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By The genius of painter Gieve Patel is on show again at a retrospective of his works, says Aarti Dua
  • Published 6.06.10

I tend to listen to my inner voice, to go where my mind and psyche lead me,” says Gieve Patel. That inner voice hasn’t directed the painter-poet-playwright-doctor to the written word in recent years. But admirers of his art have plenty of cause for delight.

There’s a retrospective of Gieve Patel’s Selected Works from 1971 to 2006, on at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, till June 11. The 70-year-old artist is also working on a solo show at Bose Pacia Gallery in New York next year. Besides he’s crafting words as he translates the 17th century Gujarati mystic poet Akho’s works into English.

Patel’s mark on Indian art and Indian English poetry is hard to ignore. As an artist, he was part of the avant-garde group of practitioners like Bhupen Khakkar and Gulam Mohammed Sheikh who, in the mid-1960s brought a fresh perspective to Indian art with their engagement with the local.

“There was so much richness in the local that we all wanted to explore it,” says Patel, who held his first exhibition at Jehangir Art Gallery in 1966 –— he also published his first collection, Poems, that year –— he was still studying medicine at the time.

“Gieve is unique in the way he’s able to capture the everyday and also the unusual moments and slightly discomforting aspects of life,” says Chemould gallery’s Shireen Gandhy.

The human figure has been a constant in his work, says Patel, both as a specific figure that can be identified with a particular place and the “elemental human form”. In fact, he explored the latter in sculpture too when he first experimented with the medium with his sculptures of Eklavya and Daphne in 2006. But he has also done works devoid of the human form like his series on railway stations in the 1970s or on wells, which has been an enduring motif since 1991.

Patel’s acrylic on canvas Shipbuilding in Mumbai
Courtesy: Osian’s archive collection

The Chemould show encompasses all this with works borrowed from collections like Osian’s and from individual collectors like Jamshyd Sethna and Simone Tata. Patel’s interest in the daily encounters between people, for instance, is evident in The Letter Home, which shows an urban construction worker dictating a letter to a scribe. Or there’s Conference Table with its “dark and ominous silhouettes” of politicians sitting around a table, which is drawn from his series on politicians in the early 1970s.

Patel recalls how he used newspaper photographs of politicians while working on his paintings in the early years. And he continued to use photographs later too — the only thing was he took pictures himself, often asking his patients to “hold it” for a moment while he captured scenes on the bustling street outside his clinic near Bombay Central station.

Shalini H. Sawhney, director, The Guild Art Gallery, who did Patel’s first show of sculptures, says: “Gieve Patel brings to us the forgotten nuances of the personal and social, the empathy that we’ve all pushed into a corner in the rush to be global and competitive.”

As for Patel, he says that he simply drew ordinary and marginalised people “because there are so many of them around”. “But I was not always talking about a dark aspect of people; I also delighted in it because there’s such a richness of human life around us in a city like Bombay,” he says. In the 1980s, for instance, his Gallery of Man series featured marginalised figures like a eunuch or a leper.

An oil on canvas named Looking into a well — Inverted Banana Fronds
Courtesy: Ajai Lakhanpal

Actually, Patel, who likes to work on two to three paintings at a time, says he has enduring interests in terms of subject matter. For instance, there’s “the need to face and record mutilation and death”, which is evident in his poetry too especially in his second collection, How Do You Withstand Body.

“It’s endemic to the human condition. There has never been a single period of history when there was no violence and my way of understanding it is to either write about it or paint it,” says Patel.

Since 1991, Patel has drawn on another enduring motif: wells. “It started simply with recapturing the delight of a boyhood experience of looking into wells. And it continues to enchant me even today,” he says.

Did his fascination for the body, especially its tormented form, stem from his medical experience? “That may only have reinforced a natural predilection,” feels Patel, who stopped practising four years ago.

Do the painting and poetry draw from each other? “They’re both distinct. Sometimes there may be an overlap in subject matter but for me, both these media are sacrosanct and separate,” says Patel. So when he paints, Patel says he doesn’t think about his poetry, and vice versa.

For now, Patel is busy working for his solo show in New York next year. This will include paintings and drawings. He’s continuing with the well series plus he’s working on two sets of drawings.

One set is on clouds. “I think they’re unusual in that I don’t show clouds as a dense mass but rather as things which are in formation and dissolution at the same time,” he says. The other set of drawings is on the human skull.

Chemould’s Shireen Gandhy reckons that Patel’s works don’t hit the art auction stratosphere partly because he has done fewer works. And with few sales, it’s hard to pin a price on them either, although Gandhy reckons they’d range between Rs 20 lakh and Rs 50 lakh.

As for his poetry, Patel’s last work Mirrored, Mirroring came out in 1991. Now, he’s translating 17th century Gujarati poet Akho. “These are six-to-eight-line satirical poems about human folly. They’re like diamonds, which can cut through your skin, and are technically amazing. It’s a challenge to translate them,” he says.

It’s a project he’s been working on for a while now. But he’s in no hurry and hasn’t set any deadlines. “Sometimes a whole year may go by and then I’ll pick it up again.” Till then, he’s happy working on his painting.