Artists

Flowers from Heaven XIV is a large, luscious painting. It has two central foci; on the left is a moth-like creature clinging or even stuck in a flowery mandala which radiates from its purple centre through its lilac and then pink outer circles to finally unravel into red and white streaming lines at its outer perimeter. Underneath the moth-like creature’s body, anchored to the bottom edge of the painting, appear embers that are still glimmering as they extinguish themselves after propelling it to this spot. Alternatively, the moth also appears like a vulva blushing into orgasm and sending out radiating rings of pleasure into the canvas. On the right and slightly higher is a stone that has been anointed and marked to become a lingam or a shaligrama; attending the transformations taking place in the moth-vulva, the garland of open flowers fan out like a peacock with its feathers quivering in erotic invitation. The carnivorous flowers with tongue-like petals appear to relish their own vitality. Below the stone, a series of lamps placed in a triangular pattern have dancing flames; all the tips of the flames direct us back into the stone. Betel leaves anchor the ritual space to the canvas’ edge. At the four corners of the canvas are red petal-tongue forms curling inward or breaking open, perhaps in response to what is happening at the core of the painting.

Manu Parekh has ornamented the naked canvas with diverse modernist pictorial gestures and a splendid palette of shades ranging from pink to vermillion, in which green acts as a counterpoint colour. The back of the canvas has been rolled with colour (the Fauvist gesture), then it has been stippled by brushstrokes (the Impressionist gesture), dripped with paint (the Abstract Expressionist gesture), intersected with different picture planes (the Cubist collage gesture) and for good measure, Parekh also has added post-modernist naturalistic painting (the Photorealist gesture). Finally, he has reminds us of his commitment to India’s vernacular culture by introducing forms, textures (the flowing of sacrificial blood particularly comes to mind) and ideograms associated with Hindu rituals. The painting is one, large, expressionistic carnival of polyglot modernism.

A large, muscularly adorned painting such as this provokes many questions. Parekh is a third-generation modernist, who came to his career starting in the 1960s. In conversation, he often connects his work today with his early years in art making, without necessarily drawing a continuous line over the five decades. Instead of rigid continuities, he discusses enduring obsessions tempered by short-lived explorations as well as bouts of artistic anxiety and isolation checked by sheer confidence in his talent, a drive to produce, good business acumen, an overwhelming desire to perform and engage his audiences and a devoted group of client-patron-collectors. At 73, Parekh has entered, whether he will accept the idea or not, his late phase, by which I refer to what philosopher and critic Edward Said referred to as “late style.”

“Late style” is, as Said wrote at the end of his foreshortened old age, is usually “the accepted notion… that age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works, often expressed in terms of a miraculous transfiguration of reality…. But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty and contradiction?” [1] While Said is not negating the possibility of peace and closure, he is interested in the unresolved parts of art making. It is possible to see in the massive body of work that Parekh has undertaken yet again for this exhibition, the first solo show in Delhi in six years, a kind of shining, adamant refusal to accept the terms by which his work has been (un)interpreted so far. He wants engagement and I also believe he wants that engagement to estrange or detach his work from him, at least temporarily, for the purpose of participating in a critical dialogue about his oeuvre. In this sense, the time for resolution has not yet come; Parekh is stating to himself, in front of his viewers, through these large, brilliant canvases, what is best evoked in the words of Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night/Old age should burn and rage at close of day/Rage, rage against the dying of the light//Though wise men at their end know dark is right/ Because their words had forked no lightning they/Do not go gentle into that good night.” [2]

I would like to offer the beginnings of such a critical engagement in this catalogue. [3] Rather than deal solely with Parekh’s career or his thoughts, which have been quite well documented and commented upon in various publications by eminent critics, I would like to discuss instead some key art historical issues that are literally embodied in his works. [4] In Parekh’s art, I see the performance of masculinity, sexuality and modernity that are specific to male Indian artists who started exhibiting their work in the seventies. These issues have been part of my work for some time and aspects of their work intrigue the art historian in me. By connecting my ongoing research to Parekh, I wish to discuss three questions. What does Manu Parekh want through his paintings? What does he want us to see him wanting? Finally, how are we to see these works?

