Artist Manu Parekh has always been rooted in his Indianness—be it while working with textiles or even building his own oeuvre.
Nearing 80, this endeavour still persists. At his recent retrospective at the Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi, Parekh wowed with 43 new works—each celebrating his idea of India, while also giving at times subtle nods to artists and paintings that have remained with him down the years.
So, you have a clear reference to Claude Monet or even Vincent van Gogh’s distinct style of painting the skies—the fiery orange of Monet and the starry blue of van Gogh.
There is also a brilliant take on van Gogh’s famous Potato Eaters—Parekh presents it as Potato Eaters of Kalahandi.
Explains the artist, “I think the scenario here is so similar.” His recent collection boasts a lot of landscapes as this Padma Shri-awardee believes that no one in India does landscapes. He thinks that his peers have not really utilised the advantages that India offers.
“India is such a culturally rich and diverse country. Why do we need to ape and please the West? Why not portray what is here?”
The artist himself has been involved in encouraging art at the grassroots. From working in clusters in villages across the country to keeping Indianness alive in his own canvas, he has worked with a single aim: to present to the world everything that India is.
In fact, he says that Indian artists have also steered clear of channelling the pain of their own country. “Partition is still such a raw and painful reminder, yet we hardly have any paintings on it. We do have a lot of Partition literature, but in art works, there is possibly only Satish Gujral who has done something.
The same is the case with other atrocities, for example the ones on the Dalits,” rues the artist who has an entire body of work on the infamous Bhagalpur Blindings.
The holy city of Varanasi has been Parekh’s constant companion. He first visited the city in the 80s after the death of his father and says the city offered him the solace he was seeking. This city features predominantly in his recent exhibition.
“The temples, the ghats, the river, everything is so breathtaking.” Parekh also spent a decade of his life in then-Calcutta and he believes it is that city that made him what he is.
“I owe a lot to the Bengal School of Art. I was also associated for a short while with the Progressive Movement, but I believe that the Bengal School of Art had more possibility and it was somehow pushed back.”
A self-confessed admirer of FN Souza—he has dedicated a work to Souza, titled St Souza—Parekh agrees that though Souza did not really get the attention he deserved while he was alive, his art has seen an exponential demand in recent years.
“I would always tell him that you would one day beat everyone in the race,” he chuckles.
While on the topic of Souza, he has one grievance though: “He would paint landscapes much like a composer—putting together an assortment of images to create the final dazzling piece. But even then, his images would largely be from the West and not from the beautiful locales around him.”
The fact that Parekh at one time was also involved in theatre—he has staged productions, arranged stage props and even acted—influences his art.
Says the artist, “I would never have been able to paint the kind of faces I do had I not come from a theatre background. It helps me see within a person.”
A self-confessed movie buff, his recent retrospective also has Peter O’Toole, Marlon Brando and William Defoe in character of different films. “Films have always been a major part of my life. Every time I paint, I keep going back to things that have inspired me and I portray the same on my canvas,” he smiles.