One of India’s most celebrated modernists, artist Manu Parekh is known for his powerful landscapes and bold strokes. At 80, he follows the discipline of a craftsperson, spending hours at his studio. His ongoing exhibition presented by Saffronart in Delhi comprises his recent works, where the modernist borrows from western masters. He talks about his influences, Banaras as his muse and how artists should be willing to take risks. Excerpts:
This exhibition comes after your much-celebrated retrospective ‘Manu Parekh: 60 Years of Selected Works’ in 2018. If you could share your thoughts while making these works?
This set of works was influenced by the retrospective. During the exhibition, especially in Delhi, I would visit the venue almost everyday to study the work on display and the evolution. At times, when you are working, there are several complexes with regard to how will people react. I think one should do what they feel like. The critical analyses can come later, why fear when making the work. For instance, my works from the ’60s did not get the same appreciation then, that they have received at the exhibition. Artists should be willing to take risks.
In this exhibition, you have made direct references to works of Western masters. Were you skeptical that some might look down upon them?
I take a lot of interest in art history. I openly admit that modern painting is a Western discipline, just like miniature came from us. Luckily in art college (Sir JJ School of Art), I got a professor like S Palsikar, who was a strict disciplinarian and taught us the techniques so well. Later, I also worked with several craftspeople while was working with the Handloom Board. From the Western masters, I learnt oil handling, the powerful strokes. In Western history, people have made direct references to past works. In India, we have this problem of ‘originality’ and try to hide any influence. Once Arshile Gorky (Armenian-American painter) told Willem de Kooning (Dutch-American artist), after viewing his work, ‘I think you are really interested in individuality’, and added, ‘If you run after originality, originality will run after you.’ Gorky would copy Picasso’s paintings to develop his own language. He was criticised for copying Western masters, but now he is reckoned as the father of New York School and abstract expressionism.
Were you always an admirer of Vincent van Gogh? In the exhibition, we see your interpretation of The Potato Eaters. You have Indianised the masterpiece.
For me, there were two van Gogh — the writer and the painter. I am a great admirer of his letter writing. When I visited Kalahandi in Odisha around 20 years ago, I immediately thought of The Potato Eaters. In my own work, I have replicated parts of it, including the lamp. Van Gogh was also influenced by others. Once Theo (his brother) was angry with van Gogh and told him that by looking at your work, I can tell you were with which artist the previous night. He would be so influenced.
In the exhibition, we also see Banaras, a city you have been painting for years. What is it about the place that it has stayed with you for so long?
I first went to Banaras after my father’s death in 1980, and have revisited it innumerable times and am still happy to go there. It is so photogenic. It is called the ‘City of Light’, but after going there for so many years, I have realised that there are two kinds of light there — man-made and god-made. God-made is how the sky changes in every season. Man-made is how it is dressed with different lighting, decoration. There are so many layers and contradictions. In this exhibition, I have referenced well-known works for painting Banaras as well (including Paul Klee’s The Tree of Houses, Chaim Soutine’s Landscape with Figures-Ceret, Claude Monet’s San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk and pichwai paintings).
In the book accompanying the exhibition, you also write about your admiration for FN Souza.
I really admired two artists from the Progressive Artists’ Group — MF Husain and FN Souza. At one level, Souza did not get the recognition he deserved during his lifetime, so I feel his work is very deep. Souza would roam different places. I did the reverse and concentrated on one place.
Painting is not like a Hindi film that releases on Friday and on Saturday-Sunday you know the film is a blockbuster. You need to work for a long time before you know you have been successful. I know this more, as I used to act earlier. There was a kick when the audience used to clap. It was a big decision for me to quit acting. To make a good work is in your hands, whether it is successful or not, you only come to know later.
We also see several heads in the current exhibition.
This series is influenced by what I did in theatre, which also shows in the Banaras series. I am influenced by set design. When someone saw the faces, they asked me if they were self-portraits, I said ‘no, but one actor is playing different roles’. The actor remains the same. When I paint a head, I paint the expression. When I paint expression, I don’t paint expression but create the situation on the face, what is happening around… India in a country with so many different faiths, contrast and contradictions and we should celebrate that.
The exhibition is on at Lalit Kala Akademi, Delhi, till November 11