Annapurna Garimella: What does it mean to be an artist working in his seventies? You started painting when you were sixteen and have been making art for seven decades. What does making art mean to you today?
Manu Parekh: My first reaction to your question is that I still feel excited. I feel-I can see-that there is space to create many things. As an Indian, in this kind of an environment, there is a great deal of possibility, a lot of inspiration, as well as a lot of issues.
AG: What do you mean by ‘as an Indian’?
MP: In India, the most interesting thing for me is the Indian mind. If I am a Gujarati, then I will look at things from a Gujarati angle, and so on. But I also feel that I am a popular culture man, influenced especially by the world of Hindi films, from which a person of one culture can learn about other cultures. Moreover, because of my involvement with craft and theatre, I learned about other [Indian] cultures, so I never fully feel that I am only from Gujarat and can only enjoy that. I have been fascinated by people of other states and cultures, and have been fortunate to travel all over India. That is why I used the words ‘as an Indian’.
The other thing, which is a treasure chest, is what is in the rural areas. the sensitivity that is there, even the problems that are there, the ways of making them better, their way of understanding, the relationship between men and women, especially between women; in urban India, there is not much knowledge about this. Interestingly, popular film feels rich to me-because of the way it has absorbed various influences (especially those from vernacular cultures and rural milieus)-this is the real India [the rural areas]…if one wants to enjoy India.
AG: Perhaps right from your childhood, from the beginning of your interest in art, these things must have felt interesting…but the perspectives or directions that you saw, the fascination you had for village life, for instance, must be different now. You are talking about village life and the fascination it has for you, but that world does not exist any more. Yes, a village is still a village, but the village has changed. So, what do you think about this? The shifts that happen in an artist’s life, the way Rabindranath Tagore saw a zamindari world and over time his thoughts changed, and then he chose not to participate in congress-style nationalism but instead he began to bring something of the Santhals who lived in the villages around him into the institution he founded in Santiniketan, and at the same time he was also aiming for and desiring a universal humanism, a very Modernist way of thinking. Souza too started in Mumbai and then went to London and left that and went to New York, then kept returning to a transforming India (Goa too had changed in this time). What has happened to you between age sixteen and the present that has impacted your art and your thinking?
MP: First of all, I am not from a village. I am from Ahmedabad. My connection to the village is through my grandmother who lived near Nadiad, where we went during our summer holidays and through Madhvi, my wife, who is from a village as well.
My father was a barber. The way his hands moved was miraculous, it was craft. He was a great film and theatre buff-he gave this to me as my inheritance. From about age eight, I began to go to the movies with him.
We always bought the lowest priced ticket. Once we went to see Dilip Kumar’s film Shaheed and when we reached the window after being in line, it was sold out. My father asked, ‘shall we sit in line for the next show?’ that was his nature, he was passionate.
When I got the Padma Shri, Dilip Kumar was sitting in front of me in the durbar hall of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. When we came out, and a crowd surrounded him, I stood apart, lost in thought. I was back at Kishan cinema on the footpath and was thinking about that day with my father. Both he and Madhvi’s father, a Gandhian, whom I knew since I was twelve, have been such big influences in my life. In the days when I went to J. J. [School of Art], there were only two places that attracted me-Paris and Kolkata. I had a huge attraction to these cities; Kolkata because of painting, theatre and Rabindranath Tagore, who I already felt was a great painter. When I reached Kolkata in 1965, and would argue the case for Rabindranath as a great painter, very few would agree or accept-there was a doubt about his status as an artist. Today he is accepted.
Jaswant Thakkar, the great theatre actor, introduced me to Tagore’s Muktadhara, which we staged in Gujarati for Tagore’s birth centenary (I was twenty-five and played the role of eighty-year-old Viswajit). Because of Jaswant Thakkar’s involvement with the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), many of its members were very friendly with us; whenever Prithviraj Kapoor or Balraj Sahni came to town, they came to meet us and I have rehearsed in front of both of them. IPTA and its members had a great impact during that period, the Communist Party was not divided and socialist thinking inspired work like Balraj Sahni’s Do Bigha Zameen and the works of Shailendra, Sahir Ludhianvi and Inder Raj Anand (the screenwriter for many of Raj Kapoor’s films).
AG: What was the impact of IPTA on your art?
