In 1985, in an art world dominated by men, four women artists from India came together to exhibit their works — Madhvi Parekh, Nilima Sheikh, Arpita Singh and Nalini Malani. While the practice of each differed from the other, Parekh, according to art critic Gayatri Sinha, stands apart. “It (her work) resists claiming the female body as much as it resists interiority and the compulsions of domesticity, and turns, instead, the gaze of the traveller outward and away,” Sinha notes in the publication The Curious Seeker.
The artist was also distinct from others in the group, as all of them had formal training in art. Parekh, instead, had trained in art within her domestic confines. When husband Manu Parekh gifted the young bride Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook to practice geometric shapes, she started drawing forms on her own. Some of these works, from the early ’60s, comprise an exhibition at Delhi Art Gallery in Hauz Khas, also titled “The Curious Seeker”. Featuring works till the present, the retrospective spans five decades.
“When I look at all this work, I sometimes find it hard to believe it is by me,” says Madhvi, 75. She recalls the first time she browsed Klee’s book at her Mumbai home. “Within a couple of days, I got bored practising the geometric shapes. Soon, circles became faces, and squares turned into the body,” she adds. We see some of these experiments in her work from the ’60s, where vast fields and geometric shapes occupy the canvas. At her very first exhibition in 1968, along with Manu, at the Birla Academy in Kolkata, one of her works was selected for an exhibition at the Lalit Kala Akademi. In Kolkata, where the Parekhs resided from the mid-’60s to the ’70s, her visits to the puja pandals at Ballygunge led her to paint goddesses who still appear in her work — from Durga seated on a lion in a 2005 acrylic-on-canvas, to a 2006 reverse painting with the goddess on a mountain.
She borrowed as much from mythology as from her travels across the globe, be it the art camps initiated by Vivan Sundaram in Kasauli in the ’70s, or her 2006 visit to Jerusalem or the 2007 trip to South Africa. In 2010, in Milan, she saw the original The Last Supper painted by Leonardo da Vinci. “I had seen it on postcards earlier but looking at it in person was a different experience altogether,” she says. The work was to leave a lasting impact. She had childhood memories of accompanying her father to the village square to hear tales of Christ, as narrated by Christian missionaries. Years later, during her trip to Jerusalem, she was disturbed during a visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. Right outside, the portrait of Christ on the facade of a church calmed her.
“I felt moved by the plight of millions of Jews who were killed. The Christ portrait seemed opposite of all the hatred and atrocity I had just seen. The image of Jesus attracted me and I started drawing him,” says Madhvi. Since then, she has painted her own versions of The Last Supper — a 2010 reverse painting on acrylic sheet with Jesus and his disciples on the table, to a 2011 work where their attires are much more detailed, and the window opens to a starry sky. In the current exhibition, there are several other portraits of Christ as well — on a ship with his disciples, nailed on the cross, and with the hallow. He is visiting a world inhabited by a smiling sun, angelic creatures, animals and birds, a surrounding familiar to Madhvi.
Comprising around 70 works, the exhibition reflects on the influences that shaped Madhvi’s art — from memories of her childhood spent in the temple town of Sanjaya in Gujarat, to her father’s Gandhian way of life, her training in Montessori pedagogy, and Manu’s employment at the Weaver’s Service Center. Describing her works in the exhibition catalogue “The Centre and the Periphery”, Jyotindra Jain writes: “Madhvi is not a folk artist nor does her work belong to an established ideological or aesthetic movement of modern art, though one often reads quotes from Paul Klee, Miro, Picasso or Clemente in her work. In her paintings, as in her life, she keeps transgressing between the two worlds — the one of her rural inheritance, and that of the universal modern art practice, negotiating both”. An accompanying publication discusses her oeuvre, the folk elements her work shares with Jamini Roy’s and the evident “Klee aesthetic”.
The exhibition is on display at DAG Modern, Hauz Khas Village, New Delhi, till November 4