Images of survival and transcendence
In his recent oils and acrylic paintings, currently on show in New Delhi, Gieve Patel offers us a range of survivors from the margins of metropolitan life. A review by RANJIT HOSKOTE.
"The Letter Home", acrylic on canvas, 2002.
GIEVE PATEL belongs to that avant-garde grouping of artists based in Bombay and Baroda, who substantially altered the trajectory of post-colonial Indian art in the mid-1960s. Positioning themselves against the modernist sublime of the Schools of Paris and New York favoured by their immediate predecessors, they emphasised a politically engaged awareness of locality.
Deploying combinations of ironic autobiography, everyday observation and ludic fantasia, they conveyed the textures of the here-and-now, replete with the realities of labour, gender inequality, alternative sexual preference and the grotesque. Within this new spectrum of possibilities, Patel chose to focus on the streetscapes of daily life, as occupied by the marginal figure in various avatars, whether proletarian (as in his series of railway porters of the 1970s) or immiserated and destitute (as in his ironically titled "Gallery of Man" series that unfolded, through the 1980s, as a dedication to victimage, featuring, among others, a eunuch, a drowned woman and a leper). In recent years, even as he has pursued this lexicon of subaltern figures expressionistically rendered in homage to suffering and fortitude Patel has allowed himself a glimpse of transcendence, through the recurrent motif of the changing and magical reflections held by a deep well.
"Looking into a Well: Full Moon", acrylic on canvas, 2001.
In his recent oils and acrylic paintings, executed during the last three years and currently on show at the Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, (having earlier been exhibited at Gallery Chemould, Mumbai), Patel offers us a range of survivors from the margins of metropolitan life: a madman in the street; a man in the rain; a scribe writing a letter for a labourer. Under Patel's gaze, they emerge from their marginality to command our attention as vital presences: occupying public space though they do, their acts lie in an intermediate zone between privacy and the public, isolation and society. The protocols of the urban are shown to manifest themselves in the rural; the reflexes of the rural are presented as persisting within the urban. While these works exemplify Patel's practice of working in subject-based series they trace their genealogy to his "Gallery of Man" such recursion also marks the artist's long-standing commitment to the exploration of specific formal problems of representation. From these imperatives spring the iconographies and situations that animate this suite: the large sitting figure, the figure standing with its arms akimbo, the man lost in a downpour.
jThe eponymous "Man in the Rain with Bread and Bananas" (oil, 2001), for instance, makes his fourth appearance in Patel's oeuvre here. He is a membrane between isolation and society, this man who crouches beneath his umbrella, navigating by guesswork in a pitiless storm that, having engulfed houses, streets and gutters, has deprived him of his bearings. The vestiges of buildings loom up through the downpour, but the man battling the torrent, with visibility reduced to the edge of his umbrella, is excluded from their roofed warmth and terraced shelter. He is left in the deluged street, gripping his means of subsistence as he tests the road, a metropolitan Lear in the peculiarly public solitude of this contemporary heath.
"Man in the Rain with Bread and Bananas", oil on canvas, 2001.
"The Letter Home" (acrylic, 2002) is dominated by the figure of a scribe, that god of literary skills who writes letters for illiterate migrant workers in the city. The pejorative description, "unlettered", takes on a dual nuance in this context, for the relationship between the scribe and his client is an unequal one, with authority weighted over against vulnerability. The scribe sits on a coir mat, confident, cloud-large in his cerulean kurta and dark-blue lungi; his more compactly built and modestly clothed client sits beside him, waiting upon his pauses, apparently dictating, but in fact dictated to. We remark upon the difference in posture and gesture, the bodies speaking more eloquently than their implied words; they sit in the shadow of a wall whose patterned surface appears to symbolise their thoughts. The script tells us that the letter is being composed in Telugu; Patel's bold decision to use a Dravidian script, rather than the Roman or Devanagari scripts to which his primary viewership in western India is more accustomed, stems from several cogent reasons. While enjoying the curlicued script as an aesthetic delight for its own sake, Patel also makes a subtle political point by acknowledging the province of Andhra Pradesh, which provides Bombay with large numbers of the construction workers who sustain its manic programme of urban development.
In his paintings of wells, Patel shifts into a freer, more lyrical and even abstractionist gear: mirror and womb, archetypal world-navel and tunnel into inner space, the well is a site of revelation for Patel; we look over its ledge into a vision of the cosmic, held in counterpoint by a miniature geography of stone, root and slime. This general account must not lead us to regard the "Wells" series as being either idyllic or generic: each well is distinctive, animated, disturbing, and no less a portrait for portraying an object rather than a human being. "Looking into a Well: Full Moon" (acrylic, 2001) is a nocturne: a waxy moon commands a starless sky above a well-head; but "Looking into a Well: Foliage" (acrylic, 2002) invites us, not to gaze into the traditional well, but to consider the surface of an Artesian well, its shaft bored deep into the earth; an irrigation pipe, installed to siphon water into the fields, strikes a severe note, its geometry at odds with the luxuriance of the rest of the painting, the gleam of light on moss and palm fronds, the roots striking up from the ground.
Gieve Patel's art is an ongoing attempt to reconcile a sensuously apprehended and cherished particularity with an implied universal that stands beyond the incarnate particularity of forms. His achievement is to have addressed himself to this reconciliation, not through the quasi-mystical devices of symbolism, but through the most tangible instruments of the painter's craft: through image and gesture, and by way of the stringently practical problems of how best to paint water, stone, sky, and the survivor deformed by crisis.
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