As I nibble on buttery biscuits, painter Manu Parekh suddenly asks: “Enough about me. Now tell me about yourself.” We had been chatting about his work and influences for almost an hour at his residence in Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park. “I write,” I tell him and add impulsively, “and I have a two-year-old daughter.” His eyes soften as he smiles and says, “Children change you. They make you want to make everything better. Maybe that’s why Madhvi (his artist-wife) decided to take up painting when she was pregnant.”
He was 18 and she 15 when they got married in 1958. “Our parents had arranged our marriage when we were just kids aged 12 and 9,” says Parekh, who grew up in a god-fearing household in Ahmedabad.“We lived apart for the first four years since I was studying [in Mumbai] at the time. But I would visit her regularly in Sanjaya [in Gujarat’s Anand district] and realised very early on that she was a free and fierce spirit. That’s why when she told me she wanted to paint I did everything I could to support her,” he adds.
Parekh studied painting at the Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai, while Madhvi is a self-taught artist. “I was very influenced by [German-Swiss painter] Paul Klee at the time and was trying to combine his style with that of Indian folk art. I taught Madhvi to do the same. She started doing better than me and so I decided to find myself another style. I’m a good husband,” Parekh, who turned 80 last month, jokes.
In a painting career that spans more than 60 years, the Padma Shri awardee has been preoccupied with two subjects — flowers and the landscape of Varanasi. His job as a design consultant for the Handicrafts and Handlooms Export Corporation of India gave him the opportunity to travel the length and breadth of rural India. “Having worked in villages, I became very aware of how, as an agrarian society, our lives revolve around the concept of fertility. Our rituals are about celebrating the life-giving powers of nature and of the union between male and female. This obsession seeped into my work in the form of flowers,” he explains. His flowers are fleshy and sensual, pulsating with desire. Sexual imagery in his paintings is normalised but not sanitised. “I’m not interested in the mechanics of sex; I’m interested in what you gain from the act,” he says.
What do you gain, I ask. “We’ve created an artificial discourse around the relationship between men and women. It’s become all about power and dominance. But that’s not what it is in essence, is it? Sex, for me, is a manifestation of our ability to come together, to be in tune. If you make that effort, you do end up transforming your life for the better,” he replies.
For the artist, also a recipient of the Lalit Kala Akademi (LKA) Award, the celebration of love and life is closely associated with faith, a theme that runs through his works on Varanasi. Flowers adorn the ghats of the temple town, too. “In one ghat you see newly-weds performing Ganga puja wearing colourful clothes and flowers. You walk ahead to Manikarnika and you see the same colours and flowers, just that they are now displayed on dead bodies, ” he says.
Parekh began painting Varanasi in 1980. It was a conscious decision to travel to the city to find inspiration. “I moved to Delhi from Kolkata in 1975 and experienced a crisis in my painting,” he says. Kolkata in the ’60s and ’70s was throbbing with activity in the fields of film, theatre and literature, and he spent a decade there jostling with budding artists, writers and filmmakers. “When I moved to Delhi, I found myself unable to paint. It was obvious that I missed Kolkata but it took me a while to realise that I missed Kolkata as a painter too. I needed to anchor my painting to a place,” he says.
Varanasi has been unfolding itself on the artist’s canvases for 39 years now.
“I knew Varanasi was a city that inspired many painters, especially Ram Kumar. But I also knew that I would see the city differently,” he says. One of the first things he noticed about the city was its lights. “During dawn and dusk, you see two kinds of lights there. One is god-made — the brilliant pinks and oranges that animate the sky and its reflection in water. The other is man-made — tubes and bulbs that illuminate the vibrant interiors of the temples. You experience the city as a continuous affirmation of faith and that is what I wanted to paint,” Parekh says.
You see this in works such as Moon and Boat in Landscape (2019). Bold, choppy brushstrokes convey the force of wind lashing through trees, and within the dark silhouettes of temples, you see the red fabric and lights that bedeck the deities fluttering nervously. There are never any people in these landscapes, just the humble enclosures that man made to protect his stone gods from the elements.
In 2017, the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi hosted Parekh’s retrospective. The exhibition titled Manu Parekh: 60 Years of Selected Works travelled to Mumbai and Bengaluru as well. Though the artist has been painting with discipline every day for the past six decades, he says it is only recently that he has started making money off his works. “Most of the paintings shown in my retrospective came straight out of my storage.”
His latest exhibition Manu Parekh: Recent Paintings opened at LKA Delhi on his 80th birthday. The seven-day show featured 42 paintings that Parekh had made over the course of a single year. “I work all the time, irrespective of exhibitions and patrons. My only concern is staying healthy to be able to always paint...”
At this point, Madhvi interrupts him to ask Parekh if he had taken his morning medicines. He nods in reply. “After a few years of living together, your conversations as a couple become about who paid the electricity bill and whether you put the food back in the fridge. But because we are both painters, we travel together, talk to each other about our work. I feel grateful for that connection,” says Parekh.
Blessy Augustine is an art critic based in Delhi