Gulammohammed Sheikh: How to speak about a person you have known for 60 years and have followed literally everything that is on display here. How do you speak about the man or the person behind those works, the friend who knew sometimes fell out with, sometimes patched up with and also had great moments together on a number of occasions, especially when we were forming the group 1890 in 1963. It was in 1961, Jeram had returned from England when I met him. He was fresh from England and his work had, if you can make out from some of the drawings in the show, some sort of a remainder of his response to artists like Souza. Then he had also done something like throwing colour on paper so it was like exploring something which was unknown to him. At that point of time he had not done anything that significant but in 1958 he got the National award for a painting called Rasikapriya which is on display here. But something else was to happen soon and he began to work in wood. I was witness to that process of work, it was in the studio of an artist called Piraji Sagara in Ahmedabad. Piraji dealt with wood and antiques and he had a lot of wood lying around and it looked like Jeram picked up some pieces of wood from that, and made a kind of piece of three by three and he began to burn. I’m talking about something that happened fifty five years ago, I was twenty four at that point of time and I looked at Jeram with amazement as to how this man literally painted with a flame. He had a blow torch in his hand and it was summer. Summer in Ahmedabad can be very hard and hot and he had fire in his hand and he was going on again and again literally attacking the wood. He worked for a few hours and I couldn’t believe that somebody could do that. But you see he worked with some kind of an energy which I could not understand, where did this energy come from? A kind of energy which was shaping wood by burning it and he kept on burning it both within, that is inside the wood as well as around and he even burnt several pieces in which he made the edges jagged.
This was the first experience, I began to look at him and we became very close. Actually there is little history behind it, both Jeram and I were invited to teach in NID which had just started and Gira Sarabhai who was heading that institution asked us both to join. I had a temporary job of teaching art history in Baroda. Jeram had just come back so he took the job and joined NID and spent couple of years there. We became very good friends, and that friendship later on sort of flourished. Between 1961 and 1963, during those years that there was a group of artists from all over, somebody from Baroda, from Delhi, from Ahmedabad, etc. we all got together. We used to meet in Delhi in a place called Shalimar Cafe. It was in the inner circle of Connaught Place and that place had a mezzanine, it was a kind of South Indian joint and we used to go have food and in addition they used to serve beer and that was the added attraction. Well this is where the thoughts about forming a group took place. Another place was the Coffee House and this is where Jeram, Ambadas, Swaminathan, Rajesh Mehra, Eric Bowen, etc. we all gathered and we had a great time fighting with each other most of the time, we always had something to fight about, not only women, but also many other things and we had our own idea about art at that point of time. Ambadas and Swaminathan fought over because Ambadas was Dalit and Swaminathan, according to Ambadas, an arch Brahmin. These were the times in which we all had new dreams, most of us were young, I don’t know whether I was the youngest, might be. And then Jeram also came to Baroda, came to Ahmedabad and I remember that he began to draw and some of these drawings which are there in this show they inspired me to write three poems which I published in 1963 in a journal called Kshitij which was edited by my literary mentor called Suresh Joshi and I still remember that. So, it was in 1963 that we all got together and Jeram was central to it because in one sense Jeram made it possible for us all to go to place called Bhavnagar where we wrote our Manifesto.
Jeram and I lived together in Residency Bungalow in Baroda 1969 and 1970. I remember that during those days Jeram used to disappear during weekends and one would not know where our Jeram would go. The story goes that Jeram would go to the station and whichever train was going he would just buy the ticket whether it was going to Bombay or on the other side, Delhi and he would be back on Monday morning to teach in the Faculty of Fine Art.
I don’t know how many stories are there…there are so many stories. But which is the true story, I don’t know. In one sense if I were to think of Jeram, I would say that he was a solitary soul. He could not fit in anywhere. In a party he would just be sitting without talking or perhaps fighting but otherwise he would not be doing anything for a long period of time. In those days we believed in such things as dialogue without words. There was friendship which continued despite the absence of words. And that might sound very romantic but it was the idea of the day and we all thought that we had such a friendship with Jeram I had that friendship and I continued that till his death.
The only story that I can now tell you is that he was then almost disabled, he was sitting in a wheelchair and not in a very good physical condition. But he had everything there, it was all there, his mind was still alive and alert, his body gave way but his mind was alert. In a strange way the comparison comes to mind that Nasreen had a similar thing. His close friend Nasreen was also struck with almost a fatal disease and she succumbed to that. But she too even in the worst physical condition had her mind glowing. And I do remember times when she spoke about either poetry or about music and she continued to play her favourite Bhimsen Joshi during that time. This is not the time to speak about everything but I was just thinking of this man, who to some extent to my mind has remained unsung. I’m delighted that Roobina has made a great effort to collect all those works and brought them here and mounted such a fantastic show.
Geeta Kapur: Gulam knew Jeram for 60 years, I can claim to have known him for 50 years. I first met him in 1966 in Baroda. So, we both share a very long…and of course I also met Gulam in 1966 so we are sitting here together and in fraternity with Jeram on the walls of the Kiran Nadar Museum in this beautiful show.