Masculinity, Sexuality and Modernism

Masculinity is a form of subjectivity, a word use to describe the way an individual or a human experiences the world. [5] This subjectivity is gendered and separate from the sex or sexuality of the person, i.e., a person can be male, female, androgyne, gay, bi-sexual, lesbian, transsexual, etc. and embody masculinity. Masculinity itself exists in the plural, that is as masculinities and one person can have many masculinities in their subjectivity, some dominant, some less visible and these masculinities are mediated and formed by larger social and historical factors including kinship, economy, political structures, etc. Masculinities are also not just subjective experiences of individuals but can function as the structure through which societies, cultures and discourses produce and reproduce themselves. It is important to state the way I am using “masculinity” as a critical term clearly in the heart of the essay, rather than in the often disregarded footnote, because to put it simply, I am not using the term to talk about the “great male artist.” The term “masculinity” allows me to enter critically into Parekh’s work and understand where he is positioned in the prevailing narrative of Indian modernism and how what he does in his work supports or negates that narrative. When we look at the major books published on Indian modern and contemporary art in recent years, it is clear that we are yet to take historical account of a whole class of modern art produced in the 1970s and 1980s, that which is made primarily by male artistspracticingintheBombay-Delhi corridor (including Baroda and Ahmedabad) and which focuses frequently on sexuality and sexualized themes. Here I am thinking of artists like Rameshwar Broota, Himmat Shah, Nagji Patel as contemporaries of Parekh who paint or carve the sexual as a fundamental part of their practice and others like K. G. Subramanyan or Jeram Patel whose works significantly deal with the sexual. [6] This seems, at first glance, just one of the many gaps in our narrativization of modernism but since the silence is so strong and the presence of the theme is so overwhelming, it is worth mentioning categorically. [7]

Without clumping the large differences between each of these artists, it is possible I think to find in their work a desire to make themselves into modern Indian artists, almost by definition male, by painting the sexual. [8] Here, it is useful to recall the long engagement with the odalisques, the ballerinas, the barmaids, the prostitutes, etc. that started in Orientalist paintings and then became the subject of choice for many male modern European artists including Manet (Olympia), Picasso (Desmoiselles des Avignon) and Matisse (numerous Fauvist odas) and even impacted Le Corbusier’s urban schemes of Algiers in which the curve of the idealized Arab woman’s body guided his designs. [9] But it also important to recall that the sexual is not just concerned with the female body; as scholars have shown, the male body, groups of male bodies, children, animals, flowers, landscapes, inanimate objects, etc. all are made to bear the sexual. Furthermore, it is possible to generalize that modernism cut its teeth with the making of the sexuality of the artist through the representation of the sexual on canvas, in sculpture and even in urban form. The sexual is at the core of the modern male artist’s art practice. To say this is to accept that the sexual in the work of art produces the sexuality and masculinity of the artist in the act of making a particular work. In effect, making art is a sexual act that happens in the performance of sexuality.

Returning to Parekh’s oeuvre, it helps to note how early he openly addressed the sexual in his work as part of developing himself as an artist. Going through sketchbooks that date from the 1960s is instructive. Drawing for him has not been for public display. It is a private process where ideas are developed, much in the way a schoolboy might go to the tuck shop and get a cake to eat under a tree while class is in progress.

There is also nothing uncomfortable in his acceptance of sexual aspect of his artistic desire in the drawings.

As early as 1961, he made a Picasso-ish sketch of a man penetrating a woman from the side. She faces us, pleasuring herself by touching her breast, even as the man embraces her around the neck to hold her steady. Parekh has used X-ray vision, allowing himself to see more. In a highly interesting momemt of intertextuality, an image of a woman sketching has been drawn to intersect into the frame of the sex scene. She is a woman making observations and recording them, like an artist or a researcher. Parekh appears to have split and embodied himself in the female artist and the lovers to create a whole experience that he can enjoy. This is the first of many instances in his work where I see him take on multiple genders and it is this interest in performing multiple roles that makes Parekh different from some of his peers.

