Painter Manu Parekh sits back and looks at his exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, and exclaims, “I don’t know about others, but I really enjoy looking at three to four decades of my work in one place!” Sixty years of work together under one roof put together within three months is not a small feat for anyone one in the art world to organize, but Manu Parekh has pulled it off with élan. The exhibition ranges from delicate sketches and drawings dating back to the 1950s and 60s, to paintings like the Last Supper painted as recently as 2017, the depth and breadth of the show is immense. What flows through the exhibition like a recurring force is his love and compassion for humanity.
“I would begin my journey into the arts with my experience in Kolkata. As a young artist, I was very influenced by the writings and paintings of Rabindranath Tagore. I have always love Bengali cinema and theatre and these are huge influences on my life and work,” says the 77-year-old artist who is now based in New Delhi. An extremely humble and homely artist, Parkeh carries around a box filled with dried fruit and dips into it during our interview to ‘keep up his strength’. Born in Gujarat he loves his wholesome Chaas and Dhokla more than the spicy and oily Chole Bhature of New Delhi.
In fact, one can only marvel at the simplicity of this well-travelled artist who draws his experience from across the nation and even outside its shores. Parekh began his artistic journey with his Diploma in painting and drawing at the Sir J J School of Art, in 1962. He went on to study on his own at Santiniketan, Kala Bhavan, where he absorbed the works of Ram Kinker Baij and Rabindranath Tagore. Arguably Parekh is best known for his Varanasi landscapes and river scapes. These works are spiritually powerful and secular in their approach since they are characterized by the recurring motif of the stylized structure of temples, the churches and the mosques. However, it was in Kolkata that he formed his artistic roots. “I was attracted to the darkness that the city offered. It at once attracted and repulsed me because it was so intense and artistic at one level and so dark and full of poverty on the other. It was like living in a dingy box that had big windows to look out of,” says Parekh, who looked for poetry in the forlorn streets and the vibrant coffee houses in the City of Joy.
“I began what I like to call my dark period after Kolkata where I began to look at the notion of man-made violence. My works have never been very political in that sense but they look at humanity and I found a moving spirit and human energy in Kolkata,” says Parekh. When he moved to the Capital he visited the surrounding villages and absorbed the craft and arts of the area. His series of small format works that are an inspired interpretation of Indian craft and the stylistic approach of German Abstract Expressionist artist Paul Klee, has been shown for the first time at the National Gallery of Modern Art in this solo show.
“After that in the 1980s I turned my attention to organic forms and I did a series of works that looked at the seed as the center of all creation,” recalls Parekh. However, it was not long before he was drawn into creating works like Old man and Dying Horse (1980s-81), Man made Blindness and Lost Horizon (1990). While the latter look at the inhuman Bhagalpur Blinding where battery acid was poured into the eyes of a certain caste of people in Bihar, the former speaks of the general tendency of human brutality. The trussed horse, with its open mouth and soundless scream, became Parekh’s leitmotif and cry against such violence. It repeats itself in Graffiti of Violence (1995), where Parekh imitates the street graffiti of South Africa which he was exposed to during his visit. “I saw words like ‘Love your Africa’ and ‘Kill’ stenciled on the walls. I also recall watching a hunt live at a safari, where two Cheetahs hunted down deer. I took inspiration from the wild and their survival of the fittest motto for this series of works,” recalls Parekh.
His latest work, the Last Supper is a set of 13 individual portraits arranged together to make one large (48x 33 inches) work. “There are famed theatre personalities, friends and actors, but I deliberately did not paint any portraits of artists,” says Parekh who believes that art, music, cinema and theatre play a vital role in society. “Without these, life would just be dry and arid. Art is food for the soul,” he concludes.
Manu Parekh: 60 years of Selected Works, at the National Gallery of Modern Art, On till 24th September.