An artists’ meet: Manu Parekh in conversation with Rajeev Lochan
“I work like an actor: I remain the same actor, but perform and create situations within a different role”, says painter Manu Parekh. This oft referenced statement by Parekh succinctly summarises his approach to life and work.
Parekh has had an interesting life marked with varied contrasting experiences and journeys. Several people, places and genres have inspired and influenced his work. He is not shy about acknowledging these sources of influence. His 60-year-old creative journey bears ample testimony to this fact.
A transition from one approach to another, one language to another, is evident in his large body of work. What only a few know is that Parekh has acted on stage and this experience has influenced the form of his paintings and their underlying ‘shifts.’ “When I paint faces now, I don’t paint a face, I paint expressions. But when I paint an expression, I’m actually painting a situation,” says Parekh in a freewheeling conversation at his residence in south Delhi with this writer. His creative energies have thus been spent in search of a personal language.
Parekh was born in 1939 in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Being brought up in a Gujarati household and community provided a specific cultural setting which he overlaid with other cultural influences through his travels in India and abroad. This resulted in a melting pot of ideas and concepts, visible to us in his works. Traditional and contemporary influences come together as a result of this cross-pollination.
After his stint with theatre, Parekh joined the Weavers Service Centre under the guidance of the cultural stalwart Pupul Jayakar. Inducting practising artists in cultural organisations was an experiment adopted by Jayakar and it proved to be extremely fulfilling for both sides. “I travelled across India’s villages with her. To know yourself, you have to experience other cultures,” says Parekh.
Mukund Shroff, his first teacher, was instrumental in initiating Parekh into the field of art. Two other important artists of Ahmedabad -- Rasik Lal Parekh and Kanu Desai -- also influenced his early work. He went to CN College which initiated his academic and Indianised approach to art education. Thereafter, he pursued a diploma course from the Sir JJ School of Art. JM Aiwasi who remained a mentor to many an artist of that period, including SB Palsikar, the dean of JJ School of Art, and the likes of Gaitonde and Raza, provided a new vision and direction to the artistic movement of that time. Palsikar, Parekh’s mentor, exposed him to the world of miniature paintings and introduced him to works of artists like Paul Klee which provided a new impetus to the aspiring artist. This prompted Parekh to straddle seemingly opposing and diverse creative approaches and to synthesise them to suit his individual artistic sensibility. “Palsikar was a genius teacher. His contribution to this new search for an individual and personal visual language has unfortunately not been given its due,” says Parekh.
Parekh’s contemporaries included noted modernists like Prabhakar Barwe, Laxman Shreshtha, Jatin Das and Mansaram, who were also responsible for the cross-pollination of expressionistic representation and abstraction. The approach adapted by Bauhaus of which Paul Klee was an integral part remained an important influence in the approach to art education of that time.
Parekh’s visits to the movie theatre with his father during his childhood are deeply embedded in his memory. The influence of popular culture is quite prominent in his language. Parekh nursed a great interest in theatre and set designing. His tryst with theatre is testimony to the dramatic imagery most vivid in his Banaras series. Vivid colours and prominent lines and his insight into the human soul that is shaped by its interaction with nature, were a result of an ongoing fascination with the city of Banaras.
What Banaras means to Parekh
This city was, for him, an everlasting source of inspiration. Says Parekh: “The drama of life, both mundane and sublime, is played out daily on the teeming ghats and the narrow lanes of one of the world’s oldest living cities… In its many-layered, thickly textured reality, all contradictions are resolved. The city of light is a vast, crowded landscape where I don’t feel small, I become part of the universe; I become vast, yet humble. The days run but I become still.”
Akin to a theatre performance, Parekh’s works require time and commitment from the viewer before they can start revealing themselves. This unique idiom of visual drama is contained within layers in his works.
Bhaskar Kulkarni, an artist who was truly responsible for bringing Madhubani paintings into prominence, also had a considerable influence on Parekh. Parekh, thereafter, worked on an important project showcasing and popularising ‘Harijan Kalaakar’ . This exposure made his more sensitive towards this often neglected section of society. The Bhagalpur blindings had a deep impact on Parekh who portrayed this agony in a series of expressionistic paintings that reveal his humanistic approach to life. He intelligently used this agony and pathos transforming it into art.
Vernacular culture and language is evident in many of his works. Even so, one also sees influences of master artists like Pablo Picasso. Parekh observes sexuality and sensuality in organic life and marks the thin lines differentiating them. This is evident in his paintings of flowers.
The experience of viewing Parekh’s works is like riding an emotional roller coaster, an experience that is sure to nudge viewers to observe their immediate surroundings more closely. His works successfully shatter the unidimensionality of everyday life and surroundings that we often find ourselves caught up in.
Dr Rajeev Lochan is former director, National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi
What: ‘Manu Parekh: 60 years of Selected Works’
When: August 26-September 24, 10 am-5 pm
Where: NGMA, Jaipur House, India Gate
Nearest metro station: Khan Market