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Artist Profile1
Encapsulating Manu Parekh’s life and art
Manu Parekh’s surreal landscapes - fecund and sensual – are often composed of imagery of fantastical organisms; they are part-vegetation, part-bird and part-woman - extending in and out of each other. His raw and ragged depiction of tormented men and animals is metamorphic and integral to the understanding of his work. It prompts viewers to fathom the world around through the multitude of emotions expressed in the subjects. The colors and forms in them exude a volatile energy, which can barely be put within the confines of his canvas, and become a natural extension of his own personality as an artist and as an individual.

His early body of work explored the complex and curious relationship between humans and nature, and celebrated the vibrant link. Over time, contradictions and ironies have formed the core of his practice, spanning across different subject matter or genre. Polemics have invariably intrigued the artist. The energy of the ubiquitous organic form and the inherent tinge of sexuality to them subtly surfaces in his paintings. Marked by vivid colors and prominent lines, they exude the boundless energy he strives to capture and convey.

The veteran artist has been greatly influenced and inspired by his immediate surroundings starting with his sojourn to Santiniketan that drew him towards Rabrindranath Tagore’s philosophy and the masters like Ram Kinkar Baij. His appreciation and understanding of their work was more at a perceptual level than mere stylistic one. It at times exudes his admiration for Picasso, as well.

Born in 1939 in Gujarat, he did a Diploma in Drawing & Painting from Sir J.J. School of Art, Mumbai (1958-62). He created quite a stir with some of his path breaking works and ideas in the 1960s. His stint at the National School of Drama (NSD) broadened his vision and informed artistic sensibility. His affinity for craft prompted him to blend the traditional and the contemporary influences while collaborating with renowned scholar Pupul Jayakar, better known as India's ‘cultural tsarina’, for the Weavers Service Centre. Since his first solo in Ahmedabad more than four decades ago, he has not looked back.

Among his selected solo exhibitions are 'The Pursuit of Intensity', Tao Art Gallery, Mumbai (2009); 'Banaras', Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi (2004); 'Portraits of Flower & Landscapes of River', Jehangir Gallery and Tao Art, Mumbai (2003); 'Ritual Oblations', Sakshi Gallery and Jehangir Gallery (1999); 'Homage', CIMA, Kolkata (1998); 'Still Lifes', courtesy Seagull Foundation in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata (1995-96); and 'Banaras Landscapes', Vadehra Gallery, Delhi (1991), to name a few. His noteworthy group shows include 'Aureus 2011', Gallerie Nvya, Delhi; '10 x 10', Gallery Threshold, Delhi (2010); 'Who Has Seen Gandhi?' courtesy Tangerine, Bangalore; 10th Anniversary Show', Tao Art (2010); 'Snow', The Palette Gallery, Delhi with Tao Art (2010); and ‘Seven Indian Artists’, an international traveling show (1982). A recipient of Padma Shree in 1992, he has also won an award from Birla Academy of Art & Culture, Kolkata (1991); National Award, LKA, Delhi (1982); AIFACS Award, Delhi (1974, 1972), and President of India's Silver Plaque (1972).

Benares or Banaras, a holy city filled with of mysticism and melancholia, has played a major role in his progression after he first visited it. All shades of eerie expressions like hope, faith, and despair reflect in his work. Recounting the numbing experience, he recounts in an interview, “For me, Delhi was a new city. I was struggling with my career and paintings. It was difficult to create. I experienced a void and made a decision to travel o Benares. Since then, I went there time and again.” His series of paintings revolving around Benares render the battle between faith and fear, a unique facet of human psyche.

In fact, whether it’s Jerusalem, Turkey, Rome, Ladakh or Benares, the sensitive artist tries to ignore the strife and differences around religion. Instead he earnestly seizes the fervor and spontaneously translates it into a splendor of color and line on canvas. This facet of his practice was evident at a series of works on view at Tao in Mumbai, a couple of years ago. He even named this series comprising a dozen or so large canvases as ‘Chant and Flowers from Heaven’.

Curated by art scholar-critic Ranjit Hoskote, ‘The Pursuit of Intensity’ marked a significant shift in his artistic journey. The curator had elaborated, “In it, cosmic flowers explode across his pictorial surfaces which shimmer with the beauty of pattern and the lyrical unpredictability of gesture.” Elaborating on his suite of celebratory works, Manu Parekh had mentioned: “I haven’t really lost my love for the head-study but I chose to focus on abstract forms and floral motifs in this set of works. My canvas cannot any longer be just a space for expressing personal feelings. Here I wish to embrace something more universal and dip into that great energy, which drives us towards faith.”

Not averse to experiment, he recently collaborated with poet-writer-journalist Pritish Nandy who revisited memories of collaborating with rebel feminist writer Kamala Das for a poetry book, ‘Tonight, This Savage Rite’. Importantly, it acquired a whole new look with deft drawings by Manu Parekh. It’s a compilation that celebrates love, first published in 1979. When Nandy returned to poetry last year, Harper Collins made him revisit the idea. With his touch of imagination, the book was given a contemporary look with a new set of drawings by the veteran artist.

According to him, they have added a new dimension to the book. The poet-writer elaborated in an interview: “Manu Parekh and I have known each other from my Kolkata days. So, there is a familiarity with each other's work. The artist understands my poetry and has worked with me earlier. So the collaboration gives the book not only a more contemporary feel but also a new cutting edge.”

Summing up processes and philosophy an artist, Manu Parekh states: "I work like an actor: I remain the same actor, but perform and create situations within a different role." This not only encapsulates his practice but also his approach towards life, as well as the various subjects and the still life objects he paints from a unique perspective.