I would like to mention Shankar Palsikar here, who had great talent and who introduced me to tempera style rubbing technique in miniature style painting. It brought out the colours in a matte finish.  In JJ School of Art, the education was based on British academic style, however, we had one Indian miniature section under Shri Ahiwasi, where I developed my concept of colour and composition derived from Indian miniatures. In the twilight of my life, colour and form sustain me, I am evolving new combinations of colour and form, and the possibilities are infinite.  

Colour is also used to work textures. Texture is the feeling, the mood of the painting. Strong emotion can be worked into a painting using texture. I use palette knife, bushy brushes with thick coats of paint to work texture in my works. There are other ways of creating texture too.   


JS : The stylistic technique of Paul Klee ‘taking the line for a walk’, inspired generations of artists but you talk of Paul Klee’s ‘vibrating line’, that you employed to create textures, combining vibrating lines and dots with poetic forms of Marc Chagall. Tell us about your influences in Paris.

LP:  During my ten year stay in France (1951-61), I visited and minutely observed the exhibits in Musee du Louvre, Musee Rodin, Musee d’Orsay and other Paris museums and art galleries. I absorbed the elements I needed for my needs, digested and released them as my own through my paintings and drawings. Direct contact with Egyptian relief sculptures was influential in creating paintings in 1951-52. The simplified angular forms with format of profile faces and front body inspired my figuration along with treatment of figures from Amrita Sher-Gil works. However themes in my artworks were my memory recollections of Goan subjects, Jaidev’s ‘Geet Govind’, the Ramayaan series and life of Mahatma Gandhi. The Buddha paintings began just before I was due to leave Paris. In these artworks, Jain miniature pictorial elements and treatment of eye were as much a part of my style as the elements I had absorbed from works in Paris. My entire body of work created in Paris got sold in exhibitions held there. FN Souza, Bakre, Alkazi and Raza were instrumental in supporting and finding venues for my exhibitions. I came across Picasso, Chagall and other Ecole de Paris artists too in various expositions, but I wasn’t interested in personally meeting them, instead I was keen in viewing and examining their works.

The understanding of Paul Klee’s ‘vibrating line’ technique in my paintings is woven with my mastery in music, the sitar, dilruba and the flute. I was better able to appreciate Western Classical concerts and operas in Paris due to my grounding in Indian Classical music. The vibrating line in my works in the Gandhi and Buddha series taps the ‘vibrato’ in music to create textures of desired effect of feelings and tempo of the subject expressed. The black and white section in my book, ‘My search, my evolution’ consists of selected works from 1947-85, to highlight the importance of line and its power in creating variations informing moods of the artwork.


JS: Speaking of your skill in music, it’s indeed interesting to view its effect on your art practice. In popular culture, perhaps the most famous work which evokes synesthesia-like experiences is the Disney film Fantasia. Wassily Kandinsky’s synesthetic artworks exhibit a direct correspondence between colours and timbre of selected musical instruments. A forensic study rules out a scientific basis to his colour-sound coding mechanism, which he emphasized was based on his personal experience of synaesthesia  and his philosophy of ‘Mysticism’[2] Let’s focus on your ‘Musical Moods’, the ‘Raagmala’ paintings (1965).

LP:  This is the only totally abstract series in my work besides what I am currently painting. . These are paintings based on Indian Classical Raags. I chose one raag from each ‘Thata’ according to their placements in different time zones of a day, determined by the intensity of sunrays. Abstract forms in my artwork introduce the ‘Alaap’, the tempo vibrating to enter the ‘Jor’ and ‘Jhala’ - the different movements in the raag, in the Indian Classical genre of music.       