Take the well-known painting The Ageless Stone (oil on canvas, 70” x 50”, 1985) by Rameshwar Broota (b. 1941) in the collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art. [10] A largish canvas painted in shades of grey, white and black, the central image is a standing object that very obviously refers to an erect phallus. The top third is radiant with light, the middle third is darkly shaded to suggest the peeled back foreskin and the bottom third is again radiant with some cracks at its base. Broota has titled the work to refer to a primordial form, a timeless object, which in our context might refer to a lingam; Broota’s hard phallus does not need the support of a yoni nor does it seem to arise from anywhere. It is self-born, willed into existence by the devotion the artist has to its manifestation on his canvas and seemingly it refuses to forego any of its tense strength by spilling its contents, even if there is pleasure to be gained. [11]

Broota’s approach to the body is so different from Parekh’s, as demonstrated by Flowers from Heaven XVI which I discussed at the beginning of this essay, that to return to his painting is to come down from the mountain top and enter a private chamber. Before going there, I would like to first discuss the Benaras work because it assists us interpret the specificity of Parekh’s sexualization of his artistic imaginary. In the other essay in this book, Baishali Ghosh discusses how Benaras is a trope for various artists, including Parekh, who create relationships with Banaras in their work and with other artists who came before and after them.

As he has stated in many published interviews, Parekh first went to Banaras in the throes of a crisis. Having decided to enter modernism via Paul Klee and through the teachings of S. B. Palsikar at the J. J. School of Art, he decided to experiment with creating a modernism that was engaged with India’s vernacular art forms such as rangoli, embroidery, etc., which were familiar to him from his childhood in Gujarat. When he began living with Madhvi Parekh after their early marriage and discovered that she too wanted to paint and was a strong artist in her own right, Parekh decided to abandon this desire to create a vernacular modernism because his wife was already developing this project and producing strong work. He renewed his search for a language and encountered many vernacular art forms during his work with the Weaver’s Service Centre when he traveled across western, northern and eastern India assisting craftspeople.

Living in Kolkata for ten years, he gained access to a new artistic milieu where conversation about ideas was part of everyday life. Visually too, Kolkata had a huge impact. It made him more aware of something that he had started understanding long ago; that women were strong and carried a power that men often could not discern or only perceived with fear. In 1975, Parekh and his family moved to Delhi, a shift that provoked a terrible crisis in his practice which continued for several years. In Kolkata, Parekh learned to enjoy being a flaneur and absorbing the energy of the great metropolis; the poverty, the heat, the food and the people of the nineteenth century colonial city fed his work. Delhi, in contrast, was a “beautiful garden” but disconnected from the reality that he had come to paint in his chosen language of figurative abstraction. Over five years, he suffered and felt the relationship between his work and the lifewhichsurroundedhimbecome more and more attenuated.

By 1980, he decided to go somewhere that would help him return to flesh and blood experience. Banaras naturally pulled him; he had been there before and was quite attracted to its picturesque qualities. Also, his father had died recently and there was a need to find a place to gain perspective, closure and renewal. The visit gave him profound visual experiences that led him recognize the unpredictability of human endeavour (an acceptance which he still struggles with sometimes) and which freed him to find visual material in the aesthetics of the unrelenting cycle of life in a place that is both ancient and continually transforming. He started painting the city, a topic that he has painted for more than three decades. These ghat paintings, as I call them, are all visuals experience perceived from a boat, an observation that the artist’s daughter, Manisha Parekh, first brought to his attention. They have transformed over the years; strong geometry painted in earthy colours has led to very expressionistic brush marks made in sweeping strokes in electric colours, especially indigo blue, purple and India green. Along the way he has incorporated his love of miniature paintings from the Pahari courts (see the form of the shrines in Entry to the Woods. He has also ventured into pictorial conversations with various European and American painting styles as already mentioned earlier, and with Indian like Souza (the strong black outline as a container and annihilator for form) and Ram Kumar (layering of architecture) and with the materiality of the site.

