The title of the first-ever retrospective of Jeram Patel (1930-2016) is a very poetic one. The Dark Loam: Between Matter and Membrane is the title of the retrospective, curated by Roobina Karode at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art is the third episode in a trilogy of retrospectives of pioneering abstractionists in post-Independence modern art in India. This trilogy can be read as an attempt to fill the art historical gap or oversight of not giving sufficient attention to abstractionists in the story of Indian modern art. In the previous two episodes by Roobina Karode , the oeuvres of Nasreen Mohammedi and Himmat Shah were lined up quite exhaustively, producing knowledge and delight around their abstract forms.

In the title The Dark Loam: Between Memory and Membrane, the expression ‘loam’ means fertile soil and the artist is imagined as digging a spade into that fertile soil. This image is inspired by the iconic artist portrait of Jeram Patel in a silver gelatin black and white photograph by Kishor Parekh, which has appeared in Gulammohammed Sheikh’s edited book, Contemporary Art in Baroda (1996). In this retrospective, that photograph serves as the frontispiece, the first thing that the viewer sees while entering the museum. A black & white photograph of the artist in a dark half-sleeved shirt and white trousers, looking up heroically (!) at the top angle camera that captured the painterly space at the Baroda Faculty of Fine Arts. It appears like an artist’s studio with some painted canvases propped up all around, in the middle of which, the artist was spreading dark pigment on to a rigid support with a showel. A broom is carelessly thrown on the painting surface, possibly after use in spreading pigment.

One of the wall texts in the exhibition there is a poem by the curator Roobina Karode that ends with a stanza, from which the title of the retrospective is derived. The poet curator says,

« The beast in man, the ghost in him,

Grave, peering, eyes from deep within.

The womb, the cave, the primordial soul in mortal pain,

Digging the dark loam, between memory and membrane. »

Here, the poet curator is remembering the dead male artist, in the act of digging. The poet curator’s words ‘beast in man’ echoes the expression of another poet-art critic, the ‘lone wolf’ as he was addressed by Richard Bartholomew in a 1970 text. Geeta Kapur as guest of honour on the evening of retrospective’s opening, reiterated in her emotional speech on Jeram Patel that he was indeed a lone wolf in the following words, “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.”

In the usage of the word ‘beast’ by the poet-curator and in the reiteration of the expression ‘lone wolf’ by an eminent art theorist, we have to reconsider, what does it mean to have a 21st century retrospective of a dead male artist whose works were churned out through the second half of the 20th century. How do we imagine and present the persona of the 20th century male artist, as a retrospective is also an occasion for such ruminations.

In early 2015, that Raqs Media Collective had a mid-career retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art, which they titled Asamayavali or The Untimely Calendar. While the untimely also denote anachronism as an element of the contemporary, the term untimely might also be a question mark on the art world phenomenon of the mid-career retrospective, possibly suggesting that it’s too early to retrospect, when one is in the prime of one’s artistic creativity.

Retrospective or ‘looking backwards’ is more appropriate for those artists who do not have much to look forward to, such as very senior artists, veteran artists, dying artists or dead artists. In that sense, it’s appropriate to say that the trilogy of retrospectives at KNMA is very timely although, it’s a painful coincidence that this retrospective happened in the year of the death of Jeram Patel. In the exhibition, there is one room dedicated to the works from the previous two retrospectives, of Nasreen Mohammedi and Himmat Shah. The didactics on the wall of that room describe them as ‘Pioneers of Abstraction in Indian Modern Art’. Well, it’s high time that the discursive field on Indian Modern Art gave its due to the aforementioned artists, as pioneers of abstraction, among many others.

When the museum KNMA is trying bestow ‘abstraction’ with its long overdue acknowledgment, one has to think, what is the relevance of abstraction as something to be considered as a significant stream in Indian modern art? Is it an Indian version of abstraction as a universally valid artistic currency in modernism, after flatness and pure form were eulogized as the trademarks of high culture in mid 20th century capitalism?

Within the Indian context, Group 1890 - of which Jeram Patel was a member - stayed away from the figurative painting that was simultaneously international and traditional, that was explored in the immediate post-Independence context in Indian art by the Progressive artists. An artist like Nasreen Mohammedi who was tangentially associated with the members of Group 1890 as a compatriot also stayed away from figurative painting and devoted her energies to geometric and architectural abstractions summarized in an earlier retrospective curated by Roobina Karode titled A View to Infinity in 2013. It can be observed that these ‘pioneers of abstraction’ did not limit their attention to the immediate socio-political turn of events, but had transcendental concerns that preoccupied them. They had a different aesthetic strategy pioneered in the Vedantist-Marxist synthesis by J. Swaminathan as an ideologue with commitments towards abstraction. It is such a philosophical dialectic that propelled these artists to relentlessly pursue their modernist abstract art in relative anonymity, staying away from artistic celebrity hood.

In the announcement issued on behalf of Group 1890 under the title, New Movement in Art Launched: Artists meet at Bhavnagar, J. Swaminathan wrote,

“…We shall become the rallying banner against all forms of conformism, against all mannerism, against all facile attempts to establish identity in the name of tradition, realism or contemporaneity. // We resolve hereby to launch the Group 1890 movement, a movement of artists who feel the necessity for genuine andsoul-searching endeavor for realizing themselves through the medium of their art and are not satisfied with the deceptive glamour and pretentiousness of easy recognition through fashionable atitudenising(sic).”

