‘My criticism of Indian art is that we are still not rooted in our environment. There is tremendous possibility for doing so in our country.’

Manu Parekh is a celebrated Indian artist best known for his abstract paintings that depict the city of Varanasi. The Padma Shree recipient was born in 1939 in Ahmedabad. His works challenge the notions of man’s relationship with nature. They address deep social issues that plague society. The distortion of his landscapes makes us question the reality of our immediate surroundings even as the vivid colours make each element more prominent and overpowering.
Parekh studied at the Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai. He has also received an honorary doctor’s degree from Ravindra Bharti University in Kolkata. After having experimented with theatre, he joined the Weavers’ Service Centre of Pupul Jayakar as art designer and worked for 25 years. He later worked for the Handicrafts and Handlooms Export Corporation of India as a Design Consultant. There he gained perspective on the massive disparity that exists amongst workers and their supervisors, rural artisans and urban customers, and the total ignorance or indifference of society towards these issues. Having been to numerous villages and witnessing the plight of daily wage workers helped him study their expressions, which in turn transformed into his figurative forms, like the Bhagalpur blinding series. Later, he left the government corporation to pursue his career as a freelance artist.
Parekh has had several exhibitions at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Smithsonian Institution (Washington DC), Bose Pacia Modern (New York), ARKS Gallery (London), Rabindra Bhavan (New Delhi), and Jehangir Art Gallery (Mumbai) amongst many others. He has participated in two Triennales in India (1975 and 1978). His works were auctioned at Sotheby’s, Bombay (1989) and Andasprey (U.K.) in 1991. Parekh was awarded the President of India’s Silver Plaque in 1972, the National Award from the Lalit Kala Academy in 1982, and the Padma Shree from the Government of India in 1992.

Prerna SM Jain spoke with the respected and insightful artist. Here’s what he had to say:

“I was in Calcutta for 10 years – that was a good learning lesson because I was interested in film and theatre. I knew Bengali and I did a play by Rabindra Nath Tagore. Those ten years were quite exciting for me, because I had reached Calcutta at the age of 24. So you can understand that I matured in Calcutta as a painter. The whole atmosphere was very fascinating to me. I was there from 1965-75. Those years were the best years in Calcutta for creativity, film, theatre and literature. Luckily, I became a member of the Contemporary Artist Calcutta group within 6 months of arriving there, and for the past 48 years I am a member. They accepted me, in a way. I almost became a half-Bengali. I learnt the language and really stayed there like a common Bengali. Humanity was a very central point of the Calcuttan literary world, especially the art festivals. When I was transferred to Delhi, I started missing Calcutta, so, as a replacement, I went to Banaras for the first time in the ‘80s. Till today I am very excited about Banaras and I go there regularly, and am still painting subjects on it.”

Can you please elaborate upon your series ‘Bhagalpur blindings’?
“As my job as a design consultant in Handicraft and Handloom Export Corporation of India I worked under Pupul Jayakar for 25 years. Handloom and handicraft is the largest sector for employment, second only to agriculture, in India. I travelled to many states and villages. I worked in Orissa, Bihar, Rajasthan, Haryana, so I have a great exposure to villages and I know people who make craft. I knew Bhagalpur in Bihar very well and when this thing happened, it shocked me because I knew those faces. Even today, with all the problems migrant workers are facing, I feel disturbed because I know those kind of people and expressions. So, emotionally I reacted and within a week since it happened, I did 4-5 paintings, and it was not a political painting, it was from a human point of view, that one human being can be so cruel to another – that was my intent.”

Can you tell us more about your inspirations from Western and Indian artists?
“The moment we are making modern art, that kind of connection will be there. I am very interested in western art and in the American movement as well, but my interest in and criticism of Indian art is that we are still not so rooted in our environment. There is tremendous possibility for doing so in our country, so that is my struggle. When I went to Banaras I thought that we don’t have any Indian landscape. Ramkinkar did use Banaras, but as a drawing, not as a culture. Actually, Rabindranath Tagore used the local and he did some powerful landscapes, the real Indian landscape. So when I went to Banaras, that reference of Tagore was there in the treatment of sky, trees and reflection on water. Another reference was from F.N. Souza. I admire his work as it is powerful. Souza’s landscape I do admire but once he said that ‘when I paint the landscape, I took pictures from England, trees from Paris, Boats from Amsterdam.’ I thought to do something against that, that I will particularise a place, which will be Banaras.”

Which is your most memorable exhibition?
For me, my retrospective has been the most important one, because I am able to see almost 60 years of my work together. When my retrospective was in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Ahmedabad, it was a really great experience for me.”

How has Covid-19 affected you personally and professionally?
“Professionally, I am painting, and I try to be busy. Somewhere in the corner of my mind, the fear of the disease is there because I am 80 years old now and we are in a vulnerable situation, but otherwise, I am busy with work as I paint regularly, I take rest regularly. It’s almost two and half months (since the lockdown) and I haven’t gone out of my gate but still I am quite cool. Generally I stay in my studio. We painters are habitual of being at home, so that helps. But the most disturbing element is the migrants’ problems. The moment we finish our work, we abandon the workers. After partition, this is one of the biggest problems that people of India are facing.”

What is the future of the art industry?
“People are waiting for a vaccine. The moment we find it, people will forget about this also. It will be almost like any other virus. It is the great power of nature that the entire world has been affected. There is an interesting story that Paritosh Sen told me around 20 years back. He was in New York for the Rockefeller scholarship. America used to hire Mexican workers at that time to harvest grapes, but when the grapes were harvested, the workers were asked to leave for Mexico. But that year the workers announced that they want to be there for the entire year. They requested American people not to buy grapes. To Sen’s surprise, the market was full of grapes but no one would touch them. That is the kind of spirit we need. If you don’t take the workers seriously, what is happening now will keep happening. Daily wage is a word we neither know nor understand.

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