Artists

“When we burn something like this, or peel a colour pigment from the canvas, or scratch something on the paper or canvas, we are not destroying, but in the process of creating something.”

When Jeram Patel presented a blow torch on wood work at the inaugural exhibition of Group 1890, he made a powerful statement of artistic intent. In a career that spanned over 50 years, a fidelity to his vision of an immersive, absorbing language with an indelible character played out. Patel had been ailing for some years; with his death in Baroda yesterday, Indian art has lost an artist who seemed untouched by the slick manoeuvres of the art world. We at Critical Collective celebrate his singularity of purpose and vision, and commemorate his consuming passion for art making. Patel invited the following piece for his solo exhibition at the Lalit Kala galleries, New Delhi in 2005.

Jeram Patel

Black/ Kaal/ Kaala/ Kala/ Kalank.

Once when Yama was frightened in the presence of Ravana, he escaped in the form of a crow. In transmutation, dissemblance or flight, Yama the all-powerful God of death chose to retain his essential element, of darkness. [1]

Jeram Patel confers on the use of black a self-reflective heroism. Whatever he needs to express is contained in the tones of monochrome. Whatever black cannot express he does not believe is the subject of art. Patel’s preoccupation with the abstraction of colour and form has become definitive, much like the reading of the man. This present set of drawings made in his seventh decade carries the imprint of a timeless engagement with the associative values of darkness, of obliteration, chaos, of a Faustian loss of the self and the other. Nevertheless, it also implodes with the life affirming energies of protest, of desire, and an insistence on being and continuity. It is the comprehension of darkness that Patel draws upon, the energies of tamas, or indifference that absorb and do not reflect light. In its usage he also challenges the aesthetics of the fair, the associations of light and transparency as states that confer or receive value.

The readings of black / darkness or the obliteration of the colour chroma are only partially cultural. Out of the turgid blackness of his drawing forms appear to suggest themselves - bones blackened by age, or perhaps the remains of a fire like the asthis at a cremation ground, which stubbornly resist the flame. Or perhaps remains denuded by a predator, still bearing the remains of hair and gristle, of a careless appetite, now satiated. Sharp instruments like vestiges of the stone age appear, like primitive reminders of primeval acts of aggression. And invariably, even in the absence of form, there is movement. Jeram Patel’s dark masses appear to heave and swirl with a centripetal force, drawing their energies inwards, threatening to implode with their power. Where the darkness parts to admit of some light there is the suggestion of inchoate growth, like the movement of a cosmic placenta that moves on its vitreous path. As long as you look at it, a Jeram Patel drawing challenges your perceptual field. It compels your comprehension of the work beyond the objective world into growth in space and time.

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A motif may be may be geometric, or it may be a diagram of an object, or it may be a telescoped image of diverse object. But all become ideograms of movement in nature…

These are pictures without a focal point. They cannot be seen by a static eye, for to look at the whole surface simultaneously, arranged about its centre - or any other point which at first seems a possible focal point - is to encounter an attractive chaos. [2]

Part of this effect draws from the way that the artist works. Jeram Patel speaks of how he can be inactive for months at a stretch. His movements in his self-contained house in Baroda are spare, between the living and the eating spaces on the ground floor to his studio on the first floor. When the work does erupt after months of apparent cogitation, it is in a sweeping continuous flow, of a brush loaded with ink that works with intuitive energy.

Jeram Patel speaks of the act of art making as spontaneous, one that absorbs and transforms the man in his isolated activity. The act of working dissipates tension, even as it marks that artist as a commentator / spectator, one who defines his times in terms of the singular mark of anarchy or damnation, the kalank . Against all expectation he speaks of the popular mythological with its rich bazaar colours and its continuing appearance in the visual and political field in India. The mythological provides Patel with the essential quotient for his structure where in every answer lies the seeds of the following question, where, in every assertion of death there lies the insistence of life.

Jeram Patel describes the act of preparing to draw through avid television watching, of popular soap operas, the news and Hindu mythological films. As a teacher in Baroda he would conclude his teaching schedule with an obsessiver diversion, of one or two films every day, a practice that continued for several years. Mythologicals yield a content, in terms of the triumph good over evil, the sinew of beast or the lightness of the avian creature integrating with the cunning of man, the play of magical energies and perennial desires. But they also contain a structure that renders the narrative expansive or compressed, open or closed, inclusive or exclusive. In this play of good and evil Jeram Patel sees a reflection of our own times, and the act of drawing as a mirror of the totalizing energies of violence. Like the myth’s structure, a simulation of the smriti or remembrance of India’s essential history, violence returns through the act of mimicry in his work, seeking an apotheosis through the very act of art making. In his manner of painting the rich colours of the television mythological, that easily satisfy with a single glance are bled, or else all churned and integrated, into a single consuming darkness. The act of viewing and the emotions it evokes is thus mirrored in the nihilistic act of painting or burning.

