Manu Parekh is back in the gallery with his ‘flower of Benaras’. The painter with those brutish expressionistic strokes returns to Bombay after a decade with a show which opens at the Jehangir today. Niyatee Shinde probes his psyche.

Although he started painting at the age of five, Manu Parekh pleads to be spared the glory of a prodigy. “Please,” he beseeches, “I do not want to sound like a child wonder. I think everyone generally starts painting at five.” This is typical of the unpretentious painter. He does not gloat in the awesome genius and eccentricikty attributed to most artists, even in the age of commercialisation when it pays to be outrageous in both world and life.

What incites the naturalist’s curiosity sets aflame artistic passion in another. “For me the organic life in my surroundings is most important and affects me enough to inspire my work,” says Manu, about the theme underlying most of his paintings since the early eighties. Returning to the city after the long span of a decade, his present exhibition comprises canvases, all based on the tremulous relationship between faith and fear structured in landscapesque format.

In his recent creations, Manu has unleashed himself with a more fervid spontaneity and expressive energy. He has wound himself into his paintings it would seem, inhabiting them with an overpowering sense of drama. Simultaneously, there can be detected in them the infusion of a nocturnal and mysterious curiosity.

There is the ever-present flower with its multitudinous tentacular petals which the artist calls his “flower of Benaras”. As Satish Gujral poetically puts it in the catalogue: “Does the choice of object in a painting act as a key to the personality of the artist, or does it merely serve as a framework to his creativity? Manu Parekh paints flowers. Inspired by the ghats of Varanasi - what a riddle.”

There is nothing puzzling in the gentle-mannered disposition of Manu Parekh. Born in 1939 into a middle class family in Ahmedabad, his twelfth summer saw him brandish the brush in all formality. This was under the guided hand of Mukund Shroff. In 1962 he obtained his diploma from the J J School of Art. Living as a painter was tough for this mild-natured Gujrati, and he was forced to emerge from the painting studio and wince under the glare of footlights, supporting himself by acting and working as a stage designer in Ahmedabad.

It was a long and arduous period before he could slap the colours into canvas in total and unhindered peace. He tacked up and down the country, zig-zagging from metropolis to metropolis, like a ship laden with colours but no port to berth in. In 1963 he joined the Weaver’s Service Centre at Bombay, shifting to Calcutta two years later, where began his long association with and subsequent attachment to the multi-faceted city.

After a decade, he saw himself shunted to Delhi, where, under the guidance of Pupul Jayakar, he was again enmeshed in the world of warps and woofs. He joined the Handicraft and Handloom Export Corporation. Despite his multi-pronged advancement to artisthood, the diversions being more by incident rather than by intent, Manu Parekh today admits that an artist should be able to work full-time at his passion. A job not only inhibits his output but is also mentally and physically taxing, besides being time consuming.

However, his years at the Handicraft and Handloom Export Corporation gave him a satisfying and edifying exposure to village life. Extensive travel to remote rural areas where folk art in the desolation throbbed with an intense poignancy, developed his sensibility to no mean extent. He felt strongly the pulse of creativity that ran like a rich mineral seam through their art.

Tempered physically and spiritually by these experiences to a keen perceptivity, he observed that adverse human situations and an unsympathetic environment led to a faith and hope that sustained people enough to fight for survival.

Overwhelming his mind, this levitated him to a superior plane of feeling. “There is some kind of faith, an organic energy that sustains all people,” he says. “And this energy and faith is much more than merely religious, political or economical. It is an individual faith, a faith in other people.”

Cataclysmic events are grist to a painter’s mill. There are those who avail of murders, assassinations, famines and flood. Manu’s association with them is judicious. “Perhaps my work does not fit into the presently common cliché of painting through social awareness. I am interested in human beings in my own awareness as well as others. I have also done paintings on the Bhagalpur blindings. These were my awareness of and reaction to that happening. I do accept the point of view of my contemporaries. Ultimately, what is important is how you express yourself.”

