‘As I contemplate,’ says Nature, ‘the lines which bound bodies come to be as if they fell from my contemplation.’ Plotinus, Enneads, III.8.3-4.
The art of Madhvi Parekh seems to hover independently between genres, styles and cultural constructs. Much has already been written on the importance of her work as a bridge between the village and the city in India today, a bridge between the avant-garde and the traditional arts. Likewise, one can say that her works may cross over from a naïve charm to a self-conscious surrealism. They may incorporate influences as diverse as rangoli decorations, Gujarati embroidery, and the early-modern paintings found in the Swaminarayan Mandir at Vadtal (which the artist visited regularly as a child), with the studied efforts of Paul Klee, Joan Miro and Henri Matisse, the meanderings of folk storytelling, even the layerings of imagery found today on the television and Internet. It is precisely this panoply of influences and allusions that makes Madhvi’s work so satisfyingly rich and continually relevant.
In recent times, as the artist has travelled more extensively, her works gave become a sort of souvenir scrapbook of her adventures. Here can be found the brilliantly shimmering turquoise waters off the island of Mauritius, there we can recognize the hill towns of Kullu and Manali, the line work found in Buddhist thangka paintings approximates the fast-moving clouds racing above a stupa high in the mountains of Bhutan. Her pictures of places describe not only the geography of the land but also the artistic cultures and personalities of people found in these places. So abounding are Madhvi’s pictures that these games of hide-and-seek and name-that-tune can be easy distractions from the real importance of her work, namely its relationship to other contemporary arts of India today and hence its socio-political meanings and implications.
First, I would like to draw attention to the deep-rooted secularism of Madhvi’s art. It is a natural, generous humanism which infuses everything she does, a child-like refusal to acknowledge any of the existing categories or divisions with which the adult world has structured itself. Certainly, the polymorphous narrative structures and constantly transforming characters of Hindu mythology have influenced the artist’s thought patterns greatly. But Madhvi cuts loose these mythological structures from any identifiable referents. This is certainly not the case with some other well-known artists. While other artists trade in the recognizable figures of Krishna, a Namboodri Brahmin, or Mother Teresa, Madhvi always allows the symbols or characters she uses to become unrecognisable, as if to release them from the specifics of religion and locale, as if to release them from the specifics of religion and locale, as if to enable each viewer to make of them just what he or she wants them to be. The Buddha can simply be Humpty Dumpty, a gigantic temple structure takes on the attributes of the Colossus of Rhodes, and abstraction is at the service of an inclusive diversity. Even in a most recent body of work, inspired by a trip to Jerusalem and Christian icons, Madhvi’s Jesus is pictured within landscapes and cityscapes of such exuberant profusion that He becomes almost unrecognizable.
This, I would argue, is an apolitical attitude towards religion, one that is generous and creative, ultimately open and accepting. It may hark back to a time in India when there less separation between religions, an era before the influence of Orientalists and Colonists mandated that religions more precisely define their programmes and people more strictly identify themselves with just one religious group, one spiritual guide, one prominent deity or text. It is an attitude towards religion in which modern rationality has not taken hold, an enchanted universe where the rhythm of life is in sync with an agricultural calendar and its seasonal fluctuations, a world where man is free from the tyranny of mechanical time. Madhvi’s work shuns the monolithic authorities of organised religions and grants pre-eminence to the common man and his simple acts of devotion, the areas in which religious programmes overlap and blend, the spaces occupied by the gentle iconoclast and the philosophical wanderer. The construction of forms in Madhvi’s work is both iconoclastic and wandering - she feels her way through the spaces in her paintings intuitively, as the spiritual seeker allows influence to come from any direction, in any guise.
Would my spiritual deciphering of Madhvi’s paintings be surprising to some? This is precisely the ultimate meaning of the artist’s incessant anthropomorphism, where buildings sprout heads; trees and mountains smile; fish, flora and fauna all engage in animated conversations. God has created man in his own image and god can be found everywhere and in everything. Sky and earth revolve around each other as in the symbol of Yin and Yang, both nature and architecture conjoin sympathetically to create a beneficent container for man’s society. Spend enough time with Madhavi’s paintings and one can begin to feel transported to her childhood in a Gujarati village. Here one can sense the pageant of colour, chaos, entertainment, commerce and ritual swirling around the young girl, unable to comprehend it all but eager to take it all in. this cusp between confusion and exhilaration the artist renders as the complexity of space, an irrationality of perspectives and structures to mirror the complexities of social interaction. Madhvi has acknowledged as inspiration the bhajans her family would sing together each night after dinner. These bhajan would diffuse into the air and seep into every nook and cranny of the home. In content, they would describe the gods with human characteristics going about their daily routines. In consequence, the young girl saw the divine in each and every face, the holy in the simplest of mundane actions.
