Published on 27th November 2023

Born in 1940 in Bombay, artist Gieve Patel was a central figure who shaped the city’s cultural scene in the 1960s. With a career and interests spanning across medicine, poetry, playwriting and painting, Patel has left behind a rich legacy. He was a practising doctor who turned to writing in 1966, with the publication of his first book, Poem, under the mentorship of the well-known poet, Nissim Ezekiel. This was also the period when his first solo exhibition was held at the Jehangir Art Gallery. In 1976, he set up a publishing cooperative called Clearing House, to fill the lacuna in indigenous publishing centres. In this decade and the next, he also wrote three plays -- Princes (1970), Savaksa (1982) and Mister Behram (1988) -- which were situated within the socio-cultural world of the Parsis.

A self-taught painter, Patel’s works explored a wide range of themes. They included portraits of Indian politicians, sensitive depictions of ordinary people and everyday urban scenes, and the enduring theme of ‘looking into a well’. The last was inspired by a habit he developed during his childhood in Gujarat, and Patel used the metaphor to encapsulate the purview of the well and the act of self-reflection. Patel was also a mentor to younger artists like Atul Dodiya, Anju Dodiya and Aditi Singh, and a friend and deep conversationalist to Nilima Sheikh and Sudhir Patwardhan. As a remembrance of their close associations, Sheikh, Patwardhan, Dodiya and Singh present their tributes to CC.

About Gieve

Nilima Sheikh

I shared Gieve’s buoyant optimism all these years, convinced by him that the cancer that was living with him could be tamed, aided by his confidence in Tibetan medicine and supported by the judgement of his cancer specialist. Till, as he said to me, it showed its Mr Hyde face and took him away.

I had known him since my days in Baroda in the late 1960s or early ’70s, when I was doing my postgraduate course, and he was a fledgling artist, learning from the art and life around him. He was already a poet of rare timbre by then, and a physician steeped in the humanism of his practice, and the life milling around his clinic near the Bombay Central Railway Station. He grew, as did his art and writing, through these careful observations of his surroundings. The hopes, toils, pains and morbidities of living and dying seeped into his oeuvre: he brought to them insight and grace with prudent prescience.

Citizenry, encountered within the mise-en-scene of the metropolis, was imbued with an insouciant iconicity. They met, and/or stayed separate in railways compartments, stations, against partially built or decaying walls on roadsides, in construction sites or against urban high-rises. Always, the vulnerability of their everyday life was present: in the way he structured this staged set, allowed his actors to enact their under-rehearsed stances, even in the way he tentatively, even falteringly, moved his brush to delineate them. Gieve was an unschooled artist, unfettered by restraining art school discipline but also untrained in the tricks of the trade of maneuvering brush and paint. He seemed not to want to give up this tentative relationship with image-making, seeking through it both eloquence and discordance in a way special to him. This did not take away from Gieve’s committed interest in other people’s art, historical or of his own contemporaries.

Gieve was equally celebrated for his painting and writing (his poetry and reflections on art), and he found different facets of his creative persona in each of them. In fact, why indeed should he, or any artist/writer, not discover the complexity of their creativity so? A carefully crafted acumen and precision initiated the poetic in his writing. His paintings were made with a speculative hand. Each had their own kind of magic.

I have now forgotten what led Gieve to work on his first painting of looking into a well. But it remained a leitmotif through the latter half of his productive life. Was it the circular form that gave him freedom from the stage he had structured? Did that looking at a reflection rather than at ‘reality’ give him a space for reverie? Could he have enjoyed an organic abstraction that he may have earlier shied away from, or an evanescent dalliance with the natural forms peeping into the water of the well with him? I am determined not to believe that it was the dark depths that summoned him, as has been suggested by others.

Gieve, his work, his relationships, his presence were life-affirmative. So is the way he will live on in our memories.

Time’s Up

Sudhir Patwardhan

“When it’s time then

to pack up,

to say goodbye,


I would like



carried away

to the Thither ... ha! ---

by transport

none other


Indian Railways: a

third-class carriage

with open windows

on a day


too crowded.”

“Time’s Up” was published in Gieve’s third book of poems in 1991. He would have written it more than 30 years ago. Before he left us earlier this month, he knew that it was time up for him for close to three months. We met him many times in this period and at no time did he seem weighed down by what was inevitably to come. He knew exactly how he wanted to go. He knew it when he wrote that poem. He knew it differently now. Along with his clarity of mind and at times seemingly harsh decisions, he kept alive his sense of humour and his famous guffaw. His one regret in the last couple of weeks was that his tastebuds had started to fail him, and plums and musk melon no longer tasted as they used to!

