Manu Parekh took me to his studio, first thing. “Do you know about my work?” he asked me when we were in the basement, which was big enough to accommodate several large bookshelves and a massive swing — a wooden bench suspended from the low ceiling — right in the middle of the hall. Parekh looked at me uncertainly, as I nodded and mumbled something indecipherable. He then looked around for the catalogues of his past exhibitions. Now, facing the three large canvases — paintings in progress — mounted on the wall he said, “I usually work on two or three paintings at a time.”
On a lectern nearby was Leonardo da Vinci’s scholarly work, Architectural Studies, open on page 569 — a sketch of an amphitheatre of sorts. Parekh handed me his stack of painting catalogues: “Why don’t you go through these while I join you in 10 minutes? You have something to ask me about anything here? Should we do the interview here or…?”
It’s an awkward moment to be standing with an artist inside his studio, before three of his unfinished paintings, and to be thinking of questions to ask him. What does one say at a setting as personal, intimate and shut off from the outside world as an artist’s studio? Faced with a work in progress, do you dare point at it and direct a question at its creator? Something like, “So what’s this one about?” You never say that. Nor do you look at the canvas and go, “Hmm, interesting.” Anything other than awed silence at such moments is, at best, a breach of decency on the part of the visitor.
So it was to my immense regret that I, after having thought about it a while, asked him the following. “When do you know,” I demanded, “if a painting is finished?” And Parekh, smiling, responded with, “Oh, that is a very difficult question to answer.” I felt a sense of relief when we began to trace our steps back towards the front door, up the staircase, and into Parekh’s apartment. The sitting room was sparsely furnished and a familiar-looking painting, wrapped in what looked like cellophane paper, was placed in one corner, where I went to sit.
“Please sit here on this side,” Parekh told me. As directed, I changed corners, and seeing that I was yet transfixed by the painting — my eyes felt a magnetic pull towards it — he told me what it was. “This is Bhupen Khakkar,” he said, redundantly adding,
Of course it was Bhupen Khakhar. How could I not have guessed? The same figure, that same face blackened with guilt— straight out of Khakhar’s 1975 masterpiece, Man With Bouquet of Plastic Flowers. It was a variation on that old painting and Parekh told me that he had bought it around 20 years ago. “It is going to be exhibited,” he said, “at the Tate.” Hence the protective plastic covering.Yet through that transparent layer of white, the piercing eyes of the human figure had lost none of their basic power to convey human suffering.
“He suffered a lot,” Parekh said of Khakhar, his old friend. Eyes play a central role in communicating emotion. But I remember one of Parekh’s own paintings — a portrait — that conveyed the pain of his subject even though the eyes on the canvas were smudged out, extinguished through and throughwith splashes of colour.
This was in the 1980s, just after the infamous case of police brutality in the Bhagalpur district of Bihar, known in the mass media as the “Bhagalpur blindings”, when police officials blinded dozens of under-trials and convicts by pouring acid into their eyes. The incident caused national outrage and Parekh, after having seen a newspaper image of one of the victims, was moved enough to paint something inspired, even provoked, by the event.
“That was not from a political angle,” he said, referring to his Bhagalpur painting, Man-made Blindness. “I did it from a human point of view. I used to work in Bihar, and I thought how can someone be this violent to other people?”
Parekh extensively toured the rural parts of the country while working as an art designer at the Weavers’ Service Centre and later as a design consultant at the Handicraft and Handloom Export Corporation of India. And his lifetime of travels around India taught him the value of having your roots somewhere and of having a home, which in turn made him realise how important it is for an artist to stay connected to a place.
The places important to Parekh’s art, however, have all been cities. One was Bombay, where he attended the Sir JJ School of Art, an inevitable port of call for every budding artist in the ’50s and ’60s. And the other was Calcutta, a city that reached its prime in the 1960s and where Parekh found instant acceptance into the bohemian and artistic circles. “When I went to Calcutta, within a week I became a Calcuttan,” Parekh told me. “Generally, it is considered a difficult city for outsiders. But I remained there for 10 years. I had to leave only because of my job, otherwise I would have been happy to continue living there. You see, 1965 to 1975 was the best period for Bengal. Everything was in full form. Theatre! Film! Utpal Dutt! Sombhu Mitra! Satyajit Ray! Mrinal Sen! I was lucky that I was there and was accepted. I became a member of the Society for Contemporary Artists within six months of my arrival. And till today, I am a member. But now, of course, the city has changed a lot. I can’t imagine staying there anymore.”
There is, other than Calcutta, one more place central to Parekh’s body of work, his style and his aesthetic sensibility: Benares.
When we think of Benares landscapes, Ram Kumar’s name is perhaps the first that springs to mind. Kumar’s Benares paintings are strangely monochromatic and give out a sense of geometric order — both these qualities so unlike the city being portrayed. Yet his landscapes have the power to arrest and yes, silence
“Whenever I talk to someone, they say, please write all these things down! Ashis Nandy once said to me, ‘Write down all these things because otherwise people will forget.’ But I can only narrate. Because I used to do theatre, I am very good at narration. But writing…I don’t think I can be good at that.”
