The wide-eyed boy appears in a reverie. The real and fantastic combine in his mind as the neighbourhood cat transforms into a rocket all set to launch the boy into space. A scorpion clambers across his face but the boy is unperturbed by its presence.

For in Madhvi Parekh’s paintings curiosity, trust and an openness to experience always outweigh other emotions.

Parekh is at her inventive best with this latest exhibition, creating a harmonious if somewhat frenetic world in mediums like reverse paintings on acryclic sheet and sculpture. The sun, the moon, childhood toys, fantastic insects, characters from fairy tales and foreign lands, flying horses and anthropomorphic forms all come together to narrate Parekh’s private mythologies.

Every decade has meant engagement with new mediums for Madhvi. If the 1980s was about learning the medium of watercolour, the last two years has been spent about mastering the technique of reverse painting. A medium of the colonial period, the genre of reverse paintings is a popular art form that has been brought into contemporary art practice by artists like K.G. Subramyan and Nalini Malani. Parekh enjoys the challenge of painting in reverse on a slippery surface which is tricky because the final details, flourishes and contours are painted first.

The goddess is an expression of energy had been important reference point for Parekh since her childhood and the memories of the Kali pandals in Calcutta remain vivid in her mind. Parekh began working with image of Kali in 1993 and has returned to represents the goddesses time and again in the course of this decade.

In this series a sizable number of works take on the themes of Kali Durga and the goddess. These embodiments of shakti are energetic and occupy centre stage in the painting. They are sometimes flying, sometimes striding across the composition and at other times in trying like icons in the centre of the frame.

One can discern the influence of Franceso Clemente in the way the figures of goddesses have gradually become elongated and interweave with other forms that sprout alongside these central figures for stop. The icons have a strength and presence but they don't seem to occupy by the space of the peripheral female because stretching her arms to hoist the goddess up. In Flying Durga, the goddesses’ splendid flight would not have been possible without a peripheral female figure stretching her arms to hoist the goddess up. The goddess do not gain their impetus from hallowed mythology but seem to be invigorated and recast by their contact with the everyday.

What gives Parekh’s sacred figures this playful and almost human quality. The answer might lie in the usage of the bahurupee, the familiar rural actor who masquerades as different sacred and profane characters, as a point of visual reference. Parekh has a vivid memories of the male bahurupee’s much-awaited visits to her village, wearing a body suit and donning different roles of Kali, Hanuman etc. In Flying Durga II the flying horse and the Durga are in close proximity suggesting the possibility of slipping from one role into the other.

The awkward and androgynous quality of these figures, of role-playing, brings them into the realm of the everyday. It is interesting how K.G. Subramanyan evokes the similar figure of bahurupee and like Parekh uses him to devalourize mythology.

Apart from the goddess, Parekh also chronicles her journeys abroad in her works. From Egypt she brings back the memory of a Pharaoh on whom the benevolent sun god from her village shines. Parekh replaces the Egyptian hieroglyphs with her own private version of them while tracing shared mythologies.

Whether it is vividness of the blue waters of Mauritius that spread their hues over the entire canvas or the figure of Christ witnessed in Israel, Parekh is quick to record these impressions in her paintings.

The idea of making sculpture came to Parekh when visiting the Miro Foundation and being stuck by the facility with which Miro used found objects in his work. Combining bamboo baskets, winnowers and rope Parekh creates structures which are overlaid with plaster of paris and then painted over the acrylic. Like the goddesses, these sturdy structures-which could be shrines, homes or totem poles-operate in the realm of the everyday. They are beautifully decorated with diverse species of birds, animals, plants and people.

The singularity with which Parekh holds on to associations of childhood in rural Gujarat is particularly interesting. In her conversations she foregrounds the memory of her village Sanjaya spent amidst her five siblings and Gandhian father. She recollects the walk to the school through the yellow mustard fields, the first sight of a rainbow stretching across the whole sky, her dreams in which she flew, the village festivals and the fables she heard. Above all she remembers belonging to a generation that witnessed India’s independence and the fearlessness that this instilled in them.