In the morning Raag, ‘Raag Bhairav’, the base of the painting is the bottom of the canvas, showing the rising sun, and its rays moving upwards. The warm reddish tones complement the morning light in the sky, the start of a new day. The spherical forms are the notes. It’s the feeling, the emotion of a new day. You create a texture to feel a mood. My ‘Raagmala series’ is very well depicted in texture. The seven notes are viszualized as forms. Each note has vibrations. The texture brings in the vibrato and movement. For the morning raga, the movement is up. For the afternoon raag, ‘Raag Sarang’, the movement of lines is both up and down. Some notes are prominent others are softer. And the texture then enhances these notes. Different tones of yellow are used for the afternoon light when the sun is overhead whereas for the evening raag, ‘Raag Darbari’, the colours are darker, mauve and purple, indicating the setting sun. Here the movement of lines is downwards and the texture is heavy and broad. In the evening and night raags the development is from top to bottom with cool colours. ‘Raag Lalit’ the last in this series denotes the dawn raag, the tones are green (restive) and yellow (active). The circle is complete, the raag promises the coming of light, and there is an upward movement again.

When I listen to music, I see colours and forms and get a sense of whether the piece is horizontal or vertical. At night I played on the sitar and recorded the chosen raag, and visualized the forms. Next day the recorded raag was the background music, while I attacked the canvas with thick layers of oil paint in one go creating the vibrating effect with scraping, using combs of different sizes.   

Music is about understanding movement, if you have a sense you can appreciate it better. Fine art is a family, but human beings, their capacities and talents differ, so they choose an art form, what suits them best to express their emotion and feeling. Music is abstract, painting is material but what is important is the mind and how you see it . The mind makes everything an abstract experience. Music is beats, its plain arithmetic; it’s all in the mind. We call it art but it’s the mind. Human beings have labels to recognize one art form from the other, but it’s all about the mind. My skill in music and art combines the effects of these forms and I experience them as a whole in my mind, one informing the other, making it a complete experience for my senses.  


JS:  You were the principal of Goa College of Art from 1977-87. With your background in JJ School of art and the Paris school, what was your vision for an art institution in India.  Baiju Parthan[3], the contemporary Indian digital artist, recalls your tenure as the Principal of the college and speaks very highly about your direction on colour concept at the college. 

LP:  The main emphasis was on stimulation of senses, what you just called synaesthesia; what I too was talking about in my ‘Musical moods’ series.  No compartmentalization of the arts, in JJ there were somewhat these compartments. But I said students should do all forms of art. Specialization can come later or for that matter no specialization. They must experience art with all their senses, seeing one art form and expressing it in another form – in music or dance. That’s why I wanted the college to be housed in Kala Academy on the banks of river Mandovi, for a good interaction between visual and performing arts. Discussions and debates, the brainstorming was important, to discuss art and then interpret it. In British academic art practice there was this highbrow and low grade art. But I wanted a dialogue between all the art forms. Craftsmen and potters and sculptors from different parts of India came and conducted workshops, with mix of crafts like welding, pottery, metal work and folk arts. I was also teaching and actively discussing with the students about colours and forms in miniature paintings and Indian folk arts.


JS:   You are a modern artist. Out of the two great movements of modern art, ‘Impressionism’ was soft and sensual style of painting, the objective reality as perceived by the painter; whereas, ‘Expressionism’ was highly subjective and psychological, an inward reality evoked by an object or an event.  Looking at your art, I feel you straddle a field in-between these two movements in modern art. Also you are a symbolist and an abstractionist. Your art gives shape and form to Indian philosophy through a personal iconography. Illuminate the coded language and grammar in your work.    

LP:  My art is dedicated to the ‘Invisible Force’. I explore forms of this force through my work, just as Gandhi experimented with truth. I can best explain it through my artwork, ‘Tree of Life.’  These are six paintings combined together with the white line flowing like a river of life. The growing tree indicates growth and the rising and setting sun, depicts the beginning and the end. Paintings 1-5 are attachments, depicting various stages of life – Childhood, Youth, Marriage, Family, Autumn Life. In Indian philosophy these stages are termed as entanglements, ‘Moh-Maya’. The last painting stands for detachment’ or ‘Moksh’. Moh (attachment) is depicted through flames, krodh (anger) by a pointed rhomboidal form with sharp pointy edges, Kaam (lust) are rotating round forms of different colours, and Moksh (salvation) is a calm pale yellow and white circle with a meditative eye in the centre. There are two energies which inform life right from the beginning when we are born. Male and female energy (sperm and egg) come together and a new life is born. The female is portrayed by curves, the fish eye, thin pointed angles, and dance, and the male is the seed depicted through square eyes, straight lines, angular forms and a static nature.


