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The Magic of the Abstract

A spiritual safari of saffron


Benares and the weaves of India animate Manu Parekh's abstract works.

A crisis, a turning point in his life, led Manu Parekh to seek the solace of Benaras. Or maybe it was the place he had always yearned to return to since 1962, when as a 22-year-old, he took a boat ride past the picturesque ghats of Benaras, and was captivated. The memories of those magical moments - of the lights reflected on the still waters of the Ganges, the haunting sounds of the temple bells, people praying on the banks - lured Parekh back to forge a deeper, more iridescent bond. The one that has resulted in Faith, his exhibition on Benaras, showing at the Art Alive gallery in Gurgaon.

The ancient city of Kashi continues to be one of the most oft-visited destinations on the 73-year-old's itinerary. Seated next to his painting Flowers from Heaven he talks about how walking through its narrow alleys always throws up fresh experiences and anubhav (feelings). "But you'll never find me sitting in a quiet corner with a sketch-book or paints and easel. I make notes in my mind, or at best take snaps with my camera or my phone, " he says, reaching for his mobile to show us the photographs he's clicked and stored. There's a night shot of diyas glowing gently on the Ganges. "I just clicked it because they looked so beautiful. Later, when I was working on a painting, the diyas just found their way into it. "

Another "undercurrent" that most paintings share is inspired by the textile weaves that the artist came in contact with while working with The All India Handloom Board. "We used to work with the weavers of coastal Orissa or Mithila, " he says. "It was a very ideological job - to support and keep alive the traditions of the textile industry. "

Spread across two floors of the gallery in a splendid display of line and colour, Parekh's works are a feast for those who appreciate abstract art. If you're looking for the bells of Benares and temple outlines, you won't find them in this exhibition. "I don't show things realistically. I'm not into narrative art. My work is almost abstract. What I see or the different experiences I have just show up in my paintings at different points of time, " Parekh says. He tries to explain the seed of abstract inspiration. He observed devotees at the Sankatmochan Hanuman Temple in Benaras first put a tilak on their foreheads and then wipe their finger on the adjoining wall. "The result is a wall full of saffron-coloured dots in varied shades of orange. " So, have these been transferred onto canvas? "I don't know, " he smiles, and pointing to Chant, adds, "Maybe in this one here - but in a different colour. The idea is to play with your work. In fact, I'm a firm believer that while you do only half of the painting, the rest is what the painting makes you do. It's a 50-50 affair. "

Flowers hold a special and "a very important place - not poetically but dramatically, " in Parekh's work. "You ask me for their names and I wouldn't know. But for me they are powerful symbols;they denote not just beauty and innocence but also sexuality and spirituality. " He likens the journey of a flower to a man's life. "One day they could be adorning a God's altar or be on a bridegroom's sehra (headgear), and the next day they could be crushed under someone's feet. Isn't that much like our life? You never know what life has in store for you. "

Born in Gujarat, Parekh went to the Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai and then on to Calcutta where he worked for 10 years with the Handloom Board till the mid '70s. For one who had dabbled in theatre till he gave it up to pursue painting, the city was full of opportunity and inspiration. "At that time, stalwarts like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Utpal Dutt were taking the city to great heights. It was great to be there, " he says. "I also became part of the Society of Contemporary Artists that had people like Bikash Bhattacharya, Ganesh Pyne and Shyamal Dutta Ray as its members. "

That's why perhaps Calcutta "subconsciously" finds a place in Parekh's work. "After I left it and came to Delhi, I encountered a major void in my life, " he says. Annapurna Garimella, the curator of his show adds, "Delhi for him was like a beautiful garden, designed like a metropolis. But it wasn't a 'walking city' like Calcutta, a place he could connect to. " That's when his search for a "personal landscape with a vibrant human energy, ideological contradictions, continuity of tradition (all of which Calcutta had)" led him to Benaras.

It's been almost 32 years since he's been visiting Benaras and "each time I go there, a new experience awaits me". Parekh confesses how each time he takes a boat ride down the river, the play of lights and the vibrant, human energy of the place (" much like Calcutta's" ) always stirs up a "spiritual feeling" in him. But this should not be mistaken for a religious connection, cautions Art Alive's Sunaina Anand. "It's just about faith that the city evokes in Manuda. "

Take for instance his mural from the series Transformed Stone that is a shout of energy in red and yellow. Talking about it, Parekh says, "No visitor to Benaras can help but notice clusters of Shivlingas all over. It's fascinating how even ordinary stones there become worthy of worship. That's what faith is all about. And faith is what keeps people going anywhere in the world - be it in Jerusalem or the Vatican or Bethlehem or Ajmer. "

The section Glimpses from a Boat has Parekh's early body of work - virtuoso modernist landscapes, some dating back to the '80s. Anand says the richly hued works show "how his journey to the city has become a 'search of life'. And with time, it has turned inwards. " According to her, the search is still on, "but it's a more confident search now".

Sexuality is present not just in the Shivlingas but even in the gentler lines, forms and colours of Repeating Forms that uses the concept of repetition to arrive at something profound. "It's about reaching out, about looking at life with hope. " He remembers how newly married couples come to the Dashashwamedh Ghat in Benaras for prayers and blessings. "It's the way they reach out - to each other and to God - that captured my imagination. It's this continuity in tradition that I saw in Calcutta too, that while giving comfort, it also paves the way for something new, without necessarily creating a rift with the familiar. That's how it is in Benaras. "

'Faith' is on at the Art Alive Gallery, Gurgaon, till May 12.

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