MP: In 1963, I joined the Weaver’s Service Centre, an initiative of the all-India handloom Board, under the leadership of Pupul Jayakar. To leave the theatre world and then take up the job-I only ever had one-in craft was the impact of both Gandhian thinking as well as IPTA. To understand the problems of village people…
AG: Do you ever feel life is theatrical?
MP: At one level, acting is faking but it is a fiction based on reality. I neither like to make fun of it nor do I want to look at it critically because acting is a rich field of human experience.
The idea of using a non-actor in a role was a whole movement in and of itself with people like Satyajit Ray using amateurs very successfully; they understood how to bring this reality into acting. Ordinary people are so expressive and this vulnerability is in every person’s face and voice, in those that we refer to as the ‘common man’. I feel I learned the most about humanness when I went to Kolkata. Going to Bengal in my mid-twenties gave me an opportunity to mature.
AG: Because Kolkata is a place full of all kinds of people in close proximity, you get a chance to see people intimately in public spaces.
MP: I felt that Bombay was a city for successful people but Kolkata is for strugglers. In the first week, I made friends in Kolkata and found Sudipti, a tea shop, which became my adda. So it became easy for me to enter the city’s society. Also, I had gone to Kolkata to live after knowing it, having seeing so many films, having acted in Muktadhara, so people were ready to accept me there.
I became friends withShaktiChatterjee(Chattopadhyay) and just before I reached Kolkata, Allen Ginsberg and his friend Peter Orlovsky, who had been living in Varanasi, had arrived in Kolkata. People say that the beginning of the hippie movement in India actually came from these two cities. People used to hear of how these Americans lived in low-budget hotels, picked half-smoked cigarettes off the road and lived on a dollar a day. The hungry Generation of poets became friends of theirs and I became friends with the Bengali poets. Rufus Collins’s theatre group did Sadhana and I went for its world premiere. As I was coming out of the theatre, I saw on the stairs Shakti and a man wearing a gold tak kurta and pajama, very simple, and it struck me that this must be Allen Ginsberg-I was introduced to him by Shakti. Ginsberg had a very interesting role in all this and his influence touched me. I am influenced by all this, the popular culture aspect of it.
AG: Are you bothered by the changes in Indian art?
MP: No. When I started making money from painting, people criticized me a great deal. I appreciated that and I used that criticism. Many people never could do substantial work because of which they struggled financially all the time. Because of the changes, I was able to paint full-time.
AG: How did the establishing of a well-funded art world in the 1990s impact your art making?
MP: It came in the nineties? I only started making money in 2004-05. I worked for twenty-five years before taking voluntary retirement in 1990. The job was not interesting anymore with Pupul Jayakar and Mrs Gandhi gone. I did the job well because of the legendary Pupul Jayakar. There was work in the field, and I looked forward to receiving a project and going straight to the village and working there. Office time was a problem for me.
When I gained freedom, I would get up in the morning and paint for at least ten hours a day. That habit remains to this day and because of holding a job for so many years, there is that discipline. Painting is also not a joke; I am conscious about technique, and it requires time. It isn’t that you apply a little bit today and after two hours you leave it for a few days before returning to it. I do not believe in this way of working. My work developed because of this discipline and the time I spent on it.
What often happens in work is that at first you are confused, and in that confusion some problems are solved and some are not. There is an extraordinary vitality in this. In that period of confusion, a time of clarity arrives, then another period of confusion. Along with this, when commercial success comes, a graphic element increases in the work and in the mind.
In the Banaras series, in the beginning the work was quite raw. Slowly, I began to become clearer in my pictorial thoughts. Somewhere, the market also affects you.
AG: How did the market affect you? You seem to be saying that the market refined your work?
MP: There are two ways this happens. One is that you become refined in your technique. I won’t call it progress. It is a kind of polishing; the rawness goes away. Maintaining that rawness is difficult all the time.
When my Heads series was selling well, I stopped doing it. Going back to the beginning on a regular basis, the possibility of rawness grew. In spite of everything, I am not part of an established gallery. I was once part of one, but it was the fear of losing my ability to return to rawness which emboldened me and I left. It is not their fault; if they work to make the market, they feel the need to maintain it. My commercial acceptance came when I met Tanuj (Berry). He tried to push for more of the Banaras series but even in that I did not solely pursue it and I did not want to increase the prices. I did not want to become greedy with it and simultaneously I developed other things such as sketches, calligraphic drawing, spirituality, etc. I did this while I continued making the landscapes.