To my eyes, these works are strong; yet they present his experience with interested detachment, though there are hints of the intimacy he creates in the paintings of flowers and ritual objects, of the metropolitan traveler who visits a pilgrimage center with little involvement in its religiosity. Such “objectivity” is in keeping with Parekh’s stated disinterest in religion. Certainly, it follows in the vein of many of the other artists who painted Banaras, as Ghosh has already noted.

When we turn to Parekh’s paintings of the ritual scenes, there is a intensity and a compulsion to intimacy that is qualitatively different. In paintings like Evening at Benaras or Enlightened Stone, Parekh takes his long interest in the sexual and the creation of a personal sexuality in painting to make images that salute the formality of ritual even as they explode in the excessiveness of it. Shiva lingas are centered in each canvas but rivulets of fluid paint pour out; flowers ornament the icon but also lose shape as libations filled with desire weigh them down. Such interiorized paintings of the Banaras experience have allowed him to reconfigure his art, in ways he can repeat familiar images but also morph them to explore new ways of rendering form and ornament. The flower and zoomorphic paintings are important in this aspect, especially those illustrated in the sections titled “Repeating Forms” and “Flowers.” For example, Flowers from Heaven X has penile swans with pendulous breasts emerging out of flowers while others in the series have swans kissing flowers. As the drawings which illustrate this essay show, Parekh has been creating such imagery for decades; the Banaras experience sanctioned and may even sanctify his desire to make a capacious sexuality. The same imagery also helps him pull back and clothe this highly sexualized exploration in more abstract imagery; the textile-like paintings (Chant 1) celebrate his painterly gestures which double and fold over themselves, sometimes revealing but more often veiling.

Stepping Back

I raised three questions in the introductory section of this essay: What does Manu Parekh want through his paintings? What does he want us to see him wanting? Finally, how are we to see these works?

After spending several months looking at his paintings and talking to him over many conversations, I believe he wants to engage with his peers on his own terms. These terms allow him to be immodest, street smart, theatrical, voyeuristic, male, masculine and polysexual as well as engaged with other artists and their ideas and practices. This is how he wants us to see him, really see him, wanting all these things. The artist and writer Anita Dube once wrote quite poignantly and succintly about this aspect of Parekh’s work:

For Manu Parekh this seems to come as a challenge to his masculinity. As if he has been abused by his own conscience…. And in the dynamic of the male world, if you are a man you will rise to the challenge like a man. You will fight for your dignity. How is to continue our story. [12]

Today, at 73, Parekh is still fighting the fight and the story of his work continues to evolve. There is more elegance and refinement but he has not forsaken the right to love and promote the rusticity and corporeality of his work. He wants us to know and see that he makes love to the canvas everyday, whichever way he wants.

The last question I raised is about us, the viewing audience, and how we see. Parekh’s paintings ask us to look at them over the longue durée of his own work as well as the history of art. His paintings want us to keep repeating the act of looking and connecting to the various forms and historical connections they make with our bodies and desires as well as relate to a theatre artist who wishes to perform many roles through his art.

Notes

[1] Edward Said, “Thoughts on Late Style,” London Review of Books, vol. 26, no. 15 (5 August 2004), 3-7, accessed at http://www.lrb.co.uk/v26/n15/ edward-said/thoughts-on-late-style on 22 February 2012.

[2] Dylan Thomas, “Do not gentle into that good night” accessed on 22 February 2012 at http:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Do_not_go_gentle_into_ that_good_night#Poem_text.

[3] I came into contact with Parekh through his daughter, the artist Manisha Parekh, who suggested that I talk to him about my work on history of vernacular art in modern India. That first conversation grew into regular discussions in his studio over a period of two years, the result of which is this essay.

