SCREEN - SEP 16, 1994


THERE’S a brooding quality to her. And intensity in her serious eyes that can go dreamy too at most times. Deepti Naval is an artiste in the true sense of the word. Behind her silence lies a strength that has made Deepti Naval the persona she is today. With a passion that cries art in its truest form, and, which has traversed from the celluloid where each act was carefully chosen and honed, to paper where verse flowed from her thought to be penned for posterity and her latest, her canvases, where her striking strokes kindle the flames of her latent talent, she wins critical acclaim for whatever be the creative outlet of the self. Now with her latest exhibition of paintings successfully concluded, she is on to her next project, ‘Thodasa Aasman’ for the small screen. And thus from one dream on to another, the lady walks tall filling her canvas of life with the vibrant hues that mark her destiny…

TRYING to get her office into some semblance of order, as she keeps looking under heaps of files for the odd missing letter or a cheque, one encounters Deepti Naval who, it would seem, is not very comfortable when confronted by disorder. Commenting on the disarray, she tells you, “You should have seen the place when my canvases were in the house! There was no space to move around. Having finished with the exhibition of my paintings, I am trying to put things in order.” Having packed her unsold paintings, there is still the odd one lying in her office room with the even more odd painting of a little kid from the neighborhood adorning her office. A much harried Deepti at last manages to settle down to talk about her obsessions and dreams…

The budding artist
Hunter College of the City of New York was where the artist in Deepti Naval took concrete shape. Artistic leanings were evident since her childhood and being good at it she got the encouragement from school and home. That was part of her growing up where drawing and painting took up most of her time. When she went to college in New York during her four year period she majored in painting and psychology was her minor. Alongside she also studied various other subjects including English language, Chemistry, Astronomy, American theatre and Physical Science. Thus the artist had a varied educational development.

But art of another nature was to take priority in her life. Always the independent kind, the only thing she had to really fight for as she says was “my acting career. Everything else was encouraged by the family. My mother is a painter. When we were kids she used to paint and make me sketch. For our summer vacations, we would go to Kulu Valley where Mama would paint, my dad used to write.

“All the artistic leanings come into my genes from my parents,” she acknowledges without hesitation continuing in her honest vein, “There I can’t take credit for it. And since my mother was a painter and my parents thought that I had a flair for drawing, my dad seriously thought that I would grow up to be a painter instead. But when I finished my college, it was clear in my head that I wanted to go to Bombay, join Hindi films and become an actress. That was a surprise for them. They were expecting me to go to Paris and study painting further. But I had made my choice” which clearly shows a streak of independence and of individualistic thinking right from her early years itself.

Painting her canvas
Coming to her exhibition of paintings, and the evident tilt towards portraits rather than landscapes, she explains, I started with self portraits. I started painting after a gap of ten years. I was my best available model. I could make my bai sit down but she did not have the patience to sit. So I started off with a couple of self portraits and then went on to figures. The landscapes are a result of my numerous travels through Himachal in different seasons. I have Misty Mountains, Electric Pole, Rohtang - Blue, Rohtang - Yellow, Men with Mules, Road to Keylong. About seven of my paintings are landscapes. Self portraits are about six, including Red-head. The rest are figures, either it is a Black Buddha, or the Aftermath, or Woman standing against white, The Nuns. In fact it is a mixture,” she concludes.

As to the question that must come about the self portraits, if they are extensions of the self she feels rather ambivalent in that she says, “I don’t know. But in a sense they are extensions of the self obviously because they depict what is going on in my head at the moment, at the time I am painting.” She elaborates further in her typical philosophical fashion, “In a human being’s personality there are various selves. You cannot be one kind of person all the time. My work is like that. If something is going on in my head and I have been living with it, I need to express it one way or another. As an actress I have use my emotionally self all the time.”

