60 Minutes | Art

‘Where I lost Calcutta, I found Banares’: an interview with Manu Parekh

Underlying his work is his relationship to the tangible and sensual body, to land and fertility.   | Photo Credit: V.V. Krishnan

Manu Parekh has just returned from closing the second iteration of his massive retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai. Showcasing 60 years of his practice, with more than 140 works on paper, canvas and his sculptures, the exhibition moved to Ahmedabad last week and goes next to Bengaluru. I meet Parekh in his airy apartment in Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park, and while waiting, I notice stacks of framed photographs, primarily of Madhvi, his partner of 60 years; I hear snatches of fluent Bangla as he gives the staff instructions.

When he comes in, our conversation is fluid, about his movement between places and cultures, his relationships with peers and institutions, his love for theatre and film.

Parekh, born in Ahmedabad in 1939, was betrothed at 12 to Madhvi (nee Madhu), then nine, in a match arranged by their Gandhian parents. After a brief stint at Sheth C.N. Vidyavihar Fine Arts College in Ahmedabad, Parekh moved to Bombay to study at Sir J.J. School of Art. Bombay and J.J. were formative influences in his life; the city in the early ’60s was where a modern Indian art was being created, much of it under the almost mafia-like hold of the Bombay Progressives.

The Parekhs frequented the new galleries and got acquainted with cultural stalwarts ranging from Mohan Samant to Sahir Ludhianvi. It was in Bombay that Parekh also worked with Taarak Mehta and Jaswant Thaker and trained in the Stanislavski system of acting that was in vogue with the Indian People’s Theatre Association then. A keen observer of people and situations, Parekh feels this inherent quality was further developed by working in theatre.

Historical blunder

Parekh’s paintings from his J.J. days reveal the close debt to S.B. Palsikar, borrowing heavily from traditional Rajasthani painting both in subject and form (for eg, ‘The Dancer’, watercolour, 1960). Even as a young artist, Parekh was clear that he did not eschew the idea of influence or the continuity of tradition in art. In the early years he was keen to combine the formal qualities of Indian folk art with the line and rhythm in Paul Klee’s work, and this debt to Klee is clearly seen in his works on paper through till the mid-60s (for eg, ‘The Head of Boy’, 1961).

Unlike the Bombay Progressives, to whom he ascribes the biggest historical blunder in Indian art — the attacking and rejecting of the Bengal School — Parekh is generous in acknowledging the artists who have inspired him — not in a reductive way as formal inspiration, but by what they were attempting to do in their work.

Rabindranath Tagore, Bhupen Khakhar and F.N. Souza come up frequently in our chat — “all three were characters,” he says, “and that is what interests me”. He had already seen Souza’s one-man show before he met him, and it left him “spellbound”; Rabindranath is the only Tagore who is a true artist from Bengal; and for Khakhar, Parekh reserves the highest praise.

It is unusual to come across a veteran artist who evades questions about his own work, instead describing in great and passionate detail the minutiae of others’. And while describing the ’60s and ’70s as the golden age for cultural flowering, he acknowledges the professionalism of the present art world that allows an artist to make a sustainable living and concentrate on her craft full-time.

Craft in Calcutta

Despite theatre and painting being his first loves, Parekh gave up the former when he joined the Weavers’ Service Centre where he was one of several artists (including K.G. Subramanyan and Haku Shah) working on craft and textiles under the mentorship of cultural giant Pupul Jayakar. This work took him to Calcutta for a decade. Here, Parekh found like-minded people, revelled in evening addas and, despite being able to paint only after returning home in the evenings, was perhaps where he was happiest and felt most at home.

Where Bombay was a city for the well-heeled and successful, in Calcutta everyone was struggling like him; he recalls how Mrinal Sen treated them all to tea at a roadside dhaba after winning an award. Parekh was already familiar with Bengal, albeit a Bengal that produced the paintings of Tagore and the films of Ray, which he first saw as a young boy in Ahmedabad with his film-buff father.