The aim of abstraction in art is to raise painting to the level of music, but in Kumar’s Benares landscapes, for all their inherent musicality, one hears absolutely nothing, for silence is the dominant note struck by these paintings. Manu Parekh’s Benares landscapes, on the other hand, are more like celebrations of colour and noise, much like the city itself. If you ever wish to experience the synesthetic force of shapes and forms, patterns and lines making a sound, if you ever wish to hear a painting speak, you must head to Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art and try to locate Parekh’s 1987 tour de force, Evening in Benares. I have seen the painting many times before. I actually own a disreputably cheap print of it that cost me Rs 75, and even though it felt dishonest and inauthentic to have it mounted in my room (like setting up a Bach ringtone on your phone) I went ahead and got that done. But seeing it at first hand is always a different experience. This is when an artwork’s “aura”, as German philosopher Walter Benjamin believed, is still intact. And the aura of Evening in Benares overpowers the viewer. On a recent visit to the gallery, I again looked at Parekh’s great work — which is one of his two paintings displayed here — from up close.
The impasto sky, orange-brown, is the colour of the setting sun. The water is dark and yet contains a subtle reflection of the solid structures of the temples and boats along the ghats. Inside every temple are these strands, these wisps of bright colours — red, blue, light-green, yellow — indicative of the sacred, of activity and of noise.
After having lived in Delhi for a while and suffered a near breakdown — “I couldn’t paint; I couldn’t even draw” — Parekh decided to “explore” Benares. Though it may suprise some, his favourite painter is Rabindranath Tagore — “I have been saying for years that he is a great painter, and nobody would believe me” — whom he considers the greatest influence on his style. And Tagore’s landscapes were at the back of Parekh’s mind when he first went to Benares in the 1980s.
“I went there to somehow connect with the landscape. My reference point was Rabindranath’s landscapes. And a quote from Souza was in my mind. Souza had said, ‘When I paint landscape, I take a tree from Paris, a church from London, a boat from Amsterdam.’ And like a still-life, he would arrange these elements and create a powerful landscape. I thought the exact reverse of this. My aim was to create an identity for my landscape. That all this, everything I paint, will look like it is from nowhere else but Benaras.”
Even the sky, in this series of paintings, seems to belong to the place it hangs over. Parekh had said in an earlier interview that the sky has been an ancillary presence, a mere backdrop, in European landscape painting. This was something he wanted to change. The sky, according to Parekh’s vision, has to be seen in smooth continuity with the rest of the landscape. Which is exactly what he achieves in Evening in Benares and several other of his fabulous landscapes — each one evoking, like the cycle of ragas in Hindustani classical music, the spirit of a specific time of the day.
When I mentioned the sky in his paintings, Parekh told me about his first visit to Benares and the moment of epiphany he experienced there. “It was evening, and I was travelling from Assi ghat. And suddenly” — a pause here — “it became darker, and the sky became bright. Orange! Red! And all ghats became dark. And from some pockets, the bright light! The sounds of the bells and the aarti. It was a magical thing that I saw.”
By now, Parekh seemed comfortable. Earlier, when we had just settled down to talk, he was too aware that this was supposed to be a formal interaction. As I asked him the first question, easing into it by way of small talk, he straightened himself out, looked at me and said, “So, we’re starting? Is it on?” But later he spoke affably, with flair and authority on subjects like the difference between pattern and form, the secular spirit of all (even religious) art, his long-time wife, Madhvi Parekh (herself a renowned artist) and the artistic discipline of Paul Klee. He sounded like someone who has given careful thought not just to the practice and technique of art, but also to areas generally of peripheral interest to the artist, namely, art theory and art anecdote.
So Parekh sounded quite like an art critic. One who’s extremely entertaining and enlightening to listen to. On borrowing from other artists, for example, he had this to say: “Intentionally, I once put tree on my landscapes. Which is a signature of Tagore’s. And regarding making a clear reference: I don’t care. That way I am totally open. I borrow things and using them I create. Your work should be original in spirit. Not in language. Picasso said: ‘Good painters copy, and great painters steal.’ And Picasso himself was a great thief. He was a total mafia. Honestly, mafia. There’s a story.
Picasso told Francoise Gilot: ‘I will take you to Matisse’s house. Aur Matisse sab paintings ulta karke rakh dega [And Matisse would hide all his paintings]’.”
To quote Picasso in Hindi was indeed a nice touch. But this made me wonder if Parekh had already written, or was planning to write a book of essays and anecdotes. He told me he hadn’t, and no, he wasn’t planning to, which seemed unfair. “But you must write,” I told him. And he asked, “Why?”
“Because we need more people to hear these things you’re saying to me right now.”
He was shaking his head indulgently, when he said, “Whenever I talk to someone, they say, please write all these things down! Ashis Nandy, you know? He’s a good friend. Once he said to me, ‘Write down all these things. People will forget.’ But I can only narrate. Because I used to do theatre, I am very good at narration. But writing… I don’t think I can be good at that.”
Towards the end of our interaction, I apologised for having overstayed my welcome. He had given me twice as much time as I’d been promised. So I switched off the recorder and kept aside my notebook — the journalistic gestures of relinquishing control. But Parekh said, “Oh no. It’s fine. Now I am comfortable.” And he went on to talk at length about how the sexual motifs in Bhupen Khakhar’s art and those in his own paintings are at variance with each other, since they were both such different personalities. Also about the snobbery of the Anglophone art crowd in big cities. “Not being able to speak properly in English was a big thing to us because we were from a village. Only later did we realise that all this does not matter.”
What matters most of all is what survives: and what survives when the gallery spaces are cleared of the art crowd and all the critics are done discussing the significance of image and metaphor in some new-fangled form — what survives at last is the work itself.
Manu Parekh ranks among our greatest artists, and yet his work hasn’t received as much attention and appreciation as it ought to have. But let us subject it to the standards of our most exacting art critic: time. These are paintings that absolutely will stand the test of time, and a hundred or so years from now someone, somewhere will stand before these as I recently did before Evening in Benares —paralysed with wonder, unable to move, while straining to hear the notes that lie behind the colours.