AG: Tell me something about the crafts.
MP: To understand India, I feel two things are important: farming and the crafts. Imagine how vulnerable and sensitive the farmer is, he looks up at the sky and is able to say that in four days there will be rain. Totally dependent on nature and also in a relationship with nature-he lives without any argument. Beyond nature, the matter then is tied to his relationship with God.
Even in the crafts, they are believers. They can work for eight hours, repetitively. The whole beauty of repetition is visible in our craft. In the Western artistic tradition, ‘repetition’ is a derogatory word. Not in India, because to chant in prayer or recite mantras is also repetition. How extraordinary both these strong sectors are! Luckily, because I had such deep experiences in one sector, I can think of the other. Although there is no direct influence of craft traditions in my work, the experiences of village life, meeting those kinds of people, must have been of use in my Heads series, in my Bhagalpur series. Even in the Banaras series, the whole element of faith and spirituality which I experienced fully in the villages has come through.
AG: You never took any of their forms into your work and you never put your forms in theirs. So you only facilitated their work?
MP: Yes. There is no meaning in having my work in such great craft. My respect for craftsmanship grew immensely and even more so when I took interest in drawing.
AG: When you watch something like printing, what do you understand about the artistic process? What do you think about it?
MP: I do not become emotional about it. I operate like I am making a painting. Suppose I was designing a sari, the pattern has to come all over, right? I would put newspaper between sections and get on top of the printing table and say ‘Put a half inch black border.’ They would do that and then I would feel that a half inch red border should also be there. And a thin black line too. Only two colors are possible in Bagru and only two shades and one base colour. So the mind thinks very graphically. I would use that painterly element.
AG: So when you are working on a print for a sari, you are almost like a director…
MP: Like a painter…
AG: How does that work in weaving?
MP: The project in Orissa was given to me by my old boss, Mr Ramadorai. He became a textile commissioner. He gave a very interesting brief to all the designers that they would come and work under me for fifteen days. I was to create a national collection of saris from Orissa. The saris from Orissa were mainly ikat and appeared more suitable for middle-aged women. I was told to create designs for younger women to wear. At the time, the market was only for Orissa and Kolkata but I was told to work on something that could be sold in Delhi or Bombay. Interesting briefing. I wouldn’t think about it too much but justgothere andspontaneously start, taking the approach of a painter. What could I think about beforehand since I had not seen it yet? I knew what ikat was but I did not study anything and was not interested in doing that.
AG: Before joining the Weaver’s Centre, did you know anything about textiles?
MP: Nothing. Pupul Jayakar did the biggest experiment by selecting only artists and thought that maybe they would learn about textiles after six months or a year. Everything remained fresh. When I joined in Bombay, K. G. Subramanyan had left his job as Deputy Director of Design. But he had a continuing contract with the Weaver’s Service Centre for which he would do three projects a year. When he came to do a project, I would stick to him like a child. I was twenty-four at the time. The three projects that he did were the biggest learning experiences for me.
AG: When you retired in 1990, you never returned to that world again.
MP: Never, not once. It was possible then because of a certain environment. Today, designers have taken it forward. I have no criticism; things keep changing. I took a job for two years and that too only because Madhvi said that if we want to get out of this house, you have to get a job. I applied blindly and was accepted. In the interview, they said they would not give me Bombay. But when Pupul Jayakar saw my work, she sent me there. The New York Fair was starting and she saw my watercolours which were based on my theory of bringing together Paul Klee and folk art. I took the job, thinking that I would take a loan of Rs 100 from the comedy actor Tarak Mehta and enrol Madhvi in a Montessori teacher training course, and once she was done, she would earn and I would be free. But she did it for the first year and then became pregnant during the second year and she said ‘I want to learn painting.’ I shared my ideas with her and I thought she was much better than me and that I would find another way for myself. Then Manisha was born and by that time, I began to find possibilities in the job. Also, if Madhvi went on to become a teacher then she would never have become a painter. It is very difficult to do both. I decided I would work for a few years, which became twenty-five years.
- Interviewed by Annapurna Garimella in Hindi and English at the artist’s residence in New Delhi
Annapurna Garimella and Manu Parekh, "A Conversation with Manu Parekh," Manu Parekh: 60 Years of Selected Works New Delhi: Aleph and Namtech Fine Arts, 2017.