Gieve Patel inaugurated a new lecture series on the journeys taken by artists

Writer-artist Gieve Patel’s lifelong fascination with people of the Warli tribe began in his grandfather’s estate. Warli adivasis worked on the estate, and when Patel, as a young man in his 20s, would try to interact with them, he would be discouraged, because they were from another caste. In an early poem, Grandfather, he attempts to sort out this puzzle – why does his kindly grandfather discourage him to mix with the ‘others’?

Patel chose to highlight that in the poem — he refers to the Warlis as ‘peasantry’, not ‘tribals’. This is because he was reading Tolstoy at the time. “This is how literature affects one’s life,” Patel said. “Had I not been reading Tolstoy, I wouldn’t have had such a close connection to the issue. To me, they were Tolstoy’s peasants.”

He was speaking at the inaugural edition of ‘Creative Journeys’, a new series of talks organised by Toto Funds the Arts that hopes to bring together a mix of established and young artists. Gieve Patel was a good choice because he has produced “exceptional work in three artistic mediums,” noted Anmol Vellani.

Patel subscribes to the ‘mystical’ view of poetry and artistic inspiration; for instance, he won’t go into the specifics of exactly what a poem or a painting means, or even what he was thinking when he produced it. For him, the dance between ignorance and knowledge is important to produce creative work. “An artist can move from ignorance towards some knowledge through art,” he said.

Growing older, then, produced a unique challenge – that the sense of puzzlement would vanish. So he had to look in new places each time for mystery.

During his time in busy Mumbai, Patel began to miss the sense of mystery — the urge he terms ‘xenophilia’, or a love of the foreign.

So he then turned his gaze to migrants, those who left behind the rural to enter urban life. In one poem about migrants, he dramatises the single moment of migrants entering the city. To Patel’s eyes, they were “from peasant stock”, “sit without thought/like animals”. “It was a voyeuristic curiosity,” he acknowledged.

Patel chose another work to explore his continued preoccupation with the tribal, especially the male tribal body. In his play Mr Behram, Naval, a Warli boy, has been taken into a non-tribal home by Mr. Behram and raised as an urbanite. One monologue has Mr. Behram rhapsodize about the male tribal body, its “secrets” and its tint (“generations of sun have coloured their body,” goes one line).

The speaker’s background as a doctor found its way into his work in the form of a series of paintings on violent deaths: here, despite the unabashedly gory nature of the scene — a drowning or a road accident, for instance — there is some redeeming value, some dignity and peace to be found in the depiction. “How does an artist confront human suffering? This is the question for all artists, and human beings,” Patel said.

Another form his art took was reimagining a familiar image – such as clouds. Patel has harboured a love of clouds for as long as he can remember. In paintings, clouds are typically represented as continuous creatures, with ‘mass’; they are represented typically using paintbrushes, rather than other tools.

When he set out to draw them, Patel chose to use pens and pencils. These tools produced discrete, strange new possibilities for the ubiquitous clouds.

Patel’s clouds aren’t fluffy or pleasant, like the ones we all grew up painting in school; they crackle with electricity. There is a violence to his representation; for Patel, this was a way to move beyond merely loving them. By drawing them in this new manner, he acquired them, claimed ownership, he explained. This was another form of his artistic exploration.

The format of these talks is exciting: to some extent, we get to breach the wall of privacy, and peek into the creative process. This might allow us insights into our own creative possibilities.