These images, and other images like them, of what one may see looking down into a well, are from an ongoing series of large paintings that Gieve Patel has been working on for the past twelve years. Each painting shows a view of a well seen from above. The mud and stone walls of a well form the perimeter of the canvas. In the centre is a circular patch of sky reflected in the water. Within this limited format, the artist recreates a rich variety and density of experiences. It is apparent that the paintings are the fruit of long hours and many years spent in Nature’s company, looking.
Nature has always been a source of replenishment for Patel. Regular visits to his village in Gujarat, and the time spent there, mostly alone, have been very important for him as an artist. Every couple of months, as the city, its people, and artist birthright worries wear him down, Patel takes off to the countryside for two or three days. The ‘nature’ that Patel encounters on these visits is not remote or grand. It is a modest everyday village nature, of paddy fields and mud paths, small wells and trees, houses and domestic animals.
Maybe due to the artist’s childhood connections to the place, maybe due to the intensity of his current involvement, these encounters are a source of something important for the artist. Something the city cannot give him. And he comes back, literally enabled to continue his work in, and for the city.
For over thirty years Patel’s paintings have spoken about the city of Bombay and its underprivileged populace with rare sensitivity and concern. As an artist, this has been, and continues to be one of his primary commitments. The recent ‘The Letter Home’, ‘Man in the Rain with Bread and Bananas’ and ‘Mad -man in the Street’ are all evidence of this continuing engagement with the human condition as lived out in our city streets and by-lanes. Landscapes and celebratory image of nature have, from time to time surfaced in Patel’s oeuvre, punctuating his engagement with the urban environment with fresh air. Since the early 90’s however, the artist has begin to give a more sustained and focussed expression to this long association with nature. The replenishment that Patel has derived from nature over the years has helped to strengthen a deep connection with it. It is this connection that the artist now celebrates in a series of paintings representing the act of looking into wells.
Patel is an artist who spends a lot of time looking. Looking at nature, looking at people, and also looking at his own work in progress. The need to look for long, and again, comes from a commitment to try and see everything in its wholeness. To take note of and accommodate all aspects into the complete picture. The need to look comes also from a genuine delight in the activity of the senses. The artist enjoys just looking. Be it a tree trunk, the sea, or the body of a labourer, close observations open up for the artist the many nuanced shades of the character of his subject. At the same time, the artist’s close attention to his own act of looking exposes the complex and at times contrary impulses that attract him to his subject. Patel’s experience of looking is this intricate web of fact, desire, delight, disgust, empathy…. Patel values this complex experience. Its uncertainties and doubt. Though he never tires of thinking about and analysing experience, he is not inclined to fix its meaning too easily. For he knows that the experience itself is richer than any understanding that he may have of it at a given time.
In this painting of people, Patel’s complex mode of looking at the subject and examining his own motives for looking, results in a stroke by stroke scrutiny of the act of depiction, navigating the dangers of sentimentality and indiscretion. Which means saving the figure from false emotional investment, and not trampling on, in his enthusiasm, the subject’s basic human dignity, especially given the usually severe degradation of its real life. “I work in a land of continual and underlying violence - of human beings against animals, adults against children, men against women, the strong against the weak. It is not much comfort to turn to the history of other nations and tell oneself that it happens there as well. We are accountable to the place from where we function.” In order to test the strength of his empathy in such a place, in a situation in which he himself is a participant, Patel says he had to “internalise that degree of cruelty or violence or darkness and then to watch and see if there may not be a corresponding force within me that could stand before this and survive.” The humanity fortified in the battered frames of his heroes is witness to a tough continuing struggle.
The tough, sometimes brutal paintings of people on one hand, and the celebratory paintings of nature on the other, seem to belong to different worlds. But they are related. We spoke about the replenishment Patel has derived from nature. The ‘corresponding force’ within himself that the artist draws on in order to survive the darkness around him, is surely one force, among others, kept alive and nurtured by the artist’s association with nature.
In this association, this dependence that is now explored in the well paintings.
“Anyone who happens to peep into a well is first confronted by the image of his own face looking up at him from the surface of the water. However if he waits a bit and continues to gaze down into the depths, he soon discovers…cool serenity, the heavens reflected on the surface, weeds sprouting from the side of the well, mud and chalk lining the walls, a world indeed.”
(Gieve Patel: catalogue note 1995)
“The sensual delight of the experience has been with me ever since childhood, because in South Gujarat where my parents come from, there are a large number of wells. They are small modest wells, not terribly deep. Sometimes during the rains you can even put your hand in and touch the water. But they are beautiful and, every time I passed by one, it was compulsive for me to look in. To this day I cannot pass a well without looking in. Sometime around ’91, at the age of fifty, it came to me that I should try and paint this experience.”