The earliest and most lasting memory he has of cinema is of a scene in Apur Sansar — “It was raining in the scene, an alarm rang, the hero woke up, and he switched on a 40 watt bulb. The light that was cast on the wall was exactly 40 watts. And that charcoal black around it, I will never forget! The hero’s vest was torn and dirty. That sort of realism… I was spellbound.” Meeting and becoming friends with Subrata Mitra, the cinematographer who shot that scene, was then nothing short of serendipitous.

For Parekh, the handicraft and handloom sector stands second only to agriculture in terms of its potential to generate rural livelihoods. But extensive travel across rural India made him immune to any romanticisation of what Jayakar termed, in the line of Jiddu Krishnamurti, the ‘Great Tradition’. His work with the Weavers’ Service Centre for 25 years had a lasting impact.

Heaven in a stitch

Parekh explains that the impact was not in an instrumentalist sense, of ‘using’ craft in his work. Among the biggest lessons he learnt was from the discipline of the craftsperson; the idea of repetition, which is looked down upon in Western art histories, he describes in poetic terms: “Through repetition, heaven can be created.” He recalls a field trip with Martand Singh, the late textile expert, looking at zardozi work in a village near Agra. “I observed a craftsperson, sitting for hours, stitching repeatedly — the needle going in and out of the fabric, stitch after stitch. Or, while weaving a carpet, all that one can see is the movement, back and forth, but after six months when the carpet is unfurled, an epic is created. A sort of repetition — where every day is mapped by repeating activities — you begin work in the morning, you bathe, you eat, you rest, you pray, you work… this is halted only at the time of births, deaths and weddings.” Parekh tries to follow this daily discipline in his practice and is scornful of the clichéd idea of ‘inspiration’. He draws his subjects from daily interactions and from observing the world. This translates not into realism but in expressionist explorations of emotive responses to the world. The striking use of colour, of areas of darkness and light, are elements in his paintings across decades, and seen best in his iconic ongoing series on Varanasi (a subject he has now been working on for more than 30 years) and the organic raw paintings that deal with ritual.

Culture of celebration

He describes the city in sensual, cinematic terms — dramatic skies, lights reflecting in the water, the cacophony of temple bells, the thronging multitudes, each a character that adds to the spirit of the city. He discovered Banares when he was suffering from the only crisis in his long practice — when he moved to Delhi, which he found arid compared to Calcutta. Parekh eloquently describes how “where I lost Calcutta, I found Banares.” Coming from a god-fearing, middle-class family, he was attuned to religious places, though not interested in what went on inside religious institutions. He was taken by the culture of celebration that develops in this environment. Surprisingly, he found similarities between Banares and Calcutta in the presence of faith: “There are two Bengals; however much the Left may prevail, they cannot get rid of their connection to Durga; Ramakrishna Paramhansa cannot be dislodged.”

Out of the box

Taking a look at the lavish catalogue, I am struck first by Parekh’s prolific output, and second by the fact that it is impossible to fix him into a particular genre. Even with his mastery over colour and abstraction, his impeccable draughtsmanship is revealed in the snarling animal heads that appear in massive paintings from the mid-90s. His ability to capture likenesses, the inner character he speaks of so eloquently, is seen in a series of portraits of “Francis” (Souza). Another aspect of his work is revealed in the 1981-1990 series titled ‘Man Made Blindness’ that he painted after the Bhagalpur blindings.

Looking at six decades of his work in a single exhibition has been revelatory for Manu Parekh. Today, he feels glad for the choices he made at every stage. Speaking of transformations in his work, he divides it into two phases, one before Calcutta and one after. But underlying all his work is his relationship to the tangible and sensual body, to land and fertility, however these may be expressed.

The writer is an art historian and independent curator. She works as Associate Editor at Marg Publications.

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 9:44:29 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/art/where-i-lost-calcutta-i-found-banares-an-interview-with-manu-parekh/article23850234.ece

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