The Incarnate Particularity of Forms

Gieve Patel's recent paintings are a further exploration of some of the preoccupations that he has had over the last two decades

Gieve Patel has long been preoccupied with the manner in which the rural and the urban ways of living encounter interpenetrate and modify each other in the backdrop of the post-colonial Indian experience. The preoccupation is there to see in his exhibit of the recent work on view at Gallery Chemould.

Gieve Patel, a man of many shades, was born in Mumbai in 1946. Apart from being a practicing general physician, he is a self-taught artist, a poet and a playwright - all rolled in one. Since holding his inaugural show in Mumbai in 1966, he has held several shows in India apart from exhibiting his work internationally. In the current show, he further develops some of the preoccupations that he has had as a painter over the last two decades or more. There are paintings depicting the common people engaged in their day-to-day activities; often they are in the open street, which is a second home to most of us in Mumbai. A madman by a BEST bus, and a migrant laborer getting a letter written are human scenes he picks and depicts. He admits here to his 'preoccupation with the city's street life'. 

This poet-painter-doctor draws his inspiration from various human situations. He sees a sense of poetry even in the tough and the tricky situations that ordinary people have to face and his paintings are a manifestation of this. His works regularly feature the common man doing everyday things. One can trace some recurring themes: the City, the human body, violence, Nature and spiritual aspiration in his collections of verse including 'Poems' (1966), 'How Do You Withstand Body' (1976), and 'Mirrored, Mirroring' (1991). His paintings revolve around the same theme, and reveal that he is a keen observer; the clothes, the postures, and the stances that he encounters everyday are faithfully reproduced in his work. The people depicted are presented without any pretensions or idolizations. Their bodies and physiognomies have been sharply observed with affection and sympathy.

The three paintings on view in the present exhibition have been developed around figures. These figures are 'survivors'. These are the people who have traveled to an unfamiliar terrain owing to circumstances and search for livelihood. In these paintings, the protocols of the urban manifest themselves in the rural; the reflexes of the rural persist within the urban.

Having spent his childhood in Mumbai, Gieve Patel chose to work in the village of Sanjan in Gujarat after becoming a physician. He remembers how a poor woman in the village regarded him as privileged merely by his status as a 'Bombay man who rarely comes back'. The oppressive burden found its echo in one of his early poems, which goes: 'Walking to the sea I carry/ A village, a city, the country, / For the moment/ On my back.'

His painting titled 'The Letter Home' is dominated by the figure of a scribe, that god of literary skills who writes letters for illiterate migrant workers in the city. According to the painter, "It talks about an immigrant laborer, his loneliness and his need to look out for a go between who can interpret his thoughts and, in a way, encapsulates an epoch of the city." The script indicates that the letter is being composed in Telugu. The painter wants to draw our attention to the fact that a majority of laborers in Mumbai are from Andhra Pradesh. Subtle observations such as these add a human touch to his work. At other level, he makes a subtle political point, as art critic Ranjit Hoskote puts it, by showing how workers from a different province sustain Mumbai's manic program of urban development. The eponymous 'Man in the Rain with Bread and Bananas' (oil, 2001) makes his fourth appearance in Patel's oeuvre here. In 'Madman in the Street' (oil, 2003), the eponymous lunatic poses, as though for a portrait, with a public-transport BEST bus.

As Hoskote mentions in his essay on Gieve Patel: "The beggar's claim on the returning native activates the self-doubt of the individual in transit between two conditions. If Patel's poetry has been haunted by the burden that the individual suffers, when a shift of frame produces a shift in others' perception of him - their reading of his social location and existential purpose, their imposition of an identity upon him - his painting stands back from the personal immediacy of this predicament."

The painter continues to look into a well as a mirror. Wells have been a recurring theme in his paintings since 1991 that carries on with 'Looking into a Well: Full Moon' (acrylic, 2001) and 'Looking into a Well: Foliage' (acrylic, 2002). A second set of works on view explores Gieve Patel's recurrent theme. He paints them (wells) as a metaphor as he explains to say, "The wells work on two levels. One, what they are and the other, they represent the act of looking into yourself." The act of looking into a well becomes synonymous with the introspective movement of looking into oneself, the physical universe around the well, the earth, the sides of the well with foliage, the reflection on water, all of which are richly explored.

Gieve Patel's recent paintings are on view till October 1 at Gallery Chemould, Kala Ghoda

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