He attributes to his middle class upbringing his capacity for empathy with the lay viewer, the ability to be more receptive to his needs, to be able to relate to his indices of insight. Manu Parekh also has no inhibitions, which he claims leads to his “raw and natural way of thinking”. It is perhaps his naïve approach to all matters that makes Manu the sincere and devoted artist that he is.

The finishing tint in highlight is always the result, the procedure being only the means to it. He says in elucidation: “Ultimately it is good work that matters. There are a thousand ways to do good work. And the work is all important.” He is also of the firm opinion that an artist should not explain his work. Over-explanation dilutes the impact; through clarification a certain magic would be lost. If at all an artist should talk, he feels that it should concern only the origin of ideas and areas from where he reacts.

Eroticism and sensuousness characterised his earlier surrealistic drawings reminiscent of Gorky’s style. These haunt the Manu Parekh-watcher and lie indelible in his mind. But he underwent a sort of moulding after his 10-year span at Calcutta and sought to express himself better through Indian situations. At that time though, the expressionistic style was going out of fashion. But his was not the practice to recede and advance with the vogues. Steadfast perseverance and faith in the revival of expression kept him going.

It was not a waiting in vain. Today Manu feels that the scene has reverted back to expressionism. This, he deduces, is what generates not only the interest of younger artists but also enables them to react more strongly and positively to his work. In his early days as a painter, he laments, there existed a wide gap between the established painters and young artists. Fortunately, in this generation, there is a deep interest in the works of younger artists.

In retaining his style, Manu has discovered the core of a newer reality where his paintings now portray a pure ardour, making his images evocative and highly expressive. Manu explains that hisearliercreationswereanexpression of the inner self which was unconcerned with an outside world, while his present output is a reaction through the outer self, culled from the surroundings.

Perhaps that is why there are the clearly decipherable elements of the sky and water lines. But even these fluid elements have not washed away his fascination for terrestrial features. His works continue to be constructed on a ‘landscape format’. “Some of it lingers”, he admits. “These things mean much more to me. Besides, half my works have an organic area.”

In all modesty, he bows before then might of the matriarchal genius. Women, he humbly proclaims, are a more talented and a much stronger race. In the rural areas, he always encountered the woman as a more independent and assertive individual. Illustrating this is the presence of his well known artist-wife Madhvi who, despite living in the same house with him, sports a distinctly different but equally powerful style.

“I have always felt the need for a woman,” says Manu with a natural candidness. And it is not the subservient meek partner that he desires, “She should be someone sure of herself.” He explains. The feminist role, he feels needs projection. This individuality has percolated to the succeeding generation too. His daughter studies at the Baroda School of Art.

An earthy painter he must be, for he refutes the much established ideology that an artist is hallowed and needs no one, or that he paints for himself. He believes that every artist, whatever his endeavour, needs an audience. “Though I paint with my own consciousness, I do not paint for myself.

The admirer, critic, buyer and contemporary are all-important, and this is a realistic situation. Earlier, buying art was a rare but it’s in fashion today, and that’s a good thing to happen for artists and art.” Even the present day craze for purchasing art, though myopic in its frenzy, will soon blow over and settle down to a more discrete maturity. “Serious work will be appreciated and spontaneous buying will recede”, he proclaims.

During his recent tour in Europe, he encountered interesting reactions to Indian art in the West. “Twenty years ago, Indian art was least appreciated. But it now creates a strong impact, projecting a definite individuality. The influences of the West have fortunately declined.” Amusedly, he remarks: “When the West takes to us, it is classified as ‘enlightenment’.”

“Artists are no heavyweights,” he declares, “They should be open to all and everything around them. The only important area where the artist differs from his layman brethren is in the fact that though everyone can fantasize, it is the artist who has a medium of expression and the astounding ability to recreate the fantasy. I do not think of art as a great thing, only - with artists, life is much more interesting.”

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