Modernist flashback: Tour 60 years of Manu Parekh’s art in a Mumbai show
“Manubhai’s paintings aren’t just visually powerful. Their depth also evokes your sense of smell and touch,” says Adwaita Gadanayak, director general of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA). He’s referring to the artist Manu Parekh’s vivid imagery, which can range from anguished faces to chaotic but radiant scenes of Varanasi to a still life of a flower vase.
The NGMA is set to host a retrospective titled Manu Parekh: 60 Years of Selected Works, featuring 146 paintings and sculptures as well as four sketchbooks containing numerous drawings by the 79-year-old modernist, all drawn from across his six-decade career. “The drawings are interesting because he would sketch directly with his paintbrush,” says Gadanayak.
The show is being presented by Gallery Art & Soul. “The exhibition is special because it gives me a chance to reflect on my entire body of work,” says the Delhi-based artist.
Manubhai the actor
The sense of drama in Parekh’s bold, definitive brushstrokes and expressive portraits comes from his background in theatre. Between the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Ahmedabad-born artist participated in inter-college drama competitions, designed sets and acted in plays. “My first director was [the Gujarati playwright] Taarak Mehta,” Parekh says.
Rural India shaped his art
In 1963, just after he got his diploma in Drawing and Painting from Mumbai’s JJ School of Art, Parekh joined the Weavers’ Service Centre, an initiative of the All India Handloom Board led by renowned cultural activist Pupul Jayakar.
Working as an art designer, he travelled to rural Orissa, Rajasthan and Haryana to document traditional crafts like Ikat and Madhubani. This experience impacted his early works. “Most of the weavers I met were agriculturists,” Parekh says. “The themes of fertility and nature in my works are derived from my experiences in these villages.”
Look, it’s Varanasi
Kolkata was Parekh’s muse for the 10 years that he lived in that city (1965 – 75). But his fascination with the pilgrim city of Varanasi has spanned three decades. He first visited it in the 1980s, and it inspired a large body of works nicknamed the Banaras series. In them, he paints teeming ghats and temple spires set against the orange hues of sunsets and cobalt blue skies. “Till date, I’m not bored of painting a Banaras landscape,” he says. “It’s a city full of energy where you can witness life and death together.”
Back in time
Remember the Bhagalpur Blindings of 1980, when the police poured acid in the eyes of 31 undertrials in Bihar? At the show, you’ll discover how the incident impacted Parekh. He painted a series of portraits that depict anguished faces in stark reds, blacks and greys. “I’m not a political painter,” he says. “I just wanted to express the pain of violence inflicted on a human being by another human.” Manubhai is inherently a painter among the people, says Sumesh Sharma, curator and co-founder of the Clark House Initiative, who has penned the artist note for the exhibition. “He is a keen observer and presents varied emotions -- ones that can signify oblation, celebration or suffering. Each of them demonstrates his connect with the people he paints for.”
Wait, is that The Last Supper?
The artist’s monumental 32-ft-long painting, Heads (2017) will also be on display. It features 13 faces, each with a different expression, and is reminiscent of Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. “It’s my biggest painting so far and took four months to make,” says Parekh.
He was inspired to create it after seeing his wife, artist Madhvi Parekh’s, rendition of The Last Supper in 2011. “The painting signifies the theatrical dimension of my work,” he adds. “When creating it, I felt I was casting 13 actors in a play. I painted each portrait separately and then assembled the panels. It was an interesting experience.”