JS:  Your paintings revolve around the theme of male (Purusha)/female (Prakriti) energy in Indian philosophy, its celebration and a flowering of the most beautiful union, the birth of the  family of human race. Your work is foremost a visual exposition of its intricate nature, distinctive qualities and the harmony in the resulting dance therein.

LP:   In my painting, ‘Embrace’, I paint the human form depicting male and female attributes side by side. Not only that, the moon landing, space exploration, landscape, seascape, and the tenets of Indian philosophy in my artwork are shown through male and female shapes. The female energy ‘Devi’ energises the male form. She is the wave in the sea, growth of plants and vegetation and the dance of life. Kamasutra is a book which describes the technique of sexual involvement, methods to understand and bring out the best in male and female forms, to work around ‘kaam krodh moh’ and ultimately achieve ‘Moksh’ in the union. Detachment within attachment is ‘Moksh.’ One who has understood ‘Kamasutra series’ in my paintings, will know how to embrace and dance in harmony with these cosmic forces.  

Canvas is a piece, a space given to you. It’s up to you how to divide the space. How the space on left combines with space on the right. It’s like a family. An elder controls the creation on the canvas. Who is the elder? Undoubtedly, I am the elder in my painting. I connect everything.

JS:  Why does the artist feel like God in front of the canvas?

LP:   Canvas is a piece, a space given to you. It’s up to you how to divide the space. How the space on left combines with space on the right. It’s like a family. An elder controls the creation on the canvas. Who is the elder? Undoubtedly, I am the elder in my painting. I connect everything. Every artist works for himself. People may like it or not. He decides, the artist is very important, he is the creator. And it’s his mind. He should know he is the artist, the creator, if he doesn’t know that, it doesn’t work, he cannot create art or control the direction it will take.  

Who is God? I am God.  God is something humans have created. There is no thing as God. It depends on ability of human beings. Everything is created by human beings, according to their ability. Each one is the master of his own life.  “Aham Brahama Swaiye.’  I am the Lord. We live in society; we have to live respectfully as everything is connected. Rules are created to live better, but we do not have to bind ourselves to rules if we do not like them, we can question. Ultimately I am the master and I chose and create my own life. My aim in life has been to always increase my mental capacity, to be strong and centred, to know myself. Self- realization is very important; then you can solve any problem.  When I understand myself, my own nature, is when I understand others and the occurring situations; I can arrive at balanced decisions. For some this realization comes easily, others take a lifetime to understand themselves. There is no right or wrong. Choose what suits you, what you can digest.

Swami Vivekananda and J Krishnamurthy‘s writings were my guide during my growing up years. I reflected a lot and was involved in self-analysis to understand the concept of morality, life and death. I wore Khadi, followed Gandhi during my college days and later took part in Goa’s liberation movement. I was very clear in my mind that Portuguese must leave and Goa must become free. I imposed isolation and self-discipline on myself for specific long periods and concentrated on my inner evolution. I have lived a good life and I am detached now. I miss nothing. My art keeps me content. I look forward to each day with great joy.   

1. FN Souza in ‘Four Generations of Indian Artists in their own words’ edited by Yashodhara Dalmia. ) 

2. The Spirituality in Art by Wassily Kandinsky. Translation: MTH Sadler.

3. Baiju Pathan: A User’s Manual edited by Ranjit Hoskote.

The banner picture has been taken from Pundole’s auction site under non-commercial fair use terms. You can view more of Laxman Pai’s art here.

Jugneeta Sudan is our Arts Review Editor.