[4] Without/Within: An Exhibition of Works by Manu Parekh (Calcutta and New Delhi: Seagull and Vadehra Art Gallery, 1992) with a catalogue essay by AnjumKatyal; Manu Parekh, Paintings 1993- 95 (New Delhi: Vadehra Art Gallery, 1995) with a catalogue essay by Keshav Malik; Manu Parekh (1998) with a catalogue essay by Anita Dube; Manu Parekh, Portrait of Flowers, Landscape of a River (Mumbai: Tao Art Gallery, 2003), with a catalogue essay by Abhay Sardesai; Manu Parekh, Banaras: Painting the Sacred City (New Delhi: Penguin/ Viking, 2005); Manu Parekh, New Paintings (London: Berkeley Square Gallery at Osborne Samuel, 2007) with a catalogue essay by Peter Osborne; The Pursuit of Intensity: Manu Parekh, Selected Works 2004-2009 (Mumbai: Foundation B & G, 2009), a Tao Art Gallery catalogue with a curatorial essay by RanjitHoskote; Ranjit Hoskote and Nancy Adajania, Manu Parekh, The Dialogues Series (Mumbai: Popular Prakashan Pvt. Ltd. and Foundation B & G, 2011).

[5] There is a massive bibliography on masculinity. Two key texts are R. W. Connell, Masculinities (Cambridge, U. K.: Polity Press, 2005, 2nd edition) and John H. Arnold and Sean Brady, eds. What is Masculinity: Historical Dynamics from Antiquity to the Contemporary World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan Publishers, 2011). In the discipline of art history, an important text is Terry Smith, ed., In Visible Touch (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998).

[6] This list of names was developed in conversation with Vidya Shivadas.

[7] Joseph S. Alter, “Introduction: Sex, Substance and Embodied Identity,” Moral Materialism: Sex and Masculinity in Modern India (New Delhi: Penguin, 2011), 3-10 lays out the what happened after the colonial period, when the “exotic-erotic” ceased to be the only point of discussion of sex and masculinity. Along with the focus on cinema and the sexualities and masculinities it showcases, Alter also takes note of the attention to semen anxiety, not performance anxiety, that dominates the discussion of modern Indian men’s sexuality and masculinity. Keeping in mind wider economic and social shifts that mark the Nehruvian era of the planned economy to a free-market, globalized one, Alter summarizes the changes in the way of writing about men’s sexuality as moving from “producing and conserving semen” to “a pre-occupation with the conditions under which it might be spent” (p. 8).

[8] The only woman, so to speak, in the annals of Indian modernism, is Amrita Sher-Gil. Her complex sexuality and the presence of it in her paintings has been gaining wider and more complex interpretations, both by artists and scholars. See GeetaKapur, “Body as Gesture: Women Artists at Work,” When was Modernism: Essays on Cultural Practice in India (New Delhi: Tulika, 2000), 3-60; VivanSundaram, Re-take of 'Amrita’: Digital Photomontages (New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2001); Vivan Sundaram, ed., Amrita Shergil: A Self-Portrait In Letters & Writings, 2 Volumes (New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2010); Rakhee Balaram, “Fearful Symmetry: Amrita Sher-Gil’s Two Girls,” unpublished manuscript.

[9] Zeynep Çelik, “Le Corbusier, Orientalism, Colonialism,” Assemblage, no. 17 (1992): 58-77

[10] See the work at http://www.brootarameshwar.com/ painting.php?id=3#, accessed on February 24, 2012.

[11] Since the making of this painting, Broota’s work in various media has been intensely abstracted the male body to create “hard” images, in which detailed examination and sometimes delectation of the body is emphasized. The penis is analogized often to some other part of the body such as a finger, which is then compared to another class of object such as a faucet. There is no personality to be found in these highly cropped images, just evidence of the potential to act sexually or of growing impotence. See his works at http://www.brootarameshwar.com/painting.php?id=5#

[12] Dube’s (1998) catalogue essay, “Bhakt in the Bazaar.”
Published in the catalogue Faith: Manu Parekh in Benaras 1980-2012 edited by Annapurna Garimella for an art exhibition curated for Art Alive Gallery, Gurgaon, March 10-May 12, 2012.
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