Artists

In an interview some years ago, artist Manu Parekh described his work as a reflection of his personality: “I, as a human being, have an energy that comes out in my work.” [1] This assertion comes to mind as one encounters the recently-concluded exhibition of Parekh’s latest works at the Lalit Kala Academy in New Delhi. The exhibition follows a major retrospective of the artist, Manu Parekh: 60 Years of Selected Works, hosted by the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai in 2018, and is a pastiche of seemingly disparate works created over the course of the year that followed. For one familiar with Parekh’s oeuvre, the exhibition appears to be an exercise in nostalgia; the works are the latest articulation of the artist’s known preoccupations - the relationship between man and nature, ritual, energy, violence, sexuality, and the theatre of art-making. With over forty works displayed in a non-thematic miscellany (and, oddly, without the support of titles or captions), the exhibition pays homage to the influences that have informed the Parekh’s practice over the years, marking a postscript of sorts to the retrospective that honoured him.

Parekh has never shied away from recognising the people, places and cultures that have guided his work. The artist was born in Gujarat in the 1930s, but has spent his adult life, primarily, between three cities: Bombay, where he was a student at the Sir J.J. School of Art; Calcutta, which he has described as the midpoint of his practice; and Delhi, his current home. Rather than forming the locus of Parekh’s work, these cities have acted as catalysts for the artist, allowing him to use the city as a medium to look outward. Much of Parekh’s early work emerged from his time in Bombay in the 1960s; he was influenced by the legacy of the Bombay Progressives, particularly Souza, the artistic mentorship of S.B. Palsikar, and, most importantly, the politics of theatre and craft. Working in theatre, Parekh claims, developed his innate tendency to observe people and situations. [2] He gave up professional theatre, however, when he joined Pupul Jayakar and the Weavers’ Service Centre, which took him to Calcutta, his second home. He was inspired by the hustle-bustle of the city, its addas, and its rich culture of cinema and theatre. His work reflected the perceptual impact of artists like Rabindranath Tagore and Ram Kinkar Baij; yet, while his peers, like Shyamal Dutta Ray, worked with gouache and watercolours, his works retained the creative effects of abstract expressionism, developed during his Bombay days. He moved to Delhi after a decade in Calcutta, joining the Handicrafts and Handlooms Export Corporation of India as a design consultant. This exposure to craft had a profound influence on Parekh’s practice; it taught him the importance of discipline and repetition as an artistic device. It gave him the imagination to understand his environment and translate it into an expressionist response.

Parekh’s recent works both extend and expand these influences, some even constituting a direct tribute to their lineage, borrowing exact expressions and motifs from their predecessors, as with Graffiti of Temple Wall I (2018) that draws upon a Paul Klee’s Rausch, or Temple Under Dark Mountains (2018), inspired by the decorative form of pichwais. This form of tribute is particularly apparent in his Kalahandi works, Potato Eaters from Kalahandi and Weaver from Kalahandi, that recontextualise Van Gogh masterpieces. The former, a set of five different-sized canvases geometrically stacked against each other, distinctly references Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters (1885). Placed against the backdrop of agrarian crises in Kalahandi, Orissa, Parekh’s iteration reflects the coarse ruggedness of the original scene in an effort to highlight the poverty and vulnerability of rural life in India. Parekh characteristically imbues his work with a layered theatricality: the work is presented panoramically, with a deliberate breaking of the fourth wall, where the characters’ gaze is uncomfortably pointed towards the viewers. The “potato eaters” sit at a table facing the audience (a configuration that brings to mind Parekh’s own Heads, 2017), with a lone bulb illuminating an empty space at the table. Weaver from Kalahandi, on the other hand, draws from Van Gogh’s A Weaver’s Cottage (1884). The protagonist with a vacant look in his eyes, seems to mechanically operate the loom. First-hand experience of the handloom industry is apparent in this work: the scene is overcast with despair. Parekh’s use of colour adds visual texture - the threads, as if illuminated by an external light, look like silk. Together, the Kalahandi paintings stike an ominous note, accentuated by Parekh’s typically “brutish” [3] impasto strokes and shocks of violent colour.

The Kalahandi works open the exhibition, and the viewer is immediately drawn into Parekh’s world. What follows is a playful tryst. Parekh, it seems, wants to destablilise his relationship with the audience: even as he retains elements of familiarity in his works, he seems to have returned to the canvas with a renewed-yet-different spontaneity. His ‘Flower Sutra’ series, for instance, are a citation of his previous engagement with the still life, characterized by spirituality, sexuality and the chaos of nature. While this turmoil is present in his new works, the use of colour, shapes and patterns, with multiple intertwining phallic tendrils, piercing eyes and fluorescent geometric shapes, reflect a heightened eccentricity. Wildness and freedom pervade these works - a sense that the artist is charting previously undiscovered creative territory.

According to Parekh, Flower Sutra at Tulsi Ghat (2019) is influenced by Claude Monet’s The Water Lilies series and the flower offerings of Banaras, but the calm restraint in Monet’s impressionist paintings is conspicuously absent in Parekh’s abstraction. In some instances, particularly his recent Banarasi landscapes, this renegotiation seems deliberately incongruous with what one knows of the artist. Parekh discovered Banaras - which he calls his second Calcutta - after his father’s death in the 1980s, resulting in a thirty-year long emotional relationship with the holy city. His Banarasi landscapes reveal an interplay of color, light and texture that represent the spiritual celebration that defines the city. His recent works - Sunset at Banaras, Assi Ghat (2019), Moonlit Night at Banaras I (2019), Midnight Landscape (2018), among others - reflect Parekh’s unhindered understanding of the dramatic possibilities of a turbulent skyscape, but without his familiar impasto textures, lack the vivid intensity that had defined his earlier works. The colours are smooth and distinct, bound within an encoded construction, and the paintings lack the layered movementthathascometo symbolise his practice.

This is less obvious (though still apparent) in his five-part series of Picasso-esque portraits that constitute one end of the exhibition. While Parekh does not identify the figures in the portraits, ambiguously titling them The Poet, they seem to simultaneously image the thinkers/philosophers/artists that have inspired him while marking his own identity within the same frame. Each face is highlighted by different shades, surrounded by a halo of geometric luminosity (a nod to Parekh’s spiritual beliefs, perhaps?). A rash of colours mark the portraits, yet the volatility that is typical of Parekh seems to function within an artistic architecture that is not quite his own. The viewer, much like the artist, is left to tentatively enter a new and challenging terrain.

As the exhibition concludes, one cannot help but wonder at the motivations behind the ‘letting go’ emotion that is apparent in Parekh’s latest exhibition: if the art is a reflection of the artist’s personality, what do these works say of the creator today? The exhibition carries with it this question, probing viewers to reorient themselves to the legacy of Manu Parekh.

NOTES:

[1] Parekh, Manu. Interview. Saffronart, New Delhi. [ONLINE]

[2] Gupta, Latika. ‘Where I lost Calcutta, I found Banaras’: an interview with Manu Parekh. The Hindu, New Delhi. May, 2018. [ONLINE]

[3] Shinde, Niyatee. ‘The Flower Child is Back’ Critical Collective, New Delhi. [ONLINE

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