A SECULAR CANVAS

Review by Georgina Maddox
September 15, 2017

 

Manu Parekh: 60 years of Selected Works
August 26-September 24, 2017
NGMA Delhi and Ministry of Culture, Govt of India.

By Georgina Maddox

The ongoing solo exhibition featuring artist Manu Parekh artwork over six decades, at the National Gallery of Modern Art,showcased the work of an important modernist known mostly for his remarkable work related to the spiritual landscape of Varanasi. However, there is much more to this artist’s oeuvre and this exhibition presented a selection of works that allowed one to see other aspects of his artistic journey. Titled Manu Parekh: 60 years of Selected Works, the exhibition premiered the art season in the Capital. “In India, the most interesting thing for me is the Indian mind. One learns about other cultures from popular and niche cinema, from craft and theatre,” says Parekh, 77, about his influences that led him to paint. While he loved theatre, he chose painting over it because he saw a longevityin the act of painting that was perhaps saw lacking in theatre.

Interestingly the exhibition was not displayed in a liner manner. While it demanded better annotation, since those unfamiliar with his work were left grasping at straws, one could see the exhibition divided into some broad categories. There were the early works dating between 1950s to 1960s, inspired by Paul Klee and folk art. This period Parekh was working mainly in small format. The next phase that one spots is his early canvases that deal with germination and organic forms. This period closely resembles the experiments with Tantric art undertaken by K.C.S.Pannikar and the Madras School. Though the works are marked by Parekh’s indelible predilection for a bright palette. After this brief period of the 1970s what may be termed as his Neo-Tantric paintings, Parekh underwent what he calls his ‘dark period’. This period emerged from his experience in Kolkata; “I was attracted to the darkness that the city offered, because it was so intense and artistic on one level and so dark and full of poverty on the other. It was like living in a dingy box that had big windows to look out of,” says Parekh. “Going to Bengal in my mid-twenties gave me an opportunity to mature,” he adds.

The works that followed his sojourn in Bengal, did not speak of this darkness that he encountered. Rather these were formalist studies where Parekh was exploring various aspects of line and colour. One could see the dark subtext fully matured in the 1980s with works, Old man and Dying Horse (1980s-81), Manmade BlindnessIV, V and XXV, (1981) and Lost Horizon (1990). Those even vaguely familiar with art would have heard of Parekh’s strong works that reference the Bhagalpur Blinding, a heinous act where members of the police force blinded 31 individuals under trial (or convicted criminals, according to a few versions) by pouring acid into their eyes. The act was condemned by various human rights groups and of course the artist took a strong stand on the matter. The theme of violence repeats itself in Graffiti of Violence (1995), where Parekh imitates the street graffiti that he was exposed to during a trip to Africa.

One often wonders what Parekh’s work would have been like had he continued along this trajectory. However, another shift takes place in the artist’s work and life. He visited Banaras in Varanasi and is moved by the overstimulation of the city, its busy lanes, shrines and ghats. He continues to visit for pilgrimage and for studying the space. “It is the only place where one can see birth, life and death unfold in the same space,” says Parekh. It is true that while one sees a thread tying ceremony on the banks of the mighty Ganga. What emerged after that was the Banaras series of landscapes that captured temples on the edge of the river bank, glowing with fairy lights as dusk was falling. Or at high noon when the temples cast interesting shadows and finally in the soft light of the early morning. Parekh’s landscapes have a peculiar tension within them, as if a force appears to hold it taught from the left and the right. The works are highly symbolic and Parekh believes, “The spiritual ambience of the town moves me. It is full of religious and cultural nuances.”

It is important to note that Parekh’s fascination with religion is not restricted to the Hindu faith. His sculpture Christ(2014) created from found objects is most indicative of this, as is his Last Supper(2017), which comprise of a set of 13 individual portraits arranged together to make one large (48x 33 inches) work. Interestingly Parekh’s Christ is an embodiment of the Neo-Tantric iconography, with the inlay eyes that one often sees upon Goddesses, used innovatively. His icons are truly secular as they speak of an amalgamation of iconography. Recurring portraits of F.N. Souza also indicate that he perhaps drew from the late Progressive’s fascination with Christianity. In the Last Supper, one is left wondering though. If the disciples are his friends from the theatre fraternity, who is Christ?