In deeply religious Benares, an artist finds other faces of faith, says Karuna John
WHEN MANU PAREKH stepped onto its ghats, Benares stepped onto his canvas. The 73-year-old artist first visited the city in 1979. To him, the city is peopled not just with human beings; its stones, temples, flowers and sky too breathe as deeply. They have individual lives to live, which move beyond religious rituals and seek spiritual connections.
It is this Faith that forms the bedrock of Parekh’s first solo show in over six years. It is a document of his first glimpse of the city, travelling the Ganga by boat, his tactile engagement with it once he disembarked, and the three decades he has expended in exploration. The show exhibits three series: Enlightened Stones, Landscapes and Flowers From Heaven.
The works on show are strong and focussed, the forms transforming to reflect the artist’s experience. Benares, interestingly, also keeps Parekh away from obvious religious comment. “My faith is my creativity and that is enough for me,” he explains. His powerful landscapes are offset by a charged fluidity a viewer may not immediately attribute to the holy city. The yoni-like flowers, birds with phallic forms and all-seeing eyes, the paintings glow with a sexual patina. The sexuality, though, is not carnal.
For Parekh, the sexual undertones of the new works are about reaching out on a spiritual level and there is a thin line between the two. “Even when you pray, you want to reach out and touch God,” he says. Art critic S Kalidas says, “This exhibition shows Parekh’s works at their most developed because the colour, line, form, sexuality all come and fall in place. It is the grand flowering of Manu Parekh.” It is an interesting choice of words because flowers are a large emblem on these canvases. “To me, flowers are dramatic, almost like people. There is uncertainty, one day it might be around a deity’s neck, the next day