The modernism of the sixties in India has remained sculptor Nagji Patel’s mooring, a preference developed through the orientations of the late fifties and sixties at Baroda. Since then he has most consistently of all his contemporaries developed this formalist preoccupation with mutations of singular, simple motifs, imbuing his stone sculpture with an erotic grace. Nagji’s pleasures, in his work as in life around him, have been simple; those of an ingénue. He found wonder and delight in commonplace forms of animal, insect, bird or sprouting seed; in process of carving, polishing, caressing a responsive stone; and at the endless phallic metaphors enshrined in stone. This trifold celebration gave to the tradition of modern sculpture in India in the seventies recognition of the function of the erotic numen. Since the mid-seventies but particularly in the early eighties, the idiom of Nagji Patel’s sculpture has cast a countrywide spell on stone carving. It must have surprised him. For true to his modest way he was not formulating criteria for sculpture. Indeed the strength of his work lay in his ability to use the conventional format and impregnate it with a transforming sensibility, honing it to a personal timbre.
During the last fifteen years Nagji has been primarily engaged in making large outdoor sculpture. The sculptures shown here are small; they emerge from the terrain of the agricultural field. In Nagji’s recent work the biomorphic interlock of stone and reproductive energies opens up to make room for devices made by man to tend land and hearth for food: implements to till the soil, a water storage tank for irrigation and cattle, the grinding stone and the clay stove. These are the motifs that recall ancient farming traditions; those that have endured. And stone, the most durable medium of the sculptor, is called upon to evoke the iconography of cultivation in rural India. The seductive marble makes way for granite, a stone for resistance from the oldest geological strata of the subcontinent; its austere beauty set into relationship with the lathe-turned wood, shaped and moulded by time and human use.
The phallic ion of Nagji’s is now tempered by the contextual, and by the weathered qualities of granite and seasoned wood- to mature into a wiser and fuller sexual metaphor, of planting and tending. There is the farmer still in Nagji: he grew up in a farmer’s family in Juni Jithardi, a small village an hour away from Baroda, where he still finds nourishing personal bonding and social communion. Like the simple farmer he identifies with, he discovers the inspirational in the forms of everyday life. He does not seek to mystify these, not set out to carve cultic ions. Yet, something in the alchemy of the compound he uses contains numerous potential. This he manoeuvres with the skill and formalist expertise of the practiced sculptor, and with modernist discrimination.
The sculptor’s intuitive hand knows how to make the stone body yield form and surface resonances that evoke archaeology in the familiar backyard. This primordial terrain- the stone wheel bearing the topography of agricultural landscape. The basis of this formulation is never descriptive. The metaphor is contained in precise formal condensation. Wood and metal extracted from the found object bring in their own linguistics; the syntax is complex, but brief and the form holds the playful surprise.
Taken from 'The Enshrined Object: Sculptures and Drawings by Nagji Patel', published by Gallery Espace, 2008.