One night he had a dream. In the dream he had wings. He could go anywhere. So he took off, but found himself hovering just above his home and his land. Because he wanted to escape from the scene vertically, not horizontally. From this height he could see his life altogether - the cow which had recently broken a leg, the soothing tree, and along with this, a living form which he couldn’t quite identify.

-Deepa [1]

I have been seeing Madhvi Parekh’s work here and there over the last fifteen years but did not have an occasion to see a formidable body until recently when she approached me with a request to write this introductory piece to the exhibition: “The Centre and the Periphery”. I suppose this request was in view of my writings on several individual folk and tribal artists who had opened themselves up to inspiration from the contemporary world around them, and that Madhvi, who has situated herself in the space of contemporary art practice, reverts for inspiration, from time to time, to her childhood village left far behind. The two inversely symmetrical positions renegotiate the rural and the contemporary in a different manner.

Traditional folk and tribal artists of India are generally not known for doing autobiographical work, in which the artist himself or herself would appear as a character. Ganga Devi, the renowned Mithila artist, once did a series of paintings based on her experiences during the period when she suffered from cancer. In these paintings, she herself was repeatedly represented as an iconized young woman, conceptualised in the image of her memory of her young self, while at the time of her terminal illness when she did these works, she was nearly 60 years old. Ganga Devi was a master conceptualiser of pictorial images. She had experienced the power of imagery as language of visual expression. By using an iconized image of the self in these works she acquired a creative distance from herself so necessary for an artist engaged in demarcating a space wherein reality and illusion, past and its memory, objects and ideas enter into an interactive play. Such iconization also helped her to build up continuous narrative of her life spread over several individual panels in which her own recurring image would always be identifiable as the central character. Her self-image thus acquired symbolic dimensions.

Madhvi Parekh’s images of fantasy and childhood memories, spread over her entire work, have this iconic-symbolic quality. They keep recurring - now in the centre-stage, now floating across the landscape, sometimes framed within a window or a door, or sometimes making their presence felt by their absence. When the same characters and objects such an anthropomorphic animals, birds with transparent bodies, smiling snakes, head, torsos, trees, and buildings, keep appearing and reappearing in her work, over the years, they assume the role of pictographs which, when reused in different contexts, continuously renegotiate the emic and etic structures of the language of her expression.

In most discussions about Madhvi’s art, questions are raised whether it is rooted in a form of ‘child art’ or ‘folk art’. While situating her work in either of these monolithic categories, critics have often confused between the images stemming from the memories of childhood and those found in ‘child art’ created by the child, and between the images derived from the memory of rural life and those emanating from a traditional practice of folk art per se.

Madhvi does not come from any constituted tradition of folk art, though her images do speak of rural as well as childhood memories as much as of child practice.

Madhvi was not trained in an art school but it is not that she has had no exposure to the world of modern art or to new materials and techniques. She is poised at the fence between her personal world, ‘unspoiled’ by ‘training’, and that of formal history of art which continuously and consciously explores new possibilities of expression and thereby, in principle, availing to herself a broader space to wander about.

As such Madhvi is not a folk artist nor does her work belong to an established ideological or aesthetic movement of modern art, though one often reads quotes from Paul Klee, Miro, Picasso or Clemente in her work. In her paintings, as in her life, she keeps transgressing between the two worlds, i.e., the one of her rural inheritance and that of the universal modern art practice, renegotiating both. In this sense, the straitjacket terms such as ‘outsider art’, ‘neo-primitivism’ or ‘native’ would not effectively apply to her. Madhvi is a contemporary Indian artist, not anxious to negate her rural inheritance, and at the same time reflecting in her work the contemporary world - its pressures, its ideological tensions, its proclivity for fragmentation, and above all, its eclectic art language.

Madhvi is not a neo-primitivist in the sense that she is not a modernist who, from that position, explores primitive aesthetics and appropriates it in her work on modernist terms. If there is a ‘primitive’ element - simplification of form, emblematisation, linearity or elimination of depth, shading and overlap, and intuitive rather than designed, organisation of space - it emerges from the conceptual and narrative pictorial devices that children employ, an element which shares certain commonalities with child art. But one feature of primitive art - inherited, community - based collectivity of idiom, and beliefs and practices, which provide a certain stylistic certitude to each individual genre - is not found in child art. Though Madhvi builds upon her childhood memories including her own language of expression that she might have developed as a child, as she grows, she lends to it the strength and complexities through layering of cultural and artistic references -elements absent in child art.

What are these cultural and artistic references? Madhvi has been painting for more than thirty years. Her “craft-like sense of decorativeness”, “cosmic sense that is at once the attribute of folk art and women’s art” and her “handling of everyday life, including labour, leisure and ritual in the form of a (mock) fable” [2], all stemming primarily from her rural inheritance, have undergone an intense process of continuous interface with the modern, initially arising out of the programme of training drawn by Paul Klee in his Pedagogical Notebooks, and meticulously followed by her [3]. In her long career in painting, she has had formidable exposure to the world of modern art. Combining her rural background, her child-like sensitivity and the “modernism’s logic of abstraction…in a quasi-modernist manner” [4], she has evolved an effective language of expression which has become as natural to her as her mother tongue.

In her current exhibition of her works, Madhvi, revels in the translucent luminosity offered by the medium, i.e. water colours. Using thepossibility of transparency provided by the medium she creates a space within a space which then comes handy for narrativising a legend or the everyday life. Like in a pichhvai or a kalamkari, she often enshrines the main character or scene of her narrative in the centre while detailing the related images in the margins. A new element that makes its presence felt, particularly in these works, pertains to introduction of popular imagery culled from everyday life - cinema house-like gaudy arches, and curtains, windows having fancy coloration and motifs, scenes from the beach life of Mauritius.

With her personal, well-articulated language of expression, Madhvi positions herself in a space outside the tradition-modernity discourse, while crossing borders both ways.


[1] Deepa Parekh, Fables of Everyday Life (Bombay, 1993)

[2] Geeta Kapur, “Madhvi Parekh”, in: Critical Differences. Contemporary Art from India, (London, Aberystywyth Arts Centre, 1993) p.11

[3] Pranabranjan Ray, “Madhvi Parekh. Child’s World, Mother’s Fantasy”, in: Expressions and Evocations. Fifteen Contemporary Women Artists of India, ed. Gayatri Sinha (Bombay, Marg Publications, 1996)

[4] Kapur, ibid.

From the exhibition catalogue published by Vadehra Art Gallery (1999).

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