The rooster stands tall, white against a black background. Its entrails seem to spill out in multicoloured neon and shades of brown; etched within its outlines is the story of a village—the flowers, the trees, the soil. This drawing by Nagji Patel is part of the Pachmadi series, named after the hill station (Pachmarhi) in Madhya Pradesh. It is also one of the pieces on display at Patel’s exhibition, Enshrined Objects, at Gallery Espace in New Delhi. The three-floor gallery will show three dimensions of Patel’s work— sculptures, drawings and photographs of his public art.
Seventy-year-old Patel has already exhibited extensively in India and abroad. He did his MA (Fine Arts) in sculpture at the MS University of Baroda, after which he was awarded a government of India scholarship that allowed him to tour the country and learn different stone carving techniques from masons across India. He won the Lalit Kala Akademi national award in 1961 for his stone sculpture Torso, and again in 1976 for another stone sculpture Pink Bust. “During the exploration of the relationship between the rural and urban forms by artists in the late 1960s and 1970s, Patel’s work was very important,” says Roobina Karode, art historian and curator of the New Delhi show.
Patel has been sculpting for the past 44 years, and his work consists mostly of simple forms and textures that reflect his personality and perception. “He has the ability to take his rural recollections and convert them into modernist language,” says Karode. Having grown up in Juniji Tharadi, a village 35km from Vadodara, his first patron was his mother. “Unlike other mothers, mine always encouraged me to play and to create. I never had any high ambitions, it was more fun than work,” says Patel. The artist still maintains close associations with the place he grew up in; he owns farmland where he grows sugar cane and cotton. It is the one place where, he says, he can just relax and feel free.
Nagji Patel’s Pachmadi, drawing on paper, 2004
The uniqueness of Patel’s works lies in his ability to take these rural associations and bring them out in his work. “Nagji Patel is one of the first people to use stone in a path-breaking way. He was also one of the first to use both the rugged and smooth surfaces of stone in a combination to create a feeling of sensuality and even sexuality,” says New Delhi-based artist Nilima Sheikh. Patel is best known for his sculptures, which today sell for Rs4-38 lakh. “His series Implements had almost an archaeological quality about them. They were like finds from another time, and yet familiar,” adds Sheikh.
Karode feels the artist’s work has evolved over the years and become more flexible. “He used to concentrate more on simple structures and on one medium, mostly stone, but today he tries to incorporate different materials in an assemblage,” she says. But Patel’s preferred medium is still natural materials such as stone and bronze. He believes there is a spirit inside forms that needs to be expressed through the texture and feel of stone. “I can appreciate works from plastic and fibreglass, but I cannot work with it,” he says. Patel has also created extensive public works such as those at the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seoul and Sculpture Park, Aji-Mure Town, Japan, and, of course, in Vadodara.
While sculptures may be his passion, drawings bring out the innocence Patel once learned from his young students. “His drawings are like paintings” says Renu Modi, owner of Gallery Espace. He began drawing while teaching at various schools in Vadodara over 15 years. “I used to teach 6- to 7-year-olds. It was while playing and learning from them that I was inspired to draw,” he says. The quickness of drawing allows Patel to capture his first impressions, which he may then reinterpret in his sculptures, which take longer. Today, his drawings sell for between Rs60,000 and Rs2 lakh.
Patel’s greatest inspiration is Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi. Both have similar rural beginnings, which both carried into their sculptural works. The simple lines, use of birds and representation of the essence of an object that the Romanian sculptor believed in is reflected in Patel’s work as well. The influence is clear, as is the hero worship, “The time that I went to Romania and saw his work and was in his studio in Paris, those were the most satisfying moments of my life”. Enshrined Objects is on till 8 February at Gallery Espace, New Delhi.