“Jeram Patel whose square jaw and broad forehead, the hard eyes and steady stare and heavy crop of hair on the head…which is considerably taller than most in this country. A man of exceedingly few words, of fewer friendships. He’s a lone wolf and sometimes we hear the howl of this creature in the work. In the silence of the seeing. What is Jeram’s idiom, what is the idea that generates itself intheactioninvolved in the making and in the existence of the thing in itself consequent to its having being made? What is it that he discovers for us in this pursuit which is surgical on the one hand and plastic on the other? And why is it that draft that is established has to be cauterised sometimes?” This is Richard Bartholomew on Jeram and it’ll have to be admitted that some of the most beautiful texts on Jeram have been written by Richard. This piece written in 1970, this is an extract title ‘The Lone Wolf’.
Jeram was committed to the act of cathecting the artist ego, the artist persona and the artist practice to a compact subjective object in a tough bind. This is the imaginary becoming of a modernist artist and we see it acted out in Souza and in different modalities all the male modernists from the generation of the progressives. Jeram and Swaminathan also in different ways Ambadas and Himmat because these artists were roughly within the same age group whereas others like Gulam were younger. Jeram and Swaminathan inherit the desire, however much they rebuff the Progressive generation to the kind of act of becoming an artist which claims almost a genetic continuity and a claim which rages itself on sovereignty. It is a claim that has been made throughout the 20th century by the artists of that century. It is a strangely infantile claim and it has charged the 20th century with the energy that we associate with the modernist art practice.
Jeram in his prime and in his generation, the Group 1890 distinguished itself very radically and emphatically from the Progressives. Although in actual fact the age difference is not huge because the age group of Swaminathan, Jeram and Ambadas is within five years of the generation of the Progressives it becomes a generational difference because the claim and the wager is different in both groups and in both generations, and it is a difference which has been much written about, most pugnaciously by Swaminathan himself but also more art historically by many of us, the difference between the Progressive artists and the 1890 Group.
Jeram for all his pugnaciousness believed himself to be the prime artist not only of Group 1890 but of his time and he was admired as such. I think Jeram who was indeed the lone wolf never lacked admiration from his co-artists or from younger artists and from the world, although the world at that time that surrounded the art world was small. Taciturn, laconic, rude even fierce, he was also in his own way very seductive. And he added to his seduction by always creating a sense of apprehension in the others around him. A mocking smile that shaped his thick pan-chewing lips into a pout and a jaw that set his face almost like a kabuki mask. Jeram was indeed what Richard calls him, a lone wolf.
The 1950s and 60s and just about the 70s was a time for the self-made, self-driven subaltern like artist figure. These were artists who took their practice, which is to say the means of production and the process and act of production as a vocational distinction and these were artists whose practice was presented through a persona that assumed legitimately or illegitimately an aura. Jeram certainly knew that he wore that aura. Which comes first, his style of being as the outsider positioned in that existential mode like a stranger at the brink or was it his practice…material, visceral, gestural, gut wrenching acts of creation that were pitched quiet early already by the early 1960s to become also acts of destruction. There is a quotation here in the exhibition about his claiming to be not interested in creation but only in destruction. And if you take just that few lines and place them anywhere in the world as an artist statement in mid-20th century it would resonate all across the world because indeed in the years after 1945 the act of creation was considered to be equally the act of destruction and vice-versa. For all Swaminathan’s intellectual brilliance, long term strategies, everyday tactics and incessant polemic, it was Jeram who shaped the core of the 1890 aesthetic, not the 1890 ideology as it was brilliantly formulated by Swaminathan and the Group in the manifesto in the catalogue. But I would say the generative and continuing aesthetic of 1890, as well as its pugnacious stance based on an unchartered sense of refusal. What was being refused? Presumably refusal to play along with the rules of the game. Refusal or resistance, this too is a complicated manoeuvre from a high desire to be obdurate, inaccessible, difficult, a very typically modernist position as also from a subaltern position, a quasi-surrealist act of subversion of established languages and meaning, to refuse convention, civility, responsibility, development, progress, art historical canons but ambition, yes. The artist crisscrossed the maze and made a high bid for the crown of thorns in the way that Souza did and the martyred hero no matter how much the adoration such as an artist like Jeram or Souza received, always at the brink, suggesting a self-annihilating gesture such that would make one hold one’s breath. And I think that would very much be Jeram’s intent and affect. His works on wood which are so often talked about and talked about very beautifully if I might say again by Richard who understood them very quickly and in very elaborate terms, with metal and enamel, with nails, burnt patches which Sheikh has so effectively described the act which he watched literally almost for the first time taking place in Ahmedabad in Piraji Sagara’s studio. The gouged wood and side by side very often blobs of Fevicol that together sat like blood and body secretions. These are works you would stop to see anywhere in the world and they come almost within the same bracket of time as two artists that we know Jeram admired and in whose company he would look completely comfortable that is Tàpies but even more so Alberto Burri from Italy. In that time he was in England, he had travelled to Europe of course like all Indian artists who went to England or to anyone place would travel very assiduously in the rest of Europe. And I think he was interested in Tàpies and Burri.