(Gieve Patel, Dialogue. Art India, Quarter 1, 2000)
In deciding to paint this experience of looking into wells, Patel makes a move not only towards sharing with us his fascination with what he sees, but also towards seeking the roots of his compulsion to look in. What is it that has drawn him again and again to look into the well?
As we look at Patel’s paintings, we are immediately infected by the artist’s delight in what he has seen. He images of changing patterns on the surface of water, reflected sky, clouds, weeds on the sides, all this is captivating. This is not an unfamiliar world. They are images of the familiar, encountered in an unfamiliar situation. Almost everything or every image you will see inside thewell,you have seen above the ground, outside it. Mud, stones, grass, sky, clouds, trees - we have seen them all around us. And we see them now, inside the well, brought together in a strangely focussed field of vision. As if in a kaleidoscope, rearranging nature’s elements. We are enthralled.
The focus and concentration of this view, the cutting out of everything outside it, now makes us conscious of the deliberateness of this act of looking in. This is not a lazy gazing at the sky, thought that too may be reflected in it. This is a directed and conscious act. Patel draws attention to one aspect of this when he says “Anyone who happens to peep into a well is first confronted by the image of his own face looking up at him from the surface of the water.” This is oneself, looking at oneself looking. But it is significant that in none of the paintings has Patel painted a face reflected in the water. It is act of looking itself that is being portrayed here and not the subject. Could the image of the well be an image of the eye?
These then are two aspects of the experience of looking into a well that the artist highlights - the fascination with what we see, and the consciousness of the act of looking. The tension between these two aspects is the real subject matter of these paintings. This tension is of course present in different ways in much of Patel’s work, and is a result of the artist’s complex and critical mode of looking - both at his subject and at himself. In his paintings of people, it takes on a predominantly social colour. Now, with the well paintings, the tension between the senses’ intoxication with the seen and the consciousness of looking is brought center stage. The gap between ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’ is experienced directly, for its own sake, and explored at a new level.
Patel’s first step towards embodying this difficult and slippery subject matter is to address two structural problems. How to translate the experience of looking down into a well, into an experience of looking straight in front at a painting on the wall. And secondly, how to avoid a vertiginous kind of sinking into the deep cylindrical space of a well, which the artist considers vulgar and melodramatic, probably because it overemphasizes the act of looking, at the expense of what is seen. (This is an echo of what the artist avoids in his paintings of people - sentimentality and indiscretion.)
In addressing these structural problems, Patel sets himself on the path to transforming his visual material into a set of pictorial binaries. Observe the shrub growing on the side of the well ('Looking into a Well', 1994), and it’s clear and crisp reflection in the water. The real and the reflected are painted in such a way that they become almost interchangeable. Or in ‘Looking into a Well - Palm Tree’, 1995, observe the portion of the reflection of the palm catching the light and the part in shade, giving body to water “both as reflecting surface and deep substance.” In other words, by making the reflected sky as real and palpable as the mud walls lining the reflection, what is below and what is above is brought to one level. Looking down into the water and looking up at the sky become one. And the painting’s vertical position on the wall, half way between up and down, adds to this feeling.
Through a skilful handling of these visual complementaries, through this interplay between above and below, reality and reflection, transparency and opacity, Patel gently heightens the awareness of fluid boundaries in the world as we see it. We become aware that the lines between what is permeability between nature and the self. This is a moment of vision. The artists’s intoxication with the natural world is simultaneously an intoxication with the act of looking. This permeability and simultaneity do not however signal a complete dissolution of boundaries. The artists’ religion is to live this duality between the self and the world forever. To be mirrored and mirroring. To reflect and to find oneself reflected.
Patel’s well paintings are a significant and original contribution to contemporary painting. These are images of nature in an entirely new form. Nothing else comparable to them in structure or intent comes easily to mind. The artist has discovered, in his own experience, a unique way to celebrate his long relationship with nature. Patel mentions that the well is referred to as the navel of the earth in some traditional literatures. That is a beautiful image. An image of a connection, of nurturing. It is appropriate that Patel’s acknowledgement of his debt to nature should come through such an image. But the image of the well as the navel of the earth has an ambiguous sense. What is the source of nourishment here, and who is being nourished? What meanings do we receive, as gifts, and what meanings do we make for ourselves? Patel does not offer any answers. He stays true to his commitment not to fix the meaning of his experience too easily, and to state the experience itself in all its richness. And so, he holds up for contemplation images of a richly faceted and variegated surface - a vision of boundless interface between nature and self. Here, the joys of Nature’s company, and of being truly with oneself are joined.