Manu Parekh is an Indian painter and a third-generation modernist, best known for his several paintings on the city of Varanasi. He was born in Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat in 1939. Under the training of Mukund Shroff, he obtained a Diploma in Drawing and Painting from Sir J.J. School of Art, Mumbai, in 1962. Influenced by the works of Rabindranath Tagore and F. N Souza, he endeavored to explore his inner landscape in his works. His landscapes are known for the instinctive use of color, bold brushstrokes, and prominent lines. With concepts centric to nature, daily life, and social issues, he has experimented with colorful abstractions and figuration.
Manu Parekh is best known for his series on Banaras in which he illustrates the colorful and eccentric “city of light” that never fails to inspire him. He has stated in many published interviews that he went to Banaras at a turning point. In his career, he has held numerous solo shows and participated in a variety of group exhibitions in India and abroad. His works have been displayed in many important public and private collections. He currently lives and works in New Delhi.
The Influence Of Theatre
The sense of drama in Manu Parekh’s distinct brushstrokes and expressive portraits stems from his background in theatre. Between the late 1950s and early 1960s, he participated in many inter-college drama competitions, designed sets, and acted in plays. The Gujarati playwright, Tarak Mehta was his first director. The artist has said that theatre has played a crucial role in his career. He is also famously known for saying, “When I paint heads, I paint expressions.”
The Journey At JJ School Of Art
When Manu Parekh arrived at Sir JJ School of Art in 1962, he discovered the philosophy of Paul Klee. He was greatly influenced by his pedagogy, especially by Paul Klee’s “Thinking Eye”. A line from ‘Thinking Eye’ which weighs greatly on Parekh’s artistic philosophy is, “The fundamental themes are always those of non-positivity, elusiveness and the uncertainty of existence”. In his early years as an artist, he was eager to combine the formal qualities of Indian folk art with the line and rhythm in Paul Klee’s work. This is seen in his works on paper through till the mid-’60s. An example of this is, ‘The Head of Boy’, 1961.
The Exposure To A World Of Traditional Crafts
Manu Parekh joined the Weavers’ Service Centre, an initiative of the All India Handloom Board headed by the renowned cultural activist and writer Pupul Jayakar, shortly after receiving his diploma in Drawing and Painting from Mumbai’s JJ School of Art in 1963. Pupul was known for her work on the revival of traditional and village arts in India and this exposed him to the world of handloom and handicrafts. He travelled to rural Orissa, Rajasthan, and Haryana, working as an art designer, to document traditional crafts like Ikat and Madhubani. This experience impacted the artist’s early works. He has stated that most of the weavers he met were agriculturists and the themes of fertility and nature in his works were derived from his experiences in those villages.
“When I was working in the villages of Rajasthan, Orissa, and Bihar, I was overwhelmed by the imagery there. At present, the trend for Indian artists is being in metro cities and then moving abroad. I tried to find Indian roots in my time and wanted to Indianise all the energy I found there in my work”, he said in an interview.
The Banaras Series
Kolkata was the artist’s muse for the ten years that he lived in that city (1965-75), but the pilgrim city of Varanasi has had him intrigued and captivated for three decades. He first visited Varanasi in the 1980s and since then it has inspired a large body of works widely known as the Banaras Series.
In the Banaras series, he has painted the famous ghats brimming with activity and the temple spires against a vivid backdrop of orange hues of sunsets and cobalt blue skies. Bold, distinct, and dark strokes define the famous Varanasi landscapes and riverscapes. The series gives the audience a walking tour of the city describing the temples, trees, and boats- elements that largely define the holy city. He has said that the series features works that are distinguished by the recurring motif of the stylized structure of temples, the churches, and the mosques which makes them spiritually powerful and secular in their approach.
Parekh’s inspiration for his series stems from his admiration for the mundane activities of the people of Banaras. He incorporated their daily activities in his paintings such as people offering their prayers as he watched over the ghats or even the simplest of activities such as talking to friends, doing yoga, or even sleeping. He viewed the holy city as a miniature world without a second of silence. “Till date, I’m not bored of painting a Banaras landscape,” Manu Parekh said in an interview. “It’s a city full of energy where you can witness life and death together.”
