Flying squirrels are interesting creatures. Flowers have strength. A man stumbled on a dance floor in Australia. Right across the street, next to the blue building, under the shadow of great banyan, lives a woman with no face. All answers are within you…
The sentences above are not connected. They are just placed haphazardly next to each other. Maybe later they will lead to a story. Or else they’ll remain incomplete. This is one of the few practices to get those who want to write acquire a rhythm.
Artist Manu Parekh follows the same habit, but instead of words he uses colours. There are four of Parekh’s sketchbooks kept in one of the smaller rooms at Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA). The gallery is presently hosting an exhibition where the artist’s 140 works (paintings and sculptures), spanning six decades of his practice, are displayed.
Variegated brush strokes of different tonality can be seen in those sketches. Some of the pieces are complete while others are partially done. At some places, the white sheet of paper just features a stroke or two of colour. “I had no obligation towards these sketchbooks,” says Parekh. “I had thought to myself, ‘I will neither sell these, nor destroy’, but I regularly paint in them so that creativity doesn’t come to a standstill, just like a singer would require the riyaz.”
The sketchbooks, in a way, leads the viewer to the studio where every morning, before giving himself to a canvas, the artist unleashes, bit by bit, all that is hidden inside him, something like an actor on a stage would do with his dialogues and expressions.
Incidentally, Parekh has worked as a theatre actor and stage designer between 1958 and 1962. His latest work, The Last Supper, has elements of a play. He says, “In this work I have brought elements of theatre. There are 13 panels in total which contain portraits. These portraits are of actors which are placed in separate rooms. Each actor sports diverse facial expressions. The table placed in front of each actor contains a fruit plate which is acting as a prop and I have created the last supper with these props. It’s almost as if I am a director. I first made 60% of the work and after that placed the panels next to each other depending upon which panel will go well with which.”
The artist’s experience with theatre also trickled into his well-acclaimed Banaras series of paintings. “The landscape paintings of Benaras could not have been possible if I hadn’t done stage designing. When we did Mukhtadhara [a play by Rabindranath Tagore] in 1961, directed by the late theatre artiste Jaswant Thakkar, the actors were told to enter the set after ten seconds of turning on the lights. This was done so that the audiences get familiar with the scenery of the stage before the play starts. Even the light men were instructed to not to dismantle their settings so that the audiences can experience the emptiness of the stage before the lights are turned off. The Benaras paintings are also without human beings.”
Bold, definitive and dark strokes define the Benaras landscapes by Parekh. The series sort of gives you a walking tour of the city. There are temples, trees, boats and the like—elements that largely make up the holy city. Parekh has also made a black-and-white landscape of Banares, unusually so since the city has imagined by most artists to be saturated with colour. “I took a challenge to make Benaras in black-and-white. I feel black-and-white could be colourful, too, as it offers rich experiment through its tones,” says Parekh.
The various visual aspects of Parekh’s paintings make it difficult for the viewer to disengage with his art. You cannot “un-see” a painting by him once you’ve seen it. For example, in his Animal series, one notices, apart from the perfect colours, the violent nature of an animal. The paintings, effectively covered with “scratches”, appear as though some animal had attacked the canvases. Parekh says, “I made few of the paintings here after witnessing a kill during a safari in South Africa. The whole drama of how two tigers captured a deer went on playing in my mind after I came back and I wanted to represent what I had experienced.”
The artist has always found himself close to subjects such as faith and religion. For his series Rituals he has extensively used fabric and painted eyes, and has created the incidents of “looking”. He says, “Human beings have always looked up to faith. Come whatever, in any circumstances, the phenomenon of faith has been irreplaceable. The presence of clothes is seen in diverse places of worship and the eyes are always offering a strong connection between the deity and the people.”
He adds: “More than the inside of a religious place, the outdoors quite fascinate me. The found objects and graffiti which are usually found outside a temple are a constant source of imagery in my work. Also, I have always tried to bring certain Indianness in my work.”
This is the reason Parekh so admires Rabindrananth Tagore—who brought Indian art into the modern context. Parekh’s portraits of Tagore are also part of the present show. He says, “Tagore brought Indian elements to the world. He wanted the renderings of faces and landscape strictly in Indian terms.”
Parekh’s proximity with rural landscape during his government job with the Handicrafts and Handlooms Export Corporation of India, as a design consultant, shaped his oeuvre. He says, “When I was working in the villages of Rajasthan, Orissa and Bihar, I was overwhelmed by the imagery there. At present, the trend for Indian artists is being in metro cities and then moving abroad. I tried to find Indian roots in my time and wanted to Indianise all the energy I found there in my work.”
The liveliness and enthusiasm of Parekh is infectious. We met an admirer of Parekh’s work when we left one gallery for another in NGMA to look at an additional set of paintings by him. The person said, “Sir, I really like your work but in these times artists are painting only for the sake of selling.” To these words of praise Parekh offered a straightforward response: “I could exhibit these because they didn’t sell.”
The straightforwardness in Parekh’s personality reminds you of distinguished artist F.N. Souza. Souza has always been one of the subjects in Parekh’s work. He says, “I have great respect for Souza. He had an honest personality. There was no hypocrisy in him and he never cared about other’s opinion. This openness has transferred in his work. And I have never tried to hide my regard for him.”
The artist, at 78, still regularly paints and hasn’t interrupted the ritual ever since he started out in this field. “I have never stopped painting except for six months after my daughter was born. Even when I was working as a stage designer I was always regularly painting. I have created what I have seen and gathered during my life,” says Parekh.
The show is on view till 24 September at NGMA, Delhi; turn to pages 30-31 for a photo feature on Parekh’s paintings