Sunday, August 27, 2017

Manu Smruti: Manu Parekh at NGMA, New Delhi

(Manu Parekh-pic courtesy Daily Mail. All the pictures used in this article are just representational)

Manu Smruti. Please do not get me wrong. It is just about Manu Parekh recollecting his six decades long creative career in a well mounted show at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. In his address during the inaugural function which I could hear in one of the video recordings, Manu Parekh remembered how artists of his time strived to remain creative artists while they sought their daily bread from elsewhere. Lucky ones had got it from the same field through art teaching in schools or colleges but the ones who were destined to run a longer innings got their bread from elsewhere, as in the case of Manu Parekh who had worked with the Weavers’ Society ably led by the illustrious art connoisseur and scholar, Pupul Jayakar, for over twenty five years. And we know about Krishen Khanna, who worked in the banking field for long and still going strong, who happened to be the chief guest of Manu Parekh’s Retrospective show, though interestingly and ironically nowhere in the publicity materials including the handout and the book published by the Aleph Publishers in collaboration with the NGMA the word ‘retrospective’ is used. I do not know whether the word retrospective has gone out of parlance but looking back at the oeuvre of an artist who has a sense of accomplishment and fulfilment in life should be a ‘retrospective’ though the ‘in term’ ‘comprehensive survey’ is used in the forward to qualify the show under consideration here.

The turn rightwards in the new wing of the NGMA takes the viewer to a dark area of display where the darkest works in the career of Manu Parekh are on display perhaps, I would say the best works in this artist’s career. The series presented there is called ‘Man Made Blindness’. The works done on canvas with thick application of oil colour (though not obviously impasto in technique), these works show dark cubicles resembling prison cells where people are seen tormented by the forced blinding. The works have Bacon’s struggle and Rouault’s ferocity and the dark dungeon feeling evoked by the artist sucks the viewer into a sense of discomfort. The works were done during 1981 and 1982 and it came as a spontaneous and painful response to an incident of ‘mob justice’ happened in the winter months of 1980 in Bihar’s Bhagalpur District. Parekh’s title is a bit misleading; ‘Man Made Blindness’. In the feudal land of Bhagalpur there used to be so many goons led by politicians, local mafia dons, upper caste landowners and so on. They used to rape, loot and murder people while the administration stood a mute witness to all those atrocities. A bunch of twenty thugs were rounded off by fifteen frustrated policemen and delivered justice to the public by blinding the thugs and pouring acid into the cavities where once the eyeballs rested. This rocked the national conscience and the people in Bihar came out in the street saying that if the government punished the policemen Bihar would burn. People stood with the police. This incident was later made into a film, Gangajal (2003) by Prakash Jha where you could see a frustrated bunch of policemen led by Baccha Yadav (made the role into history by the NSD alumnus Mukesh Tiwari) blinding the goons in the police station.  

(work by Manu Parekh. source net)

The ambiguity of Manu Parekh’s titling of this series makes the viewers ask a question, where exactly the artist stood in those days or even today vis-a-vis the Bhagalpur blinding case. The title says ‘Man Made Blindness’, which is a neutral title and to push it further you would see it as a bit accusatory. Had the artist been supportive to the Policemen who blinded the thugs, he would have perhaps come up with a different title. This may be a critic’s imagination working like a forensic expert. But upon checking the history of this blinding case, I came across report came up during those days of the incident presenting a divided society on the case. Those people who supported the mob justice which was further supported by the mob had argued that it was the only way to deliver justice where the delivery systems have been failed or rendered useless. But there was a different conscience at work which argued that this mob justice was uncalled for and the human beings did not have any right to take away ones’ right to ‘see’. They were humanists and humanism still prevails especially when the discourse of capital punishment and euthanasia comes up in the society. The faceless society, a single hungry monstrous organism opens its mouth and demand death for the culprit/s, conscience keepers of the world or of the country say that there is still chance for them to reform and spend their life in repentance in the correctional facilities. Perhaps, I believe that Manu Parekh was with the humanists then and he found the dark incident a bit too much for his tender heart to soak in. It was a bitter pill to swallow and an unhealthy social food to digest. So this series should be seen in this light of the artist’s humanism.

