THERE ARE urban legends about people who fall in love with inanimate objects, like buildings and cars. You may not be the lunatic who wanted to marry the Eiffel tower but Manjunath Kamath knows about your secret relationship with objects. Kamath’s art is attracted to everyday and mythic objects like a magnet tugs iron filings.

Thirty-seven-year-old Manjunath Kamath came to Delhi over a decade ago with a BFA from Chamarajendra Academy of Visual Arts, Mysore, under his belt and absolutely no prescience of an art market that was about to explode. He was and still is part of the chummy, slightly-uncomfortable-withfame circle of contemporary artists that include Subodh Gupta, Chintan Upadhayay and NS Harsha.

Kamath works out of a mostly bare yet warm studio in Hauz Khas village in Delhi. The air is full of softly-spoken English, Hindi, Malayalam, Kannada, Tulu and Oriya. Kamath is vivacious and his two assistants intense. Between them they have endless stories that roam from the Delhi art scene to the politics of his home state Karnataka or anecdotes about his two little daughters.

Kamath is best known for his witty, plot-packed paintings that constantly surprise with their endless invocation and variation of familiar objects. An object invested with menace in one work mutates into comedy elsewhere. Tiger jaws grin here, but there a tiger skin lies tamely waiting to be smoothed on an ironing board. This grinning donkey could be Bhupen Kakkar’s or from Aesop’s Fables or from a Mullah Naseeruddin tale. You pause to understand your sense of déjà vu. Have you seen this story before?

Perhaps you have, just not in this way. Kamath talks of going with his father as a child to watch Yakshaganas — a dance drama form from Karnataka —the energetic story-telling of which is an intrinsic part of him. Just as important though, he says, is “the sight of the empty fairground the morning after the performance”. As much as Kamath’s work swarms with lively harlequins and banana peels, it is also full of quiet spaces for the viewer to fill. These reflective pauses came a few years ago when he began emptying his frames, placing fewer and fewer objects in them. The resulting flat watercolours are like Kay Ryan poems and James Thurber cartoons: startling for their simplicity and frightening suggestability. Kamath’s almost wince-makingly bright backgrounds inspire infinite stories.

Marriage in May, for instance, has a formally seated bride and groom lonely in a frame who must suffer in the heat of their finery. The guests are present only in a row of casual footwear at a corner of the canvas. Somewhere else in the canvas lies a swimming pool, the blue coolness of which could be relief from the heat, background to a hotel wedding or simply escape. Delhi-based Art critic Johny ML says of Kamath’s work: “the objects in his work seem to be trying to displace and dislocate each other in order to find a place on the pictorial surface.”

(Not for Kamath, the laziness of many artists’ Untitled 1, Untitled 2 unto infinity. He gives sharp titles to paintings, which at first seem like easy threads to the narratives. But the titles abandon you in a koan-like quest.)

This shift to a lush minimalism he marks with his falling in love with lines from a poem by Kannada scholar Gopalkrishna Adiga — ‘Do something brother/anything, anything brother’ — which rejects the need for thoughtless, compulsive action, such as the modernisation committees of his hometown Mangalore who appall Kamath by replacing lovely temples with cement monstrosities.

Kamath may paint his teenaged cousin sprawling aside his ram-rod straight grandfather but their ambiguous relationship on the painted surface rejects sentiment and nostalgia. “At one point the sign of a south Indian art school product were all painting boats without knowing why,” he guffaws. Kamath seems to know what he is doing. An easy clue to his lineage and love for stories lies in the massive Bengali patta chitra that hangs on his studio walls. With its cozy rounded lines and familiar palette you may miss for a few seconds that it is in fact a seven-foot rendition of 9/11 and the panel-breaking protagonist is Osama Bin Laden. Around Kamath you think past grim, pompous gallery notes and feel lucky to be in such a playful period of contemporary Indian art when even a melancholic Atul Dodiya will pop grinning into one of his watercolour Gandhis or rib SH Raza with his Bindu Re Bindu.

THE DAY BEFORE the interview, Subodh Gupta had been at Kamath’s studio chatting into the early hours of the morning, sharing notes on the difficulty of saying sensible things to the press. Unlike Gupta’s Icarus-like rise, Kamath himself has been on a quiet and steady climb into the public eye for works ranging from sculpture and video art, multi-media installations and of course paintings.

Kamath is not a household name yet but may easily become so. His recent crop of limited graphic prints (an orgy of kitsch and dangerously self-parodying) has proved hugely popular. Museums abroad have begun acquiring him. The art market works in wondrous ways. During the boom, Kamath, never a Sotheby darling, was selling for anywhere between Rs 5 and Rs 9 lakh but the downturn has not affected him at all. He continues to sell steadily. Nidhi Jain, director of Gallery Ragini talks of how likeable he is, saying outrightly that she is glad he was not one of those artists ‘who during the boom were almost producing like a factory, art by the yardage’.

“I am amazed he is not more famous than he already is. He is accessible, playful and his technical skills are superlative. Unlike many graphic artists he can actually draw,” says Mumbai-based art critic and author of the forthcoming The Painter: A Life of Ravi Varma, Deepanjana Pal. Far from the penury of his first few years in Delhi or even the worry of becoming a hobbyist while he worked for a newspaper, Kamath (represented for years by Renu Modi of Gallery Espace) now has the leisure for scaling up (like his large sculptures) or scaling down (postcard-sized miniatures). He finds it a little funny that his buyers are sometimes the lucre-loving, seemingly thoughtless people he makes fun of in his work. Not all, he hastens to add. His first buyer all those years ago in a self-financed solo show was the far-seeing Delhi-based collector Ebrahim Alkazi.

Kamath’s reappearing donkey, in case you wondered, was a response to Bhupen Kakkar’s work, You can’t please all. But Kamath the person and artist has the gift of being universally pleasing. You just have to bump into him.