Gieve was a bracing and stabilizing influence on his friends over decades. In this period of overwhelming social transformations, which also saw rapidly changing aesthetic values and modes of art-making, his steady presence endured. It was not that he did not welcome newness or change. He did, when it was genuine. It was rather because he was not ready to jettison the human values that he had imbibed through deep attention to centuries of literature, music and art. And he was always generous and eager to share his enjoyments and insights. He would not mind being called a conservative, if that meant one who worked to conserve something that was worth conserving. Today, that makes more sense than we have usually been ready to accept.

Gieve drew and painted till the end. His last two paintings are portraits. One of an old patient, a smiling woman with deep, dark eyes, and the other of an old ailing man, which could be the artist himself. It was in these last drawings that he was pushing himself most, the scribbles and slashes of pencil barely adding up to an image. “I wonder if they can legitimately be called drawings,” he said. Gieve kept trying to penetrate the rules of form-making inordertoquestion any false assurance that structure and volume may give a drawing. He was trying to reach for a place as yet untouched. The drawings will remain a question. And learning to question will be his legacy. He will be dearly remembered and missed.

Remembering Gieve

Anju Dodiya

I have a sinking feeling as I write this. Over the years, Gieve was the one I went to, to clear my doubts -- specific to creativity, and sometimes, about my own being. Now, with his passing, I have passed on to total adulthood, where I will keep so many thoughts to myself, without ever having this trusted doctor’s ‘second opinion’.

I first encountered Gieve in newspaper interviews as the ‘Renaissance Man’. In the early 1980s, he was acknowledged as a renowned poet, painter and the playwright of Princes and Savaksa. Some years later, as a student at Bombay’s J.J. School of Art, I saw his “Statesmen on a Floral Rostrum” as part of the Nicholson Collection, then housed in the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) at Nariman Point. I remember spending a long time looking through all the works in the quiet, cool hall. There was a certain familiarity in Gieve’s image, a local subject of our very time, constructed in subdued abstract tones.

When I married Atul in 1987, many of his friends became my friends. Gieve was among them, and one of our closest. He came to our wedding straight from the clinic, carrying his brown-leather stethoscope bag, as he often did, transforming from the good doctor to the artist friend with ease.

In the early ’90s, Gieve painted a series of heads in works like “Eunuch”, “Drowned Woman” and “Battered Man”. I was stunned by his clear observation and the depiction of the maimed human body in these, matched in equal intensity by the sheer delight of painting. The magenta and white dots of coagulated paint so beautifully captured the foam emitted from the mouth of the corpse.

Gieve and I both loved Goya, Grunewald, Titian and Manet. One of our favourite things to do was to recall specific images of these masters. Like masticating cows, we would speak about that specific black in Manet, the bent knee in an Ingres, the blue in the ceiling of the Giotto chapel in Padua, or the wicked humour of Goya. This was joyous painter talk, like having a grand feast and then remembering it every time you meet that friend who had sat next to you at that same table.

Gieve’s memory was impeccable till his very last days. Whenever I spoke to him about a film I had watched, and he had already seen, he would inevitably make some comment which would enrich my own experience. And it was never just about profound truths! Recently, I saw Suddenly Last Summer (after the Tennessee Williams’ play), and after chatting about Liz Taylor and Montgomery Clift, he chuckled remembering Katherine Hepburn in the role of the powerful mother, making her dramatic entry by descending in a fabulous cage contraption, an elevator fit

for an animal goddess! Gieve always allowed himself joy in what was a peripheral detail: this made me realize that for a creative person, no detail is minor.

While still a young woman, I recall telling him about the fears I felt as an artist. Though he was never the sermonizing type, he saw my pleading manner and said, “Just feel unafraid when you walk, or when you drink a glass of water. If you are afraid in life, it will carry into your painting.” More recently, while speaking to me about my hesitation, he told me that my fear was a form of self-protection, like a ritual to avoid the evil eye. Even though we laughed at it, he insisted that it was a device I had invented to safeguard my creativity. Gieve often had unique ways of analyzing problems. No problem was too private to take to him. He had once said about marriage: “You can’t be happy every single day.” But yes, he got me to recognize that brief, occasional bursts of happiness were precious too.

As a painter, he always found subjects that were unique to his curiosity and his compassionate engagement with the world around him. This could be a man walking in the pelting rain, carefully trying to hold on to some bananas, a loaf of bread and his umbrella. Sometimes, when he started a painting, one even wondered if there were any visual possibilities to explore there. He painted a rat crushed under a car tyre, and a crow perching with a moon-like eggshell! It was not about an intention to create drama; it was more about painting an object/action/person to see. To observe with attention. Gieve always prioritized this, even as a reader of literature. To judge, to explain, to demand meaning was never the position of an artist.