The artist has also made a black-and-white landscape of Banaras since the city has been imagined by most artists to be saturated with color. “I took a challenge to make Banaras in black-and-white. I feel black-and-white could be colorful, too, as it offers rich experiment through its tones,” said Parekh in an interview.
Artistic Roots In Kolkata
As a young artist, he was very influenced by the writings and paintings of Rabindranath Tagore. He has always loved Bengali cinema and theatre and these have had huge influences on his life and work. He went on to study on his own at Shantiniketan Kala Bhavan, where he absorbed the works of Ram KinkerBaij and Rabindranath Tagore. He studied their works on a perceptual level than on a stylistic one and this urged him to delve deeper into the thoughts that developed his oeuvre. In his Varanasi paintings, it’s the reflection of the sky in water that dominates the canvas, apart from the small pockets of light in the temple on the banks. This is an example of the influence of Rabindranath Tagore’s work, in which the sky is the main site of action, unlike Western paintings where the sky is in the background and water in the foreground.
He also believes it was in Kolkata that he formed his artistic roots. He was attracted to the darkness the city offered. At times he was attracted as well as repulsed since it was so artistic and intense at one level whereas so dark and full of poverty on another. He believes his Banaras series also has its roots in Kolkata.
Style Of Work
Manu Parekh has always been intrigued by Polemics. His paintings urge the viewers to finally take notice of the world around them through the lens of emotion, anguish, and pain. His vivid colors and prominent lines emanate an energy so volatile, it can be barely confined within the limits of his canvas which finally become an extension of the artist’s personality. For example, the Bhagalpur blindings had a deep impact on the artist and he portrayed his agony and pathos in a series of expressionistic paintings that reveal his humanistic approach to life.
Although vernacular culture and language are evident in many of his works, one can observe the influences of master artists like Pablo Picasso. Parekh has also highlighted his relationship with his wife Madhvi, a self-taught artist as a key influence on his works.
Parekh has always found himself close to subjects of faith and religion. In his series ‘Rituals’, he has created the incident of “looking”, by extensively using fabric and painted eyes. “Human beings have always looked up to faith. Come whatever, in any circumstances, the phenomenon of faith has been irreplaceable. The presence of clothes is seen in diverse places of worship and the eyes are always offering a strong connection between the deity and the people”, he said in an interview. He has also said that the outdoors of a religious place fascinates him more than it’s indoors. The objects and graffiti which are usually found outside a temple are a constant source of imagery in his work. He has always tried to bring a certain amount of Indianness into his work. This is the reason why Manu Parekh has always admired Rabindranath Tagore, who brought Indian art into the modern context.
- Birla Academy of Art and Culture award,1971 and 1991
- Silver Plaque of the President of India,1972
- All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society (AIFACS) award,1972 and 1974
- National Art Award from the Lalit Kala Akademi,1982
- Padma Shri by the Government of India,1991
Manu Parekh’s works take the viewers on an emotional roller coaster, urging them to burst out of their bubble and take notice of their immediate surroundings. His works shatter the monotony of everyday life and the surroundings that we often find ourselves caught up in.
Hindustan Times. (2017). An artists’ meet: Manu Parekh in conversation with Rajeev Lochan. [online] Available at: https://www.hindustantimes.com/art-and-culture/an-artists-meet-manu-parekh-in-conversation-with-ranjeev-lochan/story-ESH212Zjy2fqUKE7iim6YK.html [Accessed 17 April 2021].
Ramdev, D. (2018). From Bengal to Banaras: The eye that feels. [online] Deccan Chronicle. Available at: https://www.deccanchronicle.com/lifestyle/books-and-art/220618/from-bengal-to-banaras-the-eye-that-feels.html [Accessed 17 April 2021].
The Sunday Guardian Live. (2015). Colours of light. [online] Available at: https://www.sundayguardianlive.com/art/1366-colours-light [Accessed 17 April 2021].
The Indian Express. (2017). “Indian art history’s biggest blunder was that the Progressives dismissed the Bengal school.” [online] Available at: https://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/art-and-culture/indian-art-historys-biggest-blunder-was-that-the-progressives-dismissed-the-bengal-school-4825572/ [Accessed 17 April 2021].