One room in the Jeram Patel retrospective is dedicated to big canvases with stark black cut-out forms against white canvas. Two or three rooms in the retrospective are exclusively dedicated to black spiral drawings that hang as an array of almost identical explorations in black ink over a period of 50 years. Geeta Kapur lauded the curatorial courage of Roobina Karode to place these drawings one after another, resisting the curatorial temptation to break it, risking monomorphism.

Patel’s black spirals were made with water-proof Chinese ink on paper. The black spirals don’t leave any suggestion of brush mark, so the ink could have been smeared with a cotton swab that ensured very thick line consistency. Sometimes, there are suggestions of other colours showing through thick black lines as thin washes, reminiscent of the chromatic diffusion of black crude oil spills on water surface, that suggest a chromatic field. It’s unbelievable that Jeram Patel kept doing these black spiral thick lines for more than 50 years. Was it a form of daily ritual? It would be futile to find social-political references or other representational meanings in these compulsive daily rituals, of smearing black ink on paper. But any ritual leads to eventual virtuosity or mastery by virtue of neurological pathways being hardwired.

Repetition as a design principle can be thought of as the main curatorial strategy for space divisions or gallery floor plans in this trilogy of retrospectives. Huge clusters have been made based on repetitions of forms, of canvas sizes, of mediums. There are rooms full of identical black drawings, all of which are untitled. Of course, here is an exercise of repetition with difference, as each drawing which is identical in size, colour, technique has individual differences in the spontaneous manner that each image brings forward. The only way of recognizing these almost identical forms is the uniqueness of each shape, which is sometimes reminiscent of animal forms. Any reflection on any one work is equally valid on all other works in the same template.

We need to ruminate if these endless repetitions of black drawings was a daily ritual based on a highly evolved sense of design, as a pedagogic discipline, with principles such as proportion, unity, balance, emphasis and rhythm. Jeram Patel was trained in typography and publicity design at the Central School of Art and Craft, London and he taught applied art in Baroda as well as NID, a design institution in modern India. Thus a very strong sense of design basics underlies in his practice, which might outwardly seem as fluid explorations of form in the modernist idiom. Possibly, downplaying his contribution to design education can be considered as an excision in the curatorial text. So the objectivity of the designer-artist has been overshadowed by the purported eccentricity of the aggressive male-artist.

The image of the lonely aggressive male-artist is most prominently highlighted in the projection of the artist with a blow torch to create his burnt wood works, which can be considered as a formalist innovation by Jeram Patel. But on a double take, these burnt wood works are not merely the products of very aggressive unleashing of male energy on wood, with a phallic torchlight wielded by the enigmatic loner artist, because each burnt wood, is a careful design experiment. On the composite wood board with multiple plywood layers, each incision has its own geometric imperative. Each burnt-wood work is an experiment at piece in design, by a pedagogue of design as a discipline.

Recently in a public talk at Delhi Art Gallery about Group 1890, artist and art history professor Shukla Sawant raised a pertinent question. The question was about the manifesto of Group 1890 which celebrated abstraction as a modernist idiom. Sawant wanted to point our attention to another aspect of the manifesto, which according to her is misogynist in that it celebrates the male artist at work as in coitus and the painterly act as an ejaculatory function, that can be read from the manifesto as follows:

“To us, the creative act is an experience in itself, appropriated by us and therefore bearing no relation to the work of art, which creates its own field of experience, as the experience of copulation is not the same as that of the offspring.”

In the Jeram Patel retrospective, while the image of the solitary male artist with furious torch light is foregrounded over and above the image of the artist as a design pedagogue, it needs to be asked what kind of a twentieth century modernist, is the museum curatorium projecting in the twenty-first century. Why is it crucial to repeat the emotional register of remembering the lone wolf, as a solitary male artist, as a genius self-absorbed in a lifetime of creativity rather than the artist as a humble retired design pedagogue?

On the inaugural day of the Jeram Patel retrospective, in the year of his death, both Gulammohammed Sheikh and Geeta Kapur spoke very intimately about the emotional register that surrounds their friendships with the lone wolf. Sheikh remembered how Jeram Patel used to randomly go to the railway station on Friday evenings to travel to some unpremeditated locations and would resurface on Monday mornings to take classes at the Fine Arts faculty in Baroda. Kapur appeared regretful that she did not give her due to Jeram Patel as an artist in her art historical oeuvre, especially in the seminal 1978 book on Contemporary Indian Artists. What can be ruminated here is how the magnetic force of a museum retrospective of a dead male artist is compelling a preeminent art historian to publicly admit that the artist was not given his due in her art theoretical oeuvre. But what ultimately matters is the emotional register that the long lasting friendships brought to the fore, and the emotional vulnerability that they gracefully displayed in front of mostly younger art public, and reminds us that what ultimately matters in art and life is love, and possibly retrospective is a token of love.

Image: Photograph of Jeram Patel in the Department of Painting, Baroda

© Kishore Parekh, 1961

Courtesy: KNMA

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