Manu Parekh’s retrospective with over 150 works is in progressat the NGMA Mumbai. Organized by Tarana Khubchandani of Gallery Art and Soul, 60 years of his selected works reflecting his evolving life …Parekh exploring rituals, the Bhagalpur blindings, the city of Varanasi, and the ‘heads’ of characters in Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, are tastefully exhibited at the multi-level NGMA building.
I request for, and am granted, an exclusive one-to-one interview for the Free Press Journal with the maestro. Manu Parekh looks atleast a decade younger than his 79-years.
I tell Manu Parekh that I have been sleeping under one of his famous Banaras paintings for the past four years. There is a 4’x3’ blue painting of the master hanging just above my head, and I have woken each morning to a ‘darshan’ of the holy city. Manu Parekh is pleased. We settle down in a quiet corner of the NGMA for a chat. His equally famous wife, Madhavi, is there to give us company, but doesn’t contribute to the conversation.
How does it feel coming back to the NGMA after 36 years?
It’s always a great privilege to showcase at NGMA. It’s like a dream for all painters to come at the highest temple of art in India.The walls of NGMA are still the same as they were in 1982. It is I that have changed. In terms of my personal experiences, my sensitivities, my way of looking at events and happenings. So being back at NGMA is like bringing back all of the stories and anecdotes of the past three decades, all expressed on canvas, and displaying all that has happened to me, and with me, for everyone to view and experience. NGMA has a way of making you feel special and exalted.
You performed in theater, worked as an actor and stage designer, and then as a design consultant in handlooms. How did all these experiences influence you as a painter?
Each of the thirteen heads in my ‘The Last Supper’ is inspired by my experience in theatre. I took 13 wooden panels and every panel is like a cabin in which different characters were placed. The background changed as I was working with theatre discipline but the table in the front remained same. I painted 13 different canvases and later realigned them. It’s a simple technique but with multiple gestures and emotions. Had I not had my stint in theatre, maybe I would not be able to think and paint 3-dimensional.
Also, the Banaras of my paintings is differently rendered. (We discuss Ram Kumar’s rendering of Banaras. Parekh explains to me that Ram represents Varanasi spatially and structurally. He is more concerned with the geometrical symmetry of the buildings, banks and temples. Hence is different).My rendering of the sky, its reflection in the water … it all comes from my training in theatre.
Your works revolve around the spiritual capital of India Varanasi. How did the journey start?
Banaras has really inspired me! But I would say I began my journey into the arts with my experience in Kolkata. As a young artist, I was very influenced by the writings and paintings of Rabindranath Tagore. I have always loved Bengali cinema and theatre and these are huge influences on my life and work.I began my artistic journey with a Diploma in painting and drawing at the Sir J J School of Art, in 1962. I went on to study on my own at Santiniketan, Kala Bhavan, where I absorbed the works of Ram KinkerBaij and Rabindranath Tagore.
I am best known for my Varanasi landscapes and river scapes. These works are spiritually powerful and secular in their approach since they are characterized by the recurring motif of the stylized structure of temples, the churches and the mosques. However, it was in Kolkata that I formed my artistic roots. I was attracted to the darkness that the city offered. It at once attracted and repulsed me because it was so intense and artistic at one level and so dark and full of poverty on the other. It was like living in a dingy box that had big windows to look out of. I waslooking for poetry in the forlorn streets and the vibrant coffee houses in the City of Joy. So Banaras has its roots in Calcutta.
In art circles, Manu Parekh is one of India’s most inventive painters. How do you balance the bond between man and nature?
This is very natural for me. It comes from my faith. There is violence all around, and only faith has the power to destroy evil. Faith creates a magnificent human tendency, things happen to ignite change, even two negatives bring positivity. In India, we experience everything from variety of languages to fascinating festivals to diverse religions. We enjoy all kinds of colors and relish all kinds of food. It is full of human activities and human endeavour. I am just capturing all these flashes in my own signature way.
Your subjects give a perfect impression of emotion, pain and anguish. What is the motivation behind all these stimuli?
Pain is everywhere, it may bring discomfort, distress, sorrow and agony but it also gives you the powerful feeling of love, hope and care. It is temporary, you need to keep moving on to find pleasure. All these emotions bring sense of connectivity.
I began what I like to call my ‘dark period’ after Kolkata where I began to look at the notion of man-made violence. My works have never been very political in that sense but they look at humanity and I found a moving spirit and human energy in Calcutta. After that in the 1980s I turned my attention to organic forms and I did a series of works that looked at the seed as the center of all creation. The trussed horse, with its open mouth and soundless scream, has become my most well known leitmotif and cry against violence. That is not necessarily true. Violence and love as its antidote pervades a lot of my works.
What special feelings does exhibiting at National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai (NGMA) evoke?
I look around me and it pleases me to see all of my life’s works displayed in one place, all at the same time.
It is my biggest chance to showcase my works of last 60 years. All are different and unique and every painting has a story of its own. It refreshes my old memories. Many of these works are in my personal collection. These works are very important and carry lot of sentiment. After seeing all works together I feel I have seen this all earlier but yet I am yet experiencing it for the first time, my works make me revive my forgotten memories.
Manu Parekh’s exhibition, 60 Years of Selected Works with over 150 works at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai (NGMA) will run until 15 April 2018.
(Mukul Rai Bahadur is an art lover, collector and critic. He lives in Mumbai and works in a media company. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Pictures courtesy: Art & Soul Gallery, Kailasham Trust and NGMA, Mumbai