The other aspect which needs to be addressed is the relationship of Madhvi’s art to other works of contemporary art which also picture the rural villages of India today. Minds more astute and experienced than my own need to confront this conundrum but I cannot avoid introducing the subject. As an American who has come to India and become involved with her contemporary art scene, the continued predominance of the rural ideal in painting is intriguing and its ramifications deeply problematic. As India has recently moved from a country in which the majority of its people live in villages and small towns to one where a much large section of the population now lives in large cities, this transformation of its populace strikes at the very heart of its own identity. This identity is how Indians negotiate their definitions and representations of themselves both for themselves, internally, and for how they choose to portray themselves to the world at large. While the influence of the fine arts ontheserepresentations may be slight, they do nonetheless influence the representations that are manifested in cinema, television, advertising and popular literature, to profound effect.
To start, one needs to address the hegemony of a certain school of imagery which transcends both class and caste and can be found as a cheap reproduction in a calendar or as an expensive original on a drawing room wall (though one can argue that this type of imagery is more seductive to the haute-bourgeoisie urban business classes than the migrant populations which do have an on-going connection with village life). These images usually portray a man-woman couple posed in front of the aesthetically weathered door of their picturesque haveli, matkas and camels being the accessories of choice. The artists who paint such pictures may believe themselves to be connecting with some deep soul of Bharat Mata or a Gandhian purity still accessible to India’s polluted urban masses. In fact, what they are pathetically aping is a tourist brochure version of India by way of the semiotics of the cover illustration on a low-brow, bodice-ripping American romance novel. No sign of poverty or over-population, drought or disease is ever in sight, certainly no corruption, crime or injustice can ever take place in such a setting. On the other hand, no symbols of education or development, no signs of medicine or technology are allowed to enter these pictures either. These are people hermetically sealed into a freeze-dried Realism, a captive Exoticism. The fact that these patently false images of an ideal India continue to dominate the urban art market points to the potency of this fantasy and the desire of many for the obfuscation and denial such images perpetuate. It is as if the urbanized business classes of India relate to the rural populace only as Orientalized kitsch. One may not be shocked that this is what passes for 'contemporary art' for an undereducated mainstream audience, but certainly one can be disappointed that so many of India's art school-trained practitioners would trade in such dangerous clichés (as they also do with symbols and imagery to connote the essence of a 'spiritual India:). The actual disregard paid to tribal and folk arts by the urban art market in India today is symptomatic of this convoluted relationship, an unfortunate result of the urban consumer's desire for placid and non-confrontational art forms.
In contrast stand the works of Madhvi, certainly part of a minority of contemporary artists who actually attempt to reconcile the realities of rural India with its mass imagination. Madhvi need not pack her bags and venture out on safari for, as she has said, her upbringing in a small village is with her constantly. She is confident that her own brand of paintings, complete with an original array of markings and a strangely lurid colour sense, can retain something of the feel of the village, communicate something of her own memories of it. She does not need to paint the heavy silver ankle bracelets nor the coquettish glance from beneath the odhni. She has no interest in participating in the fashions for ethnic revivals. Madhvi knows that it is the details drawn from the heart which can create a bridge between the city slicker and the villager. Details such as the soft light of the hearth which illuminates a solitary house in the night, a child who holds tightly to a favourite toy, the outing on a day off from work shared with family and friends. Romantic cliches have no place in Madhvi's paintings-true feelings can be captured and conveyed by staying close to home. Similarly, the athletic handling of colours, lines and forms can obviate distinctions between the rural and the urban, signalling the experiences shared by both. We find buffalo pens and tractors in the city and computers and film music in the villages, so why not combine all elements into a single painting? Why not picture the shared values and ambitions found everywhere, among all people, rather than create divisions and alien subjects?
As the contemporary art scene of India continues to expand, growing increasingly diversified and increasingly competitive, it is important to understand what art means in relation to other art and to society as a whole. Art is a way for a society to work out its internal contradictions, tensions and anxieties. The artist functions as a filter of sorts for the subconscious levels of society, negotiating both intellect and emotion, the visual with the perceived. The artists and art works which that society then chooses to celebrate and embrace reflect the desires and ambitions of that society, and act as a barometer for its healthy self-examination or its recalcitrant denial to face up to its problems. Both artists and their audience get seduced by publicity and celebrity while the meanings of pictures are rarely discussed by the masses. Madhvi Parekh may not be consciously making an art of socio-political statements but through her work she occupies a valuable position within the dialectics of society and its politics.
Published in A World of Memoirs: Madhvi Parekh, 2010