Gieve Patel’s painting are currently on show at the Pundole Art Gallery, Bombay (1972)

Gieve Patel’s latest paintings are broad based comments on some aspects of the Indian social scene. Its familiar external forms, so obvious that they emerge fully in newspaper photographs, are given a mock-heroic artist treatment: volume, density, chiaroscuro, pattern, and perspective. The satiric intention implicit in this is reinforced by a certain monumental blandness, as though the chosen figures and situations are worthy of the light of eternity. Their death-in-life is heavily emphasised by this unexpected reversal of values. The ephemeral, seen as significant, is reviled by a kind of pseudo-solemnity.

There are great risks for a painter in embarking on such a project. Patel seems to be well aware of them. In handling banality and dullness, he uses great skill and discretion, so that they delight the viewer instead of boring him. Beneath the delight, he may experience sadness and some revulsion at human degeneration and self-centredness. What he recognises in the curiously real figures of the paintings is their massive complacency, their almost innocent sense of their own importance and permanent relevance. By projecting them into the future through the medium of art, the painter exposes their pretensions.

These figures think they are the embodiments of a great tradition. In reality, they are the remnants of a dead past, ritualistically enacting their outdated roles. Who wants such a Vice-Chancellor as Gieve Patel portrays? Who can love the barrel bodies and pork-faces of these successful politicians? Yet they dominate the scene, they preside over inaugural functions and garland on another, their silhouettes are ugly and sinister against the closed windows which preserve their privacy as they exercise power and no doubt corrupt it.

As for the women, shapelessly corpulent or skin-and-bone in shrouds, they clearly and incisively represent prejudice and narrow-mindedness, glorified as moral convention, intellectually empty and emotionally desiccated. If they miss being tragic, because of a posterish-cartoonish lightness, they are still strong enough to evoke despair. Outside their fossilised social life, they see nothing, hear nothing, and feel nothing. The agonised longing of the young for freedom of expression and development is mere indiscipline to them. The sufferings of the outcast - literal as well as metaphorical are remote from their preoccupations: to be expensively dressed, well fed and prestigiously housed. The smile of incomprehension defines the limit of their geniality.

Limited by their mode of representation and take-off point, which prevents them from arriving at the classic images of human grandeur (even in depravity), these paintings are still triumphs of rationality and integrity. There is no self-indulgence and self-display in them. Everything is subordinated to the artist’s objective aim, the painterly means used being strictly in consonance with its needs. Technically, they are substantial creations, meticulously organised, and executed without a single superfluous brush-stroke or whimsical line. Even the purely decorative elements, as in the drapery, are controlled and articulated to contribute to the unity of the style.

First published in The Illustrated Weekly of India, December 3, 1972.
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