Being a poet, painter and actress, she is not partial towards any as she says, “All three mediums have given me tremendous satisfaction. When I say painting and poetry are purer forms of expression for me, vis a vis an actress, what I mean is that as a performer I am not really saying what 'I' feel - it is a character concieved by someone, written by someone else and then put together as a whole by another. I am just a tool in bringing to life another's perception of things. I interpret a scene or a role by using yes my own experience, draw from my emotional reservoir, from my own bank of memory to create that but it is still someone else's statement on life. But through painting or writing, it is my mind you witness." and she trails off with a charming smile.


Starkly in the night
The halogen lamp
Exposes my solitude

Suddenly I am aware
of choices
I did not make
And gratefully returned
To my inner self

The one sanctuary
Where I can afford to stray…
Beyond sanity

Jan 93

The Pregnant Nun
From her exhibits the most talked about was that of the Pregnant Nun firstly for its rather radical form of expression. An interpretation of the Pregnant Nun for the painter:

Actually there are three paintings of a pregnant nun. First came the 'Black & White study for nun' - without a face. . After that I painted another canvas called 'Blue Nun' - again pregnant, and again without a face. When friends would come into my studio, they'd exclaim 'Wow! Pregnant nun!', and smile. This really bothered me. I hadn't intended it to be a sensational painting. Obviously the image was scandolous. But, I was trying to express a disturbing element in my own personality. I thought I'd never be able to convey what I intend to, unless I painted her as a self portrait. So finally the third canvas was done - 'Self Portrait as Pregnant Nun'. After that, the reactions were different. It made people think - 'why do you see yourself like that?' they'd ask.

Every person who had walked in the gallery had come and asked me why I have painted a nun, pregnant. They would look at it come back and then walk back to the painting and then come and ask me what it signified. The first three days I was going crazy explaining to everyone what it meant. The explanations got lengthy, and tired me out. So fianally I decided to write it out on a paper and stick it next to the painting for everyone to read. After that people walked up to the painting, read my interpretation, look at me and go back to the work. There was curiosity and lingering around the painting, but there was no debate. One day a nun walked in. I saw her looking at the painting. I was a little alert. She did not speak to me. I don’t think she was terribly offended or anything. She read my explanation, she looked at me and she said, ‘Nice Work’.

The thoughts that have gone into the making of the Pregnant Nun are as follows:

“Yes, actually there are various interpretations of this image. When I see a pregnant woman she looks so pure, so saintly, almost like a nun. But this is a surface interpretation.

At a deeper level there is this conflict that I have gone through recently - wanting to embrace life all over again - the pregnancy signifies the fullness of living - wanting to lead a full life as a woman. But at the same time I have had this strong urge to give it all up - move away from it all - go into oblivion - discard everything material and move towards a spiritual path. Nunhood signifies that 'giving up'. This conflict, of wanting these two opposite things, passionately, at the same time - made me paint this image of a pregnant nun.

The third way of looking at it is that everybody has contradictions. We all have. I do.I have terrible contradictions in my own personality. You live with a self image - someone you like to believe you are, and then, you go right ahead and destroy that image by doing something completely contrary to that image, surprising even your own self...”

About her style of painting

Not having to be confined to a particular style of painting and being given the freedom to develop her own style, she has in a sense evolved a style of her own which is evident in her long strokes which she says has developed by and by. “The long strokes have just evolved without consciously trying to arrive at it. I particularly don’t believe in one style or getting committed to painting in one particular way. Maybe there is a subject in my head that decides the technique that I use, whether I use a brush, or a knife, or blend both. But as of now there is a style that people say has evolved over the last three years. My friends who have seen me work form the beginning with self portraits to my Misty Mountains say that they can see clearly a style evolve. I accept it, but I don’t promise I will stay with it.” Regarding the tendency towards oil paints she says, “Oil gives me the kind of intensity, visual and handling, that I am looking for which water colour does not give. Or maybe I have not tried enough to understand and appreciate water colours. I know water colour is a difficult medium to handle. I was always more consumed by oil painting, because of the kind of depth and intensity you get.”

"Let life follow art. Why should art follow life?”

