It was on a boat ride one evening in 1979 that artist Manu Parekh got hooked to the city of Varanasi. “I saw the play of the god-made light from the sky and the man-made light from the temple, and in between there were moving shadows of different colours, like in a theatre,” Parekh says. The magical moment marked the beginning of a long relationship between the artist and his muse.
His paintings seem to capture the city as if he’s viewing it from a boat, with temples and buildings along the banks, its inner sanctum becoming a theatrical stage with its play of light.
Mumbai-based Art and Soul Gallery is presenting a retrospective of the artist’s work, Manu Parekh, 60 Years Of Selected Works, at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Mumbai, from 13 March-15 April. A book with the same title will be released in collaboration with the Union ministry of culture. The more than 150 works span nearly six decades of a career in which Parekh explored rituals, the Bhagalpur blindings, the city of Varanasi, and the “heads” of characters in Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
The fact that the city is visually over-represented in art and photography did not deter Parekh. Varanasi is also the muse, for instance, of abstract artist Ram Kumar. “I respect Ram Kumar a lot, but he represents Varanasi spatially and structurally. He is more concerned with the geometrical symmetry of the buildings, banks and temples,” Parekh says. “I am interested in its rituals and notions of fertility and celebration.” Drama is also present in the way he portrays flowers as formidable characters that often loom larger than the landscape.
Parekh’s work has gone through distinct styles and subjects. In the early years, distraught at the Bhagalpur blindings of 1979-80, he produced the expressionistic series Man Made Blindness, with tortured, grimacing faces with gashes and wounds. At almost the same time, he visited Varanasi, which resulted in a life-long exploration of its rituals and temples. And he started making animal heads after watching a kill in Africa.
He was quite influenced by 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. “In my Varanasi paintings, it’s the reflection of the sky in water that dominates the canvas, apart from small pockets of light in the temple on the banks,” says Parekh.
Tarana Khubchandani, director of the Art and Soul Gallery, says the NGMA’s multi-storeyed galleries provide a great viewing experience by segregating the works, yet unifying them all. “We have planned the display in a manner that traces significant periods and influences in Manu bhai’s long career, separating the works at different levels,” she says.
Manu Parekh, 60 Years Of Selected Works will be held at the National Gallery of Modern Art from 13 March-15 April, 11am-6pm (Tuesday-Sunday).