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Like so many artists of his generation, Jeram Patel’s beginnings did not carry any portent of his fulfilment as an artist. He was born in 1930, the son of a school teacher in Sojitra village, in the district of Kaira, Gujarat. “In the reign of the Gaekwad, things were cheap” he comments. Jeram Patel and his four siblings lived in relative comfort, in his parents’ traditional household, a situation that changed perceptibly after Independence. In 1949, Jeram Patel joined the JJ school of art in Mumbai, a bastion of western academic teaching, and the site for the emergent strain of a progressive Indian modernism. VS Gaitonde who had recently graduated took occasional classes and made an impression onthestudents.Patelspeaks of his college years as intensely hardworking, of carefully assimilating the academic instruction, followed by hours of sketching the human form in movement, at Chowpatty beach or the railway station. Characteristically however,he threw away his student studies as “lacking character”. In 1957 sponsorship by a successful entrepreneur from his village allowed Patel to enrol at the Central School of Art, London, where he studied design. Post war London also offered the possibility of a rich museum and gallery culture where he would have witnessed some redefinitions of modernism. In the mid 1950’s Britain was already shedding the influence of the school of Paris with two of its most important figurative artists, Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud - with the latter in particular rejecting the role of colour in modernist expression.

Several critical choices appear to have been exercised by the artist in this part of his artistic development. I write this with specific reference to Patel’s responses to modernism, to form and colour symbolism, and his particularly strong rejection of the influences of the schools of Paris and New York in subsequent years.

In 1961 Patel visited Japan where he saw a large retrospective of Paul Klee, and came away with the conviction that the artistic process is deeply individual. He also visited other countries of the far east, thus engaging with the two polarities of the west and east, that had determined the course of pre Independence Indian art. On his return he was appointed a reader in applied art the MS University Baroda. In the aftermath, he worked with the Weaver Centre, alternating between Delhi and Calcutta. For a brief period he taught at the National Institute of Design and School of Architecture Ahmedabad, before returning as a Professor to the Baroda fine art faculty where he served between 1966 and 1990.

A defining period in Jeram Patel’s practice appears to have been his association with the artists Ambadas and J Swaminathan, and their shared response to the trajectory of Indian modernity. Like Swaminathan, Patel denied any form of identification with the art of Amrita Sher-Gil or the Bengal school as much as he did with the prevailing practices of western abstraction in Indian art. Together, with some of their colleagues, these artists formed in 1963 Group 1890. The group’s conceptual frame was to have a slow but powerful gestation within Indian art. For an artist who has made solitary practice a virtue, this association with Swaminathan and Group 1890 marks his commitment to one of the prevailing ideological streams of Indian art. Certainly Patel’s own response to the multiple streams of artistic inheritance were to privilege and recognize the tribal artist, who paints with a sense of conviction that does not allow him to stop, erase or ‘correct’ the work. In this way he would perhaps concur with Swaminathan who wrote of Klee’s position as ideal “He obliterates the temporal gap between the primitive and the contemporary. His art is not a “synthesis” of cultures so dear to the sociological mind and is completely inexplicable in terms of traditional mores”. [3]

Within the group, Patel’s work became over a period of time the most spare and ascetic, referring only to the artist’s own psychic state.

Retrospectively his body of work can be divided into his drawings, paintings and his blow torch works, which he has made in consummate bursts of energy in defined periods of time over the last four decades. The essential processes appear radically different. In the blow torch works, the process of accretion through sheets of wood and a binding material, painting and burning is visible in the manner in which the wooden surface is built up and then systematically scorched. The work endures and preserves a blistering attack, bearing the wounds of permanent disfiguration. Or to quote the artist “By burning wood I am making an attack on it. I make some contact and by making that contact I forget certain things”. [4] If the wooden surfaces present erasure through violent confrontation, the drawings present another form of obliteration. This is both through the work itself, its darkness and density and the artist’s relationship with it. It is one that sets up a relationship of opposition not between love and hatred, but between love and indifference. To quote the artist “I don’t want to create anything…. I never claim that I creating anything… The only thing that one can do is to destroy things”. [5]

Notes:

[1] An episode quoted from the Uttara Ramayana

[2] Quoted from the essay Late Klee by David Sylvester in About Modern Art: Critical Essay 1948-2000, Pimlico, 2002.

[3] J Swaminathan Reality of the Image, Contra, November, 1966

[4] Jeram Patel ‘I do not create’, Contra, November, 1966.

[5] Ibid.

--- Gayatri Sinha

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