There are often times in the conversation when silence ensues, when language falters and fails to find a foothold against the un-translatability of the heightened experience of childhood. But Parekh perseveres and finds ways to describe the sounds, smells and sights of this time long gone by.

How does one understand the insistence to identify with child and folk art in Parekh’s case. The associations she is invoking are by no means purely formal for despite surface resonances-two-dimensionality, the narrative quality, the multiple points of view within the painting-there is no particular folk tradition to which you can pin her down to. Her initiation into art was through Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Notebooks given to her art school trained husband Manu Parekh. And in the course of her career she has picked up pointers equally from Matisse and Clemente as she has from rangolis, Picchvais and embroidery.

Critics have noted her sense of decoration is modernist and non-traditional, and stress on her ability to transform memory into subjects of inspiration placing her squarely in the ambit of a contemporary artist who straddles her rural inheritance with great finesse. To me personally what is more interesting is what she takes from these inheritances. Let us return to the boy anticipating his rocket journeys, Parekh engages with child-like representation as the medium of reverse painting gives her that freedom to fill the space with child-like scrawls and doodles. These spontaneous scribbles, erased and overwritten, are the most evocative forms in the whole series. But what is even more interesting is how she manages to convey a child’s openness to experience, his/her awareness of being present in that privileged moment. It is the acute experience of time that interests Parekh. As Doris Lessing observes, if we give time its due phenomenological weight, then most of our life is overbythetimeweareten.[1] “We used to spend hours at the Swaminarayan Mandir at Vadtal looking at the colourful representation of Ramayana on the walls. Now we don’t see that way anymore,” [2] says Parekh. It is this acuteness to detail, this ability to assimilate experientially to establish one’s own relationships unmindful of pre-existing classifications that Parekh very thoughtfully privileges. She had a chance to reflect more objectively on this in her years as a Montessori teacher in the 1960s- to watch closely how children are aware of touch, sound, sights. There is no nostalgia or sentimentality in this remembrance, only acute sensations.

The constant evocation of the rural in relation to her work is again about a continuation of attitude as opposed to specific visual vocabularies.

Parekh remembers the wonderful inventiveness of rural life where old clothes are recycled into quilts. And sets about creating animated compositions- where figures lead into others, provoking each other into movement and activity, major and minor narratives intertwine and forms are pregnant with smaller forms- with a quality of irreverence and play.

“The relationship between human and natural world is intimate, there are no barriers that separate us. In the same way I find it impossible to paint alone, I am very comfortable working in the midst of domestic life, demands of children, “ [3] says Parekh.

Parekh aligns to a Subramanyan position “where the relationship between skill and perception is to the point that the form springs from mere gesture of the hand”. [4]

Her work has always been extremely labour-intensive. In her early works she creates decorative dotted surfaces by applying oil with a felt-pen. She then switches to layering surface with paint and then scratching the surface creating textures similar to rural wall paintings. In this latest series she likes the ritualistic preparation of surface in the case of the acrylic medium-of washing the sheet, drying, dividing the space. Forms are corrected and edited as the painting goes along but Parekh allows them to show through for it is the process that interests her more than the end result. This deep contact with surface and obsessive mark making allows her to align with modernist art as much as folk art.

The wide-eyed boy is the artist’s alter ego, He remembers vividly and is constantly forging active relationships with the world around him. Perhaps there are hierarchies, systems, codes and classifications, ways of remembering that he should be aware of but he cannot privilege them over the strangeness of experience. There is something primeval about his memory, at the same time something profoundly courageous and one can’t help but be deeply moved it.


[1] From ‘The Autobiography of Doris Lessing’ Stranger Shores Essays 1956-1999, J.M. Coetzee, Vintage, London, 2002 pp 296.

[2] As told to author by artist in an interview in November 2006

[3] As told to Gayatri Sinha in catalogue The Self & The World, An Exhibition of Indian Women Artists, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, 1997, pp. 43.

[4] ‘From Mid-Century Ironies: K.G. Subramanyan’, When Was Modernism: Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India, Geeta Kapur, Tullika Books, New Delhi, 2000, pp 88.

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