Manu Parekh's canvasses: A retrospective spanning 60 years of the artist's work highlights his vitality
Sixty years of Manu Parekh’s work are part of a retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi. Also published recently is a collection of his works through Aleph Books
There must be a handful of jokes within the arts fraternity about ‘range’ — as there are with acting. One often tends to equate it with quality, and greatness then becomes a word almost stitched into the lexicon of arts.
What might greatness be in art? It is subjective of course. What might vitality be in art? Manu Parekh and his like are probably the answer. Sixty years of Parekh’s work are part of a retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), in Delhi. Also published recently is a collection of his works through Aleph Books. Put together, the two present a humbling experience of Parekh’s relentlessness — that is also his craft.
Parekh is the first to admit that he has always been a doer. “When I was in Class Four, I knew I wanted to paint. I used to draw on the blackboard and children copied it in class... right from my first days in municipal school in Ahmadabad. At that time it was just drawing, simple things. I have been very lucky to have great mentors at every stage in my life. They taught by doing it themselves. I think the way art is taught today, has changed,” he says.
Parekh’s early works are clearly influenced by Picasso and he has a personal favourite in Paul Klee. There is an early expressionist tilt, but it seems hedged behind the need for identity. Mostly done in water colour, these are minor works, though they show an artist at hand with experimentation. "I think the art of today is nauseatingly preceded by concepts and discussions. There is perhaps an influence of technology too. Our time was all about training and more training. I’m not saying there is necessarily anything wrong with it. But there aren’t as many doers,” Parekh says.
He has a point. Most artists today are invested in mining the potential of cultural theory than getting their hands dirty — with work of course. Sometimes, a man with as simple an approach as Parekh, can, even if ironically, freshen things.
Throughout Parekh’s 60 years of work — he continues to paint and teach students even today — there has been a singular obsession; that with the human expression. Interestingly, none of Parekh’s works ever refer to it directly in their titles. “I think the human expression is the sum of it all. In a country like ours, everything we are and do eventually arrives on the face. I think nothing speaks more clearly than the facial expression. The face really is a situation,” he says. His most striking collection is the series called ‘Heads’. Visceral, nightmarish, these are faces that are hardly lighted, shining through the obliqueness of dark oil, and effecting in the way canvases rarely are. These are huge and have to be seen up close to be felt. ‘Feel’ is a key word here, because Parekh’s process and subjects hardly mine concepts the way modern art does. They are simply experiences.
The question of range arises with Parekh and not just in his artwork. Parekh has been a theatre actor, he has worked with textiles and has travelled extensively throughout India. "Kolkata will always be close to me. When I moved to Delhi, I was looking for something. A place that could inspire me the way Kolkata had for years. And then I found Banaras (Varanasi),” he says. Parekh’s re-imagination of Varanasi through a large chunk of his paintings is unparalleled. And his language has clearly evolved from his experience in theatre. “Banaras had the human energy of Kolkata. But it had a vitality of its own. I learned so much from working with local textile artisans in the villages. I think the combination of Banaras and this rural etiquette that is unique to India has shaped my work for the last couple of decades. Banaras to me is like this organic theatre. So much to see and experience,” he says. The way Parekh uses contrast and brightness to give the effect of light points to the way lighting is done in theatre. Varanasi for him exists on a stage, sort of.
Parekh’s subjects are varied as well. In still life, the regularity with which the phallus appears underlines the irony at work. The collection, of course, features his series on the Bhagalpur blindings — a dark and damning critique of the human condition through the expression alone. Then there is his recent, mammoth creation that took him three months to paint — 'The Last Supper'. Even in his 70s, Parekh has ambition and a virtuosity that comes from function rather than the fiction surrounding his ideas. What has shaped his sensibility most has been personal experience, of art, of theatre, of the world as theatre. “I remember this quote that I often use to explain my work — when I paint a head, I’m not really painting a head, I’m painting an expression. And when I paint an expression, I’m actually painting a situation,” he says. Parekh’s situations are nuanced and are executed through the mechanisms of a stage and the faces that act out on it. Though his techniques may be inspired, his effect is thoroughly native. An effect that will leave you holding an expression of your own, one that Manu Parekh can turn into a horrendously glorious piece of art.
Photos Courtesy: Aleph Book Publishing
Manu Parekh: 60 years of Selected Works — A retrospective is on at NGMA, Delhi
Manu Parekh: 60 years of Selected Works has been published by Aleph