The advantage in being Deepti Naval she agrees may have been responsible for the curiosity generated by the exhibition of her paintings. “But after that,” she interjects, “the minute they see the serious work put in, they take the work quite seriously and not just because I am Deepti Naval, the celebrity. In fact I was more careful about those things. I debated a long time before I thought I could put up a show. A friend in Delhi literally pushed me into putting up a show. The exhibition is a sharing of your work with people,’ they said. ‘Let people come and see the work you have done. Let them see your thoughts and your mind and if somebody appreciates it then that’s fine. That will only make you grow.’ I agree with that now. But personally I feel I’ll be less inhibited. I was very self-conscious about putting up an exhibition. But now I’m more comfortable with the idea afater having done it once.”

To the query of how far her poetry is based on personal experiences, she replies, “Whatever you see around you, if it makes an impact on you and you react to it, it becomes your personal experience. In fact what you are asking is whether it is an experience I have gone through myself or is it something from the outside that I am writing about? It can be both. But it has to be something that touches me for sure. Something that I will react to. That stirs you, that feeling has to be there. Some such experience if I can put down as a poem, or a painting or if not in either, than I can only bring it out when I am doing a scene. I have always looked at myself as an artist basically who has this strong need to find a creative outlet. And that need compels me to do one thing or the other. In a sense it is a search for the self, an attempt to understand life.” But this is not an easy process, she insists, “one is harsh with oneself, to really try and thrash one’s mind and really dissect it.”

‘Thodasa Aasman’ takes shape

Not only involved in painting, the enterprising lady is on to another project – that of producing and directing a serial ‘Thodasa Aasman’. The beginnings of the serial commenced two and a half years ago when she had applied with Doordarshan. “Proposal likh kar bhej diya tha Doordarshan ko,” she reminisces. “After that I forgot about it. Because people told me that generally DD takes a lot of money before they approve of anything and since I didn’t have the money, I thought it’s not going to happen. But this was all crap. My serial got approved on the basis of the script. And things have got moving now. Then I came back and forgot about it because at the time I was painting seriously trying to do some roles which weren't turning out to satisfying. I expected much more from myself in a film like ‘Saudagar’. Without any reason I just jumped into a mother’s role. There was no need. I get very bored with these good women who are generally presented very well on the screen, but make no difference. I’m not condemning the image of the mother in Hindi films, I’m saying that an actress like me needs to be challenged.”

Image bound film industry

About the vagaries of the Indian film industry towards the premature ageing of its actresses she is vehement when she says, “as long as you can play the teeny bopper on screen, prancing about and singing about but the minute you mature and are able to translate life into your work, the Hindi film industry immediately pulls you out from this slot and puts you into the mother's slot." Continuing about the image bound attitude of the industry she says, “There are the kind of roles available for the Hindi film actress. Very few actresses have been lucky like maybe Dimple who played this police woman in ‘Zakhmi Aurat’ or the stray one or two films that I remember. Otherwise you get terribly slotted unless you are a glamour queen or something. They feel if you can’t do a ‘Chashme Buddoor’ then you must be a mother in ‘Saudagar’. Now that is very boring. And I don’t see myself doing a role in the future unless something really meaty comes. It’s very important for me to enjoy what I am doing. For in three days flat I lose interest in the character that I am playing. I try to go along and be part of the industry and keep on continuing to act, so that people don’t start thinking that I am not interested in acting. Just because I’m painting or writing that does not mean I am not interested in acting. I want meatier roles.

But it is not the end of her acting career as yet for she has donned the mantle of producer-director with ‘Thodasa Aasman’ a serial for Doordarshan’s prime time which will be aired come September 19.

‘Thodasa Aasman’ is about three women basically from middle class background and from three different age groups. 20 - 40 and 60.I will not give you the dramatic points because let people get curious about it. In a way it’s a woman’s point of view, but it is about relationships. It is about interpersonal relationships. It’s between women, between mother and daughter, between husband and wife, between one woman of 60 and a girl of 20, between an elderly couple, man-woman, brother-sister, basically close relationships.

And as her creative juices flow and with Deepti Naval going from one creative height to another, it won’t be for long that her dreams will all be fulfilled and the emergence of a complete artist takes form.

Stardust Gonsalves