For my first solo exhibition in 1991, I had written a small piece, and Gieve suggested that I drop a few adjectives from the text. This advice has been useful in many situations. To state can be enough. I suppose truth was always more important to him than its justification or grandiosity. In his drawings and sculpture of the character of Eklavya, we confront the cut thumb, the heroic hand, brutally separated from the body. It is an unsentimental frontality, which reveals the core truth behind this episode from the Mahabharata -- the cruel treatment of a talented underdog.

Gieve’s Joan of Arc, drawn in an array of lines, looked like a little girl. I had painted her too, after Carl Dreyer’s film still. While reflecting on the work, Gieve highlighted that after all, the celebrated Joan had been a girl of 12 or 13. We see the vulnerability, the damage done to her. The physical truth. Thinking back, my search for Joan’s heroic quality is aggressive, and is pushing the character where we want her to be. Gieve’s Joan is probably more real.

Both of us had painted Daphne too. Gieve’s version shows the signs of excruciating pain that warm limbs becoming dry branches might feel. While I jumped into the character’s victimhood and heroism, Gieve focused on how her body withstood this suffering. His compassionate, slow gaze did not seek heroes or epic narratives. One moment of abrasion was enough. Time expands when you stand in front of an artwork. Images grow within you as they stay with you.

During the’90s, as conceptual art grew around us in India, I remember an interesting question that Gieve asked -- what did the artist lose while making this? He was not against art based on ideas, but repeatedly sought long commitment to a concept, as opposed to skimming the fashionable surface of new thoughts. His openness and humility also allowed him to admit afterwards that he had changed his mind about something.

His generosity as a listener was amazing. Young painters from Kerala, students at the Rishi Valley School, Atul and myself, and so many other peers have experienced Gieve giving time to our art -- viewing and listening, without offering judgmentorquicksolutions. I can certainly say that his acceptance gave me a gentle reassurance that I deserved to be an artist. To continue being one, to be confident of what happens in the studio, and to survive the failure and doubts of one’s process, one needs a confidant and trusted friend. Gieve was that person. Finding lines in voluminous clouds, and flat, leafy reflections in deep wells, we will continue chatting.

Remembering Gieve Patel: The Painter, Poet and Friend who Taught Me to be Attentive

Aditi Singh

My first encounter with Gieve was as a 15-year-old in the pages of Panorama -- Collected Poems. His poem, “On Killing a Tree”, was part of our English syllabus. In it, Gieve vividly captures the cutting of a tree by dramatically contrasting the precision of the act, “No, The root is to be pulled out” with the jarring “scorching and choking…until it is done”. It is a declaration of a violent act, yet there is an objective tenderness of bearing witness to the scene.

Gieve once mentioned to me that this particular poem came to him within minutes, unfolding itself, almost like it existed forever in memory. This kind of equanimity, a clarity of self-knowledge, of laying down together both lightness and weight, was essentially Gieve.

I first met Gieve in person while working at Bose Pacia in New York. Our conversation then revolved around poetry, abstraction, and why making Art is an inner necessity, a compulsion, a surrendering. He often referred to Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art, while I quoted Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet as my gospel.

Gieve had a genuine gift for friendship. He preferred talking to people one-on-one, giving his complete attention. His twinkling gaze always included my spouse and my young daughter, welcoming even the most casual gesture. Birthday dinners brought together the same tableau of friends -- Sudhir and Shanta Patwardhan, Atul, Anju and Biraaj Dodiya, and his daughter, Avaan. As a family, we all knew, fundamentally, the same Gieve, and we all experienced true connection.

As an observer, Gieve had strong opinions and strict standards: this was good, this was forgettable. Much in the world was mediocre -- a lot of painting, for example, was disappointing. Yet, this meant that when he discovered something he liked -- a savory dish, a confection, an atmosphere in a painting, a phrase in a poem -- his enthusiasm was spirited, impassioned, electrifying. His encouragement was inspiring.

Gieve’s legacy is remarkable. Generations of artists and poets will continue to find wisdom and solace in his work. But what I admire most is the example of his life -- a bone-deep integrity, a relentless sharing of self, so fully, that one was elevated simply by being present in his company.

“In the uncertain light of single, certain truth,

Equal in living changingness to the light

In which I meet you, in which we sit at rest,

For a moment in the central of our being,

The vivid transparence that you bring is peace.”

-Wallace Stevens

Sleep well, my friend.

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