The wound and the rage which characterizes post war art anywhere from Europe to Japan from the Italian artists reviving themselves from Italian fascism to Japanese artists reviving themselves from Japanese fascism through the movement called Gutai. What would be the rage and the wound for Jeram? This is the question I think that we have never fully answered, Richard somewhere has a glimmer of it that he is forgetting something that he is blacking out something, that he is putting something behind him and it always remains ambiguous. What is the rage and what is the wound?
Also the need and what he shared with this rage that went across the world in the post war period, in our case in the post Partition and post-independence period. Itwasalso morepositively a claim that form matters. Jeram’s was a commitment to process where the outcome is material production as much as it is form and language. But this process is less artisanal and not beholden to known grammar and to any kind of known linguistics. It is or must appear to be a slate of hand, a gesture that has to be in its own way both elegant and stylish as well as explosive. Compare this to K G Subramanyan to Gulam Sheikh and to Bhupen in the same period. The gesture is different, the interest in the artisanal is different, the interest in language is different, and the interest in the everyday is different. If you take Nasreen who could be the nearest friend and artist to Jeram, her world is also different in ways that we have all tried to probe and elaborate. This made Jeram more part of an Indian and international avant garde than many others, perhaps most of his seniors as well as his contemporaries.
His drawings are a kind of diary chronicle of terrifying miniaturized nightmares from an assorted world of creatures that includes limbs and viscera of the human body, a corporeal translation of everyday emotions or states of being, anxiety, angst, rage, melancholy, terror that make up his subjectivity. These drawings when you see them in abundance as you do here are indeed to me like a continuous diary of his subjectivity. But, all this is not automatic writing in the classic sense exalted by this surrealist. The inside out form aspires in my understanding to an iconography, twisted and bristling, tumorous, misshapen and poisonous. An iconography that includes instruments of torture as it does reptiles and scorpions but there is indeed an iconographic repertoire elicited from this substratum that his drawings present. His creative world or his vocabulary to my understanding is not metaphoric, these are metonymies, proxy parts, surrogate objects that signify a more benign human condition, the parts are totem, fetish, relic that can be inverted exactly as in psychoanalysis to produce not revilement not hate but extreme vulnerability for both artist and beholder. Jeram’s work, especially the drawings are both cruel and tender, the work then was existential and soul bound yet not confessional, surrealist but not programmed to render the unconscious legible, expressionist but not expressive not even affective in the sense of rousing emotion.
To return to the person Jeram…Jeram was stubborn, aggressive and belligerent in the Faculty of fine arts, at the Lalit Kala Akademi and in every forum that the artist might occupy. He was also an archetypally and I’m now treading slightly tender ground, he was also archetypally to our minds, a lover figure from some kind of romantic literature. This observation is nestled in another more intimate story of a friend who saw him to be some kind of an imminent being, a mute voice, which signified difference along a graph of undeciphered meanings. If Nasreen listened night and day to Bhimsen Joshi, we always used tease her and say Jeram looks like Bhimsen Joshi. I met Jeram in 1966 and Gulam spoke about the Residency Bungalow where they shared, Gulam, Jeram and Bhupen shared a ground floor apartment and I stayed there very often as a female guest much looked after. Jeram was gentle as gentle could be in that environment in those moments.
I met him again in December, 2015 after many many years, he was eating or rather he was being fed by his attendant and beheld us, me and Vivan with a very faraway look, averted and awkward, an upward gaze and a hand with long delicate fingers and I hadn’t remembered that he had hands like that, held aloft in an ambiguous gesture, his skin was smooth almost transparent and I remember him always to be swarthy, his large head was covered with slightly long and wispy hair, fragile in every way, but never without a wicked aside. His prominent features and a smile always slightly askew and a dark mole on the chin. He offered me a loving bark, he complained in a way that he had complained in 1978 when I wrote my first ever book, he said you’ve included six artists, I think I should’ve been one of the six. There are a couple of redundant artists in this list. I won’t name who he considered redundant. He had complained as I said in 1978 that I did not write on him at any length all through this long career. And he complained again… “I can still do it”, I said and he said, “but, what’s the use now?” very precise…very sharp just one sentence “but, what’s the use now?”
After seeing this retrospective, I think there’s great use. I can see myself reviving the admiration we all held for him and I would like to point just one factor that if I wrote on him now I would write in a way about the black that I had never thought I would write on and that is compliment to you as a curator because you have insisted on hanging the black work repetitiously room after room. Any other curator would want to break the sequence to intervene, to not allow the black image to preside in such a magisterial way in these rooms. I think that there is much that one can actually now extrapolate on this insistence on this obdurate form, this negative form, ‘the black’ that Jeram was able to handle like any artist in the world has ever handled black.
Just a last word about the lone wolf, I believe when he fell very seriously ill one night in the cold of January. His attendant was not able to manage a transport for him, so he trundled him on the road on his wheelchair towards the hospital where he died like a lone wolf.