Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Sculptor who Chiselled a Smile: Nagji Patel (1937-2017)

(Nagj Patel- the last picture from Bulgaria)

Nagji Patel is no more. Three days back, from Bulgaria, where he had been in a sculpture symposium, like the ones that he had been attending throughout his creative career, he had updated a facebook profile picture. I was worried when I saw it; something was not quite right about that picture. In the yellow light of a hotel room, Nagji Bhai was sitting, leaning against the bed head. He held his hands folded across his chest, a sense of resignation painted across his sagging cheek muscles, which always used to hold a smile in an upward curve. That warm smile was missing on his face in that picture. Nagji Bhai was not my friend as I stand separated almost four decades from him in age. However, in different occasions, I have had these wonderful moments of pleasant interactions with him. So the unsmiling face in the facebook profile picture sent out some ominous premonitions to me. I thought Nagji Bhai was not well.

That internal gaze of his; how could I erase from mind? That unsmiling face; how could I reconcile with that unsmiling face? I knew whenever I met him, sometimes as an art historian and sometimes as a friend of his son and artist, Chirag Patel, his approach towards me was that of love and I used to think that he was quite amused by my controversial comments on art and the artists in this country though I had never said anything hurting about him. Let me contrast two faces; the faces of Jeram Patel and Nagji Patel. I hardly know anything of the so called dynamics of the Baroda art scene, which is otherwise known as the Baroda art politics. I have never been a party to it and would never become one. However, thanks to some benevolent friends in Baroda, I had the chance of meeting both these artists and even I had done a twenty four minute long ‘documentary’ on Jeram Patel. He never smiled; neither to the camera nor to me despite the fact that I had been making several visits to his home and spending good number of hours talking about his life and works. Nagji Patel always smiled even when he was chiselling away wood pieces sitting at the courtyard of his studio somewhere near Kanoria Centre, Ahmedabad.

(a monumental sculpture by Nagji Patel)

I always thought both the men were hurt by something. Today, I understand that they were hurt by their art. Only those who love you deeply hurt you deeply. Look at the spouses; they are like disgruntled warriors perfecting their war machines just to hurt the other. Devoid of other means in the mundane lives, they find sharpened words and acidic deeds to hurt the spouses, thinking that the deeper hurts would etch the love deeply into the minds. The imprints taken later would be clear, the chisel mark clearer and the smell of colour still sharp. Nagji Patel was in love with his art. And this art, like many a spouses in the real life did not pay him back the way he expected. As Indian art scene couldn’t respect him beyond being a reckonable name, Nagji Bhai had to take off from Baroda at regular intervals to countries elsewhere with marble and granite blocks waiting for his chisel touch. Nagji Bhai’s sculptures might have earned him respect in this country but little money; and he had to sustain himself doing sculpture symposium throughout his life. Thinking of it, thankless we are as we fail always to celebrate a living artist and lament once he flips the curtain and vanishes as if in a magical act.

(the illustrious Banyan Tree sculpture by Nagji Patel)

The smile on his face was the smile that hoodwinked the hurts that he faced in his personal as well as artistic life. He loved stone so much because he could carve his pain making the right incision on them. And Nagji Bhai perfected the art of incision; the sharp cut that would bring the sculpture out of the cocoons of stones. I remember the days of lying down under the Banyan Tree, staring at the silver sky with my vacant eyes. Fatehganj was the one that you see today. Whenever I felt lonely, I went to this sculpture and sought shelter under the shade of it; surprisingly never thinking of its possible connection to enlightenment other than going by the out layer of meaning that Baroda had derived its name from Vad Vrukshas (Banyan Trees). This sculpture had defined Baroda in those days. The opening shot, a panoramic one with Kaki’s chai lari and cosmopolitan restaurant where the legends said biriyani was served.

(the dismantled Banyan Tree at Space Studio, pic by JohnyML)

In 2015 February, the controversial Vat Festival took place in Baroda. I had contributed one article about Jeram Patel in one of the books and I was living in Mumbai for a short while. I drove down to see the festival. From there I went to the Space Studio where Parag Sonarghare was preparing for his solo exhibition. At the far end of the ground, I saw the disassembled pieces of the legendary banyan tree by Nagji Patel. I felt sad. Upon enquiring about its dethronement from the centre of the city, I was told that the sculpture was a victim of the ‘development’ mantra that these days all the governments follow. They could uproot a culturally rooted Banyan Tree sculpture of a famed artist, dump it in a ground and dangle a promise saying that it could be reassembled/re-installed at some other city square, far away from its original place. Nagji Bhai did not make any public statement; even if he had I did not get to see it (mea culpa). Of late, there have been negotiations to carry it to another state in Indian South and house it with due respect. Nagji Bhai was about to feel good about it. But man proposes and time disposes.

(the hidden signature of Nagji Patel from under the Banyan Tree sculpture. Pic JohnyML)

Nagji Bhai, came to do a solo show in a private gallery in Delhi, almost a decade back. I met him there and found a couple of works installed just outside the gallery. I knew it was not a well thought out curatorial decision or a decision by the artist himself. It was done out of the TINA factor; there is no alternative. The works were huge and did not go into the gallery. I thought it was a complete lack of professional negotiations from the side of the gallery. The gallery should have thought about it before letting him send those works. What I heard later was a lot of complaints about the money the gallery had to spend on transporting those works. I met Nagji Bhai, talked to him; even in the height of that personal as well as artistic crisis, he was smiling, warming up to me, asking about my health and life in general, then explaining his works. In fact, when I look at his works and life, like many other artists of his generation, he too had very little to talk (about their works). It was a divine mission that had goaded them into work and words couldn’t have done justice to them. Now we live in a time where words envelope deeds and ‘hillify’ the moles. Nagji Bhai worked on the ideas that prevailed in the artistic Utopia, the forms that derived from an oriental sense of being one with nature and the monumental imaginations that worked on the essences of matter, space and place and imparted identity to the places where those works were placed.

(Nagji Bhai Patel in a work site)

Our art scene has tremendous amount of mandatory-ness and ad hoc-ism. I have a collection, I need this, that and Nagji Patel too. That’s the way we collect art. We do not have the habit to consistent collections as in the case of the pioneers of art collecting in our country. So, perhaps, every art collector in our country must be having a Nagji Bhai work in their collection often kept on a stone pedestal as a non-descript garden sculpture. Modernist and minimalist sculptures have suffered this fate in many of the Indian collections both in the public and private sector. Unable to decode the meaning of these minimal germinal and semi-erotic forms they remain as ‘piecemeal’ sculptures in the gardens or in the corners of large collection. Nagji Bhai was known for his monumental works. But his studio was not producing monumental stuff alone. I am sure someone would make a revisit to his works than just doing lip service to his memory, exactly the way I am doing now. Nagji Bhai wanted to promote artists of various kinds so he established a gallery called Nazar Art Gallery. He also was in the process of developing a large art studio and centre for art somewhere along the Baroda-Mumbai highway. Nagji Bhai was a good artist with a wonderful soul. He needs more space in the Indian art history.  

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