The man who played with fire: Jeram Patel retrospective reveals how he played with the language of art

At the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), there is a sombreness tiled with a quest to define someone who, both as a person and as an artist has remained elusive to that definition. Jeram Patel was many things, a quiet reticent man, a woman’s dream (as many of his friends often claimed) and an artist who, in the risks he took, often achieved the inimical in art to the art in the ordinary. Patel, who died earlier this year, in the midst of planning for the retrospective that now gives him his due, was a risk-taking, existential experimentalist to whom the definition of art began not at creation, but at the destruction of things. This being Patel’s first retrospective, in the wake of his death, all the more establishes him as a man much more layered and complicated than previously considered. At least 180 works by Patel, spanning at least five decades showcase a talent underlined by a complexity that he cared not to reason for, but start a conversation with.

 The man who played with fire: Jeram Patel retrospective reveals how he played with the language of art

File image of Jeram Patel. Getty

The sombreness mentioned above owes to the reason that Patel himself was a quiet, reclusive man. His obsession with the colour black is well documented, and such was his interaction with the colour, in the particle form at least, that in his latter days of his life Patel refused to sleep with the lights switched off wherever he stayed. Consequently, everything Patel did was deconstructive, or in most cases destructive. Admittedly, unable to agree with the idea of creation, that anything could be created, Patel believed that it was only in destroying established synonyms that you could find something of a singularity, at least in art. Patel through the years experimented with a number of forms. His formative years, encased in this particular curation, right in the middle, show a man imagining the world through figurative, scale-free paintings. Inspired by miniature traditions, this is the work that probably least resembles the inner churnings Patel was about to undergo during the 60s.

The Blowtorch on wood method that Patel learned in Japan, and then pioneered in India, has for long prefixed his oeuvre. Here it is carefully siphoned into different sections, revealing a man amorously treating wood like a being. Of course, the value attached to the outcome is debatable. While reading about the method is like the catholicisation of language. Although it sounds starkly in contrast with street chatter and has earned its richness in some way, it still accounts for the same purpose – that of communication. Is one then in any way, better than the other? Therein lies an existential question in itself. To which Patel, as mentioned earlier, never sought the answer. His work, it seems, only portends what has always identified the way that batters the shore with a sea of questions – in this context it is about what is art?

Untitled by Jeram Patel

Untitled (Blowtorch & burnt wood) by Jeram Patel

To understand Patel’s oeuvre it is perhaps also necessary to partake in the possibilities. Patel’s hand was masterly as figurative drawings from an early stage. He still chose to go the way of experimenting, not only with the form, but also with mediums. The majority of his work which has been done with Chinese ink and fairly resembles a large blot of ink on paper from a distance, which is merely the outlook of a much deeper, empathetic unravelling. At first glance, these are just abstract shapes, with the colour black haranguing the margins for space and significance. It is, as is mentioned in passing in one of the referencing texts at the exhibit, like watching the world through the eye of an unborn child in the womb. A composite reality of that which cannot be seen or felt, but is definitely there. These globules of ink, as they seem, when put together, as they are in one instance, on a wall at the museum represent a chrysalis of matter, or that of thought in itself. What if darkness was purely our imagination, would the imagination then resolve to a shape?

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Jeram Patel's Hospital series (Brush, crow quill and ink on paper)

Being the abstractionist as Patel was, interpretation was an open-ended, almost endless channel. While there is no end to the channel, there is, for sure, a beginning and it leads from Patel’s works. The problem, in often interpreting art is that it conforms to experience. Our experience only allows us to relate to shapes and geometry, therefore reducing the abstract to absurd. Trying to make sense of things that only be coerced by a pre-informed vision is rather difficult. Creating that interference is perhaps, what an abstractionist like Patel can do; and that he manages it, is in itself some accomplishment. A large number of Patel’s works are merely that, the interference. The blurring of the lines between what is uniform and what isn’t; which can only beg you to question your own inability to perceive something for what it isn’t. In that sense, Patel’s ink paintings, his blowtorch experiments are merely a conversation with you, one that he probably wanted the audience to have.

In between all abstract works, is perhaps, Patel’s most absorbing creation; his Hospital series, which comprises of a number of works done in crow quill on paper, is the livery of death, disease and despair. Harrowing, and at times even disturbing, these drawings subtend from context to creation via the ethos of a hospital. There are bodies, burials and horrifying intestinal visions that arrest and are repugnant in a collateral sense.

Hospital series

Jeram Patel's Hospital series (Crow quill & ink on handmade paper pasted on)

The strokes and lines, meld into each other as form gives way to a kind of fluidity. Patel draws with great care, finesse, yet a recklessness that is true to a mind stormed by the idea of abstracting death in a way that quells the existential storm at the heart of the creator. Here the conversation is largely one-sided, perhaps even personal. It is also the hint of figure and form, of recognisable objects and tools all modelling death into a narrative, that acutely arresting. As an abstractionist, Patel’s works command a range and a mysterious property that invites a well-deserved debate over their value. His to-form works and his existentialist oeuvre is further specified by his careful yet disturbing Hospital series. As a whole, in this his first retrospective, Patel arrives, even though posthumously, as an ultimate experimenter, an enigmatic explorer, and as critic Richard Bartholomew once called him a “lone wolf”.

The Dark Loam: Between Memory and Membrane is on at the Kiran Nadar Museum

Updated Date: Dec 17, 2016 10:59:14 IST