Remembering the master artist: A tribute to JMS Mani
‘He was never afraid of trying new techniques and painting with bold colours,’ this is how most artists who knew JMS Mani remember him. One of the most-acclaimed artists from Bengaluru, who made his presence felt nationally with his diverse work, Mani breathed his last in his hometown on June 2, after a heart attack.
For most art collectors and afficionados, Mani will be remembered as the man behind the colourful Badami Series of paintings. The bold brush strokes and impasto technique he used in his work was reminiscent of the Impressionist Style of painting. It wasn’t just paintings, the veteran artist’s repertoire also included etching, printmaking, sculptures and other experimental creations.
His last show, Expressions and Impressions, A Retrospective of His Creative Journey, was hosted at Bengaluru’s MKF Museum of Art in February this year. Curated by artist Shirley Matthew, the show exhibited some of his recent printmaking works, pieces from the Badami series and sculptures. “It was my privilege to have curated the show. He had the confidence in me, which I didn’t have. I was very reluctant to curate works of such a master, but he said, ‘you do’ and these two words were encouraging enough,” reminisces Shirley who had met Mani at an art camp at the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath over two decades ago. She recollects that though he was among the most-acclaimed artists, Mani was always approachable and humble ever since she met him for the first time.
Perhaps it’s a trait that he imbibed from his master RM Hadapad who took Mani under his wing in 1974 and mentored him at the Kuvempus Kala Sanstha Ken School of Art. It’s here that as a young man the artist learnt the techniques of creating nature-based abstraction and expressive gestural abstraction. As a student, he developed a strong bond with his teacher, and those who have known Mani all his life will vouch for this teacher-student relationship. “We can’t talk about Mani, without speaking about his teacher Hadapad,” says senior artist Suresh Jayaram, founder of 1ShanthiRoad, adding further, “Mani wanted to create visual art and Hadapad honed the skill in his student. Once Mani famously said, ‘If not for my teacher, I would have become a Srirampura rowdy instead of being an artist.’”
Jayaram further explains how the Badami Series was perhaps inspired by the artist’s stay at Hadapad’s native town; and perhaps the teacher brought out the best in his student. “The Badami Series seemingly came from Mani’s exposure to life in Badami. The women who were dressed in colourful Ilkal saris, shops selling bananas, and the town folk with cattle, it probably looked like a mela (village fair) and Mani who had great affinity to rustic folk painted the series, and continued to add more paintings to the series which became his most saleable work. Everybody wanted a Badami Series work.” Bold brush strokes, myriad colours, and abstract subjects – all these are signature elements of the Badami Series. Jayaram throws more light on these aspects and explains that presumably Mani was trying to paint like MF Husain. “He used colours like a signboard painter. He would splash colours and was able to control it (the technique). Somewhere I think he probably wanted to paint like MF Husain. He perhaps tried to emulate the grand scale, but not the kind of grand scale that Husain was able to do. The use of colours and the impasto effect, the generosity of using material – Mani was known for this,” explains Jayaram.
Once when he was organising a show of Karanataka artists at NGMA, Jayaram reached out to Mani because the latter was the only one who had preserved some of Hadapad’s work. “If Mani had not given me those works, my show would have been incomplete, so I am indebted to him. He had preserved the works of his teacher, and he was really a hands-on man. He physically built the Ken School… in the sense he used to do most of the repairs and structural work. If Hadapad was the heart, soul and energy of Ken School, then Mani was physically keeping the school open. He was Hadapad's ideal student,” says Jayaram.
Students who studied under the master artist reminisce the kind of stern teacher he was, however his firm attitude stemmed from his intention to train his students to be the best in the business. Students, particularly from the last batch he interacted with just before he retired from the Ken School in 2007, recollect how they observed him work in his studio. “Whatever we learnt from him is what he had imbibed from Hadapad. He was not the typical academician. He was tough and stern at times but that’s because he wanted us to learn and find our way,” offers Aishwaryan K one of Bengaluru’s up and coming artists. “During my initial years, I would avoid him and he would keep picking on me. First two years of my college days were like a boot camp. Eventually, I took up printmaking because of him and I believe he contributed to my career because he prodded me when I was a student. Another unique quality about him was that he was never afraid to experiment with new techniques in front of his students. He was very secure and confident about his art. He would say, ‘If someone wants to copy they are free to do it as long as they use the technique, I am confident of my work and nobody can take away this confidence from me.’ His rare abstracts and floating mountains are testimony to his creativity,” says Aishwaryan.
This quality of the late artist, of being frank and honest, and yet guiding and mentoring aspiring artists and creative minds, is something that everyone who knew him will vouch for. Shirley who knew Mani for 23 years says he touched a lot of lives. “He would give free advice, and it was often blatantly honest. It may not have been liked by everyone, but that’s how he was. If he was quiet, I knew there was room for improvement,” she recalls.
Mani is still among those artists whose work holds a special place in the homes of some of the biggest art connoisseurs of India. This however didn’t impact his pricing, and Mani’s ensured his work was in the affordable bracket. “I remember once he told us how when he was at an art camp in Jamshedpur where he was painting, somebody tapped his shoulder, when he turned around he realised it was Ratan Tata. Apparently, he told, ‘Mr Mani I have your paintings at my home in Mumbai.’ That’s how well-known he was as an artist, but he never used this fame to price his work at exorbitant rates. He knew the workings of the art world,” reveals Shirley.
It is idiosyncrasies such as these that made JMS Mani one of the most respected and loved artists. His demise is mourned not only by those who were closely associated with him, but also by those who were familiar with his work.