While I was travelling from Ahmedabad to Delhi with Manu Parekh, he had told me how he was excited to show the works from that particular period and I too had expressed my interest in watching the Bhagalpur paintings. After watching them, now I would say that Manu Parekh has been forced to remain as an under rated artist all these years. If this artist had done such forceful works, and surprisingly these works are not collected by anybody so far, why he was not taken to the next level of artistic journey by the art market or art scene, remains an enigmatic issue. A similar case was seen when A.Ramachandran’s retrospective was shown in Delhi. His highly evocative, political and critical works done during the 1970s (including the Anatomy Lesson, Nuclear Ragini, and Kali Puja and so on) were under discussed and under estimated as they still remain in the ‘artist’s collection’ category. I believe Manu Parekh’s best phase as an artist was in 1980s though he has always showed the ability to come up with such forceful works in different phases in the following decades, the darkness of 1980s actually should be the decisive point in Manu Parekh’s creative life. You may find it ironic why I give so much praise to the dark phase of an artist’s creative career because it is in the dark phase the artist as in a Bergmanesque moment come to play chess not only with life but also with death. Dark phase is the moment before revelations and when things are articulated from the darkness, as there is nothing to lose nor anything to gain, the utterance remains truthful and effective.

(Work by Manu Parekh. Source Net)

That does not mean that Manu Parekh remain ineffectual during the rest of his career. Bhagalpur blinding was interpreted even by the mainstream media as a ‘symbolic castration’ (though the reports referred Freud, we could even go back further to meet Sophocles and his Oedipus blinding himself to atone for the sexual transgression that he committed with his mother. So he blinds himself.) And also blinding, the symbolic castration is a challenge on the patriarchal authority as good as Bobbitizing. But our artist is a man who has always taken pleasure in painting erotic imageries where the surrogate forms of human sexual organs infest the pictorial surface. Here you see multi-headed male genitals taking the shape of tubular forms like a Hydra Head and trying to enter into all the possible forms of hair vaginas often camouflaged as flowers and leaves. This sexual imagery comes back repeatedly in every stage of the artists’ career may be as a reminder of his own sexuality as an artist. What I notice is his effort to stick the porcelain votive eyes of different sizes stuck on the paintings and sculptures in different times and stages. These eyes also become potent erotic symbolism that not only represents female sexual organ but also the male power of penetration. At this juncture I wonder whether the ambiguity of the Bhagalpur series titles comes from a castration fear of the artist not as a person but as a collective male.

It is true that most of the artists who have had a career spanning over six to seven decades must have invariably gone through a Picasso phase. Right from Ram Kinkar Baij to K.G.Subramnayan to anybody who is a modernist have had their Picasso Blues. Manu Parekh, may be by choice shows the reference of Picasso’s famous braying horse head from Guernica in one of the early works. But then you don’t find any overt reference Picasso and that I find a great relief and a great distinction of Manu Parekh. Another impressive series is his drawings done on the rice paper with mixed media. They are simple evocations of feelings and impressions and quite spontaneous. Whenever people talk about Manu Parekh, the first thing that comes to their mind is his Banaras series. As a young man and also as a part of his endless travels in North Indian states as a part of the Weaver Society employee and a folk art activist, Parekh had come across the immense visual possibility of Banaras at a very early age. Ever since, time and again Parekh was going back to his favourite theme of Banaras. When he goes through a pleasant phase, we see his Banaras thriving with pleasant colours, and when there is a darkness looming large in the firmament of the country his Banaras sheds dark tears from red eyes. Today he is a fulfilled artist and his Banaras has achieved pinkish features and all happy fluorescent and vibrating. Banaras for Parekh is not just a theme, but it is an organism that lives in his canvases and it responds to the touches of his brushes.

(work by Manu Parekh. source net )

Manu Parekh is not a political commentator, but at the same time, as I pitch my views on the Bhagalpur series, I would say that Parekh is not blind to the socio-political developments. He does not anywhere reveal his political leanings through the colours of the flags. Nor does his temple structures look anything like that you see in Banaras. The chance of accusing him of being a Hindutva person is lost there (you see I was really digging to find some old bones). The temple structures are more like caves and ashrams where one person could hardly sit and meditate. What I see is a lot of Kabirs sitting and singing than Lord Shiva sitting in magnificent temples. But even before the BJP could even dream of central power in India, Parekh had been painting Shiva-Shakti (which I would say Manu-Madhvi) in various forms. He has done a series of paintings showing the images of stones that even do not look like Shiva Lingas. Even the recent Shiva series do not look like real lingas because Parekh gives a bird’s eye view of the luminous lingas. So I lose a chance to catch the veteran’s Hindutva leanings there also. I am a big failure here. Interestingly, at some point of the cow discourse that has been throughout the last century and its embers still glowing towards its last decades, comes up in Parekh’s paintings and the cow heads look at us with some kind of question. It is a relevant painting to be shown at this juncture in the NGMA and Parekh got away uncensored. I should congratulate Adwaita Gadanayak for not becoming a Palhaj Nihlani and more like a Prasoon Joshi, who knows his lines and tune well.

There are some sculptures and sculptural assemblages that Manu Parekh has done during his career. The ones present in the show tell me that they are all done during the last one decade. Several of them are welded iron sculptures with the components sourced from farm implements and other working tools. There are two bronze busts of unknown person with slashes across the faces with blood still fresh in the wounds. They look like the drawings of Giocometti; intense and hopeless at the same time. There are two stunning portraits by Parekh; of Tagore and of Souza. They are exquisitely done portraits with adequate expressionism of his own kind going into the making of both. This is where the question always comes back to me; why Manu Parekh was not a part of the Progressive Movement, in which Krishen Khanna could find a place as the tail ender? Parekh still has an wounded feeling not to be a part of the group. I strongly believe that Manu Parekh also should be treated as one of the Progressive movement artists who shared the progressive ideas and ideals. But then the technical reason could be this: when the Progressive Group was formed in the late 1940s and after its formal dispersal when it grew on its own feeding on legacies and sagas, initially Parekh’s works were not really corresponding to the Expressionism of the Progressives. At that time Manu Parekh was more influenced by the folk and tribal art and was trying to imbibe some sort of indigenous aesthetics into his works. Manu Parekh chose to resist the easy pull of the Tantric Abstraction that led the indigenous art experiments for over one decade and by the time the narratives were experimenting with a national and international narrative style, Parekh had just embarked on his real stylistic expressionistic venture. Perhaps that historical dilemma is what makes Parekh as an artist of his own worth and my demand him to be included in the Progressive Group of aesthetical basis is not just a friendly demand but a historical one which I am sure sooner than later the auction houses would accept without acknowledgment.

(Manu Parekh, picture courtesy DNA)

Here we come to the last work; the Last Supper, Christ and his twelve apostles are feasting on the eve the terrible betrayal. Standing in front of it I think only this much: Can Madhvi comes Shall Manu be far Behind? Recently, Madhvi Parekh’s ‘Last Supper’ was celebrated nationally and was even presented in a church in Kolkata by the Seagull group. This is a beautiful example of husband getting inspired by the success of wife; Manu Parekh underlines how he had really worked hard to make people to take a look at the work of Madhvi Parekh who did not hold any art degree in hand. The Last Supper is thirteen different portraits of different types of people, each one having a still life kind of image before him, and arranged in the line of ‘Last Supper’. I would like to read it as a Last Supper which could be used as a jigsaw puzzle, perhaps first in the world art history; you could deconstruct the hierarchy. It is the possibility of this work though it is framed tight as one work. If I was the curatror of the show I would have presented those twelve pieces differently on the same wall, letting the viewers’ eyes to bring them together. As W.B.Yates puts it, beautiful women eat a crazy salad. I wish all the best to Manu Parekh and this is must visit show.   

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