In the spring of 1965, the great art scholar Roy C. Craven wrote a short paper chronicling the Indian art scene as it existed in the 1960s. Craven noted how the newly independent country was trying to move away from art works depicting national pride to a new critical sensibility, where international movements like Abstractionism were embraced, but in a peculiarly Indian context. Craven chronicled a slew of artists, obscure then, but regarded as titans now, like M.F. Husain and Vasudeo Gaitonde. Among these names, he incorporated another artist from the 1960s, who, though he has remained under-represented in Indian art exhibitions, is slowly gaining prominence as one of the most original artistic voices. The man is Jeram Patel.
Jeram Patel was born in Gujarat in 1930. He studied art at the Sir J. J. School of Art in Mumbai, then travelled to England and France in 1957-59 and later to Japan in 1961. These travels refined his artistic sensibilities.
Craven notes that Jeram Patel “speaks very softly. One must listen carefully, not just because the voice is quiet but because the thoughts expressed are complex. Jeram is a thoughtful man with a sense of humour. And his works are like the man.” Craven’s description of this great artist stands in sharp contrast to painter and photographer Richard Bartholomew’s more famous one, describing Patel as a ‘lone wolf.’ When Patel passed away on January 18, his colleague and one of the members of the Group 1890, which Jeram helped found in the 1960s, Gulammohammed Sheikh, wrote in his obituary that Patel was a “reticent man, tormented, burning with an inner fire and almost always tense, sometimes to the point of being aggressive.” These somewhat conflicting views have, however, one thing in common. They all highlight one very important aspect of Jeram Patel’s works: interiority.
Whether it’s his famous ‘Hospital Series’, or his iconic black strokes on canvas, with, at times, only a hint of colour lurking underneath the monstrosity of the monochrome, they all reveal Patel’s fascination with the hidden, the interior. And this interior is, many a time, not a pleasant place. In Patel’s hands, the space of the interior, becomes a theatre of violence. Gradually, Patel began focusing on large black strokes and his signature style of using a blowtorch on wood to create intricate patterns.
These large strokes on canvas almost give the impression of a Rorschach ink blot. when seen from a distance, they appear as if to move from one canvas to the other, as if what we are witnessing is not painting, but drama. We can almost sense the primeval idea of violence and savagery that Patel was driving at, a violence that lurks underneath a calm exterior. In the 1900s, the great anthropologist Sir James Fraser, noted in his book, The Golden Bough, how every great civilisation hides within its rational self, a primeval devotion to savagery. Looking at Patel’s mighty oeuvre, it feels as if he was enacting that on canvas and on wood.
Roobina Kharode, director and chief curator, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, which is presently showcasing Patel’s first-ever retrospective, remembers him from her time at the M.S. University of Baroda, as being aloof, someone who always stayed in his world. “I found Patel to be someone who was not receptive to the outside world, inaccessible, withdrawn, a man who was content straying unto himself,” she reminisces. However, the complexity of Patel is illustrated in a curious anecdote that Kharode recounts. Around 2006, when she was curating an exhibition for the Delhi Art Gallery, on the theme of the line, she had written a letter to Patel asking him to share his famous Hospital Series. “After that letter, I received no reply, and I thought he didn’t want to respond. But then one day, he arrived in Delhi himself, carrying a suitcase that contained his works, and he walked up to me and offered them, telling me that since I wanted them for the exhibition, I should have them. Just like that.”
For the Kiran Nadar Museum, the retrospective on Jeram Patel forms the last part of the trilogy on the Group 1890, to which Jeram belonged. They had earlier held exhibitions on the works of Nasreen Mohamedi and Himmat Shah, two of Patel’s colleagues from the 1890. In September, 2014, the museum bought 230 of Patel’s art works for a whopping six crores. Around 180 of these works are on display at the museum.
While the group of the Bombay Progressives, comprising of such luminaries like M.F. Husain and S.H. Raza, dominated the Indian art world, the Group 1890 gave a quiet challenge to their dominance. The group held their first, and last exhibition together, at the Lalit Kala Academy Gallery in 1963, which was inaugurated by Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru. The group’s catalogue essay was written by the great writer, Octavio Paz, who was then the Ambassador of Mexico to India. In reality, ‘1890’ was the house number of Jayant Pandya, one of the group’s members and a very close friend of Jeram Patel.
Sheikh notes in his obituary of Patel and published in Art India, of how Patel would use the blowtorch like a brush on the body of the wood, through the whole act it looked as though “his hand was groping the surface of the wood with a finger of fire. The ritual lasted over an hour. When he had burnt enough, the wood, denuded of its outer shell looked transformed into a dark ‘beauty.’” For Sheikh, the violence in the works of Patel stemmed primarily from the violence he saw in the 1960s and the 1970s. In his later works, one can see Patel taking his existential rage to a newer, more sublime level, in works on wood that dealt with beautiful labyrinthine patterns, but from where escape is futile.
Sheikh notes that Patel was married and had a son, but that he was estranged from his family from early on. Before he died, Patel bequeathed his entire work and his property to his caretaker, Dahya Marwadi, a curious detail that highlights both his iconoclastic nature, and the loneliness he must have felt during the last years of his life.
Looking at the photographs of his younger self, one can is almost taken in by the sheer magnetism, the raw charm and the animal spirit that these photos exude. It’s the same spirit that now hangs, as lonesome as the man, over his art works.
The writer is a doctoral fellow in the Dept. of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, and a freelance journalist. He writes on culture.
What: Jeram Patel (1930-2016) A Retrospective
Where: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, DLF South Court Mall, Saket, New Delhi
Nearest metro station: Malviya Nagar
When: Till 20 December, 10.30 am to 6.30 pm (closed on Monday)