Monday, January 18, 2016

Death of a Hermit- Jeram Patel (1930-2016)

(Young Jeram Patel, pic by Jyoti Bhatt)

I was a jealous lover; and still I am. Jeram Patel was not. He had learnt the method of letting everything go without pining for the lost. When I stood at the Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai holding the hand of my beloved and looking at the photographs of the veteran artist, Jyoti Bhatt displayed there, I came across this handsome young man’s black and white photograph; intense and brooding eyes, thick mop that fell on his forehead and the ‘don’t care’ attitude  of the man attracted me. I was about to fall in love with the image and the time of that photograph was taken. Being a radical existentialist looked so attractive in 1950s. I thought my woman also felt the same and I was so jealous of that man in the picture. The caption read, ‘Jeram Patel’. I just could not believe it. The ‘Jeram Patel’ whom I knew was different. If Jiddu Krishnamurty was given an artistic garb, he would have looked like Jeram Patel. May be I was wrong then in the gallery because Jiddu too was so dashing that none could escape his charisma. I did not know whether Jeram Patel exuded the same charisma as was seen in the photograph taken by his friend, Jyoti Bhatt in those days. A terror for many of his contemporaries and students, Jeram Patel seemingly lived a recluse’ life and died like a hermit.

 (Jeram Patel)

When the news came as a whatsapp message (these days the news of a death travels faster than the news of a birth via whatsapp), I should admit, I did not feel bad. Here was a man who had lived his life fully and also the way he wanted and had done the works of art despite the kind of criticism and scorn that they had hoarded, and passed away at the age of eighty six. There was nothing to complain for anybody. In his long life, like his senior and junior contemporaries namely Jyoti Bhatt, Nagji Patel, Haku Shah and so on, Jeram Patel too did not get the opportunity to be a celebrated master the way the Bombay Progressives were celebrated. Though he was one of the initiators of an art group called ‘1890’, Jeram Patel did not become a master artist or a genius modernist. But like the above mentioned artists, Jeram Patel also held on and believed in what he did. There were many attempts during the boom years to bring the works of Patel into the mainstream market. But the market was not prepared to take the brooding sort of dark patches that he consistently made. Most of the art world people wondered what was there in those paintings other than the black patches that the artist did at his will.

 (A work by Jeram Patel)

Looking back, Jeram Patel was not an artist who just did the black swirling patches on paper or canvases. He was more than that. There was a figurative phase in Patel’s career and also a transition of them into the black splashes that most of the art people still do not know. Patel did a lot of experiments with his works. Even in the black series, he had used the blues and greys to add an element of surprise. He was an accomplished relief sculptor who used blow torch as a technique to develop abstract forms and textures on the wooden surfaces. Towards the end of his life, facilitated by an industrialist in Baroda, Jeram Patel did a series of steel cut works, heavy and massive. As usual, our mainstream art historians and critics were blind enough to overlook them while ululating on the works of Jeff Koons and Anish Kapoor. It is not complaint for the simple reason that I could have done if none had attempted it in the same lines. But I had really did an attempt to bring out this contemporary element in Jeram Patel’s works in a different medium; a video documentary on him. That’s a different story which I would recount a little later.

 (JohnyML talking about the documentary he has directed on Jeram Patel)

Certain accidents or striking jackpot bring those forgotten people back into the attention ken of the public. Jeram Patel, whether he wanted it or not had hit the news for hitting the jackpot quite unexpectedly when Kiran Nadar, the director of the Kiran Nadar Museum in Delhi bought a bulk buying of most of Patel’s works for a whopping sum of six crore rupees. May be buying an artist’s oeuvre of a life time for that amount perhaps would raise certain questions about the value of an artist’s life and works. Does it cost only six crores? That’s a different issue. Perhaps, Patel himself was trying to lighten himself up by offloading all his works for that amount. A person who has already shown the symptoms of detachment for more than a couple of decades, might not have thought much about the money that he would get from such a dealing. Most of the artists of his age, I want to believe, show such detachment and they really do not care what the gallerists or dealers are going to do with their works. Jeram Patel underlined his detachment for the worldly riches by giving away one crore rupees to his man servant of forty years as a gesture of love and gratitude. Interestingly, this servant had hit the news more than Patel himself when this bequeathing of wealth took place last year.

 (Jyoti Bhatt releasing the dvd of the documentary, Asit Shah, Jeram Patel and JohnyML)

I am sure Patel knew what was coming. He knew it always. He had withdrawn from active social life for a long time. Even when he was a faculty member in the Fine Arts Faculty of Baroda, Jeram Patel was indifferent to so many things including the artistic pomp. When I interviewed him extensively in 2008-09, he told me that he used to spend his days in the college and night in the cinema theatre. He would see the same film again and again till he got detached with the film’s narrative or a new film hit the screen in the next week. He did not divulge much about his family life to me. Nor did I want to press on with my questions regarding that department. I was only told later by a common friend that his son was taking interest in the commercial dealings of his works, which Patel himself did not perhaps want to happen. The bickering of family is not really the concern of an art historian unless he is trying to find some Freudian or Lacanian connections of the family life with his works. Here my interest is not and was not really the same during the time of interview. When he grew tired of going to the film theatres, he was blessed by the advent of television. Patel confined himself in his drawing room, painting on paper. When the Ahmedabad based artist, Hindol Brahmbhatt visited him on request, they together did the sculptural reliefs using blow torch for Hindol was his trusted assistant in using the blow torch on wood. Hindol pays his tribute to the master by making his works on wooden planks with images burnt by blow torch.

 (Inaugural screening of my documentary on Jeram Patel in progress in Baroda)

Now it is time to talk about my association, though brief but simply interesting, with the departed artist. Thanks to certain friends, the frequency of my visits to Baroda was gradually increasing and in due course of time I came across some people who collected Patel’s works and also facilitated him in doing a massive project with steel. There was a very definite commercial angle to it for the people who invested in Patel and supported him in doing those works. They wanted me to write a book on him and also ‘direct’ a documentary on Jeram Patel. Book was rather an easier proposition but documentary was not. I am blessed with an attitude to make the adversities into opportunities. When I submitted my budget to the industrialist friend, it was thrown unceremoniously into the dust bin and he offered me a flat Rs.15000/- (fifteen thousand). I was supposed to make a documentary on Jeram Patel with that amount! I could have left it there but I had my interests in maintaining the friendship with that industrialist friend so I readily agreed to do it. I was travelling mad in those days and one day I landed up for shooting Patel in Baroda. My friend had assured a cameraman, sound recording equipments, lighting and trollies. I had already done my basic research and interviews with Jeram Patel.

(artist Rekha Rodwittiya speaking on the occasion)

On the day I reached, to my shock I found that the cameraman who came for the shoot was absolutely a novice with no experience in shooting anything related to art. But as an accomplished marriage videographer he had the enthusiasm to follow my cue. The display of the new body of the steel works was done in the factory space of my friend which resembled an actual cinema studio. Jeram Patel came and was wheel chair bound. I started taking shots. I wanted a three sixty degree shot. But no trolley was arranged. Upon seeing an office chair with wheels, I made the cameraman sit on it and I pushed him around Jeram Patel and we got a perfect trolley shot. I got the film edited by Sarat in Delhi for some paltry amount and the film was formally released in Baroda, a function which was attended by all the who is who of Baroda. Perhaps, it is the one work in my life that had amassed severe criticism for me and most of the senior artists told me that I should have taken much care about voice recording and the actual voice over narration. I took the criticism with all humility because I did not want to tell the budge (Rs.15000/-) of the film was abysmal. People were floating in the pool of money in those boom years but when it came to the work of an art critic (even if he doubled himself up as a documentary maker) the sources of dried up like the river Saraswati without leaving a trace of it. Jeram Patel held my hand after watching the movie. His eyes smiled, perhaps to console me and save me from the shroud of embarrassment.

(in his Delhi visit- Jeram Patel seen with Murty Ahuha, Vidyasagar Upadhyay, Mrs.Dhoomimal, Sudhakar Sharma, S.Kalidas)

When I write this obituary, I remember Jeram Patel as a person with whom I did not have much to do as an art critic. I had visited his show in the Palette Art Gallery in New Delhi. One gallery where people go to the terrace first to drink and socialize than to see art, Jeram Patel’s works stood in clear detachment exactly the way he would have stood had he been visiting the opening. His black patches did not make any meaning for many. May be Patel never intended to make any meaning. Art making itself was a meaning for him. He had his share of search and I think at some point he even stopped searching. When one realizes that there is nothing to find out, then what is the point in searching? Patel’s eyes always showed that sense of detachment. But I don’t know why he remembered all of a sudden? By the end of 2014, I got a call from Baroda and it was Patel’s namesake, Jayaram Poduval, the art history professor in the fine arts faculty. He wanted me to write a piece on Jeram Patel for the forthcoming Vad Fest 2015. I asked him who suggested my name; he said, Jeram Patel himself. I did not know he remembered that much. May be he remembered me for making a documentary which really did not work as a documentary. When I think about him, I remember the smile in his eyes, sparked for a moment on that evening of the documentary screening. Did it say, it’s alright, this too shall pass?

PS: The sad thing is that I do not have a copy of this documentary with me. Hope someone in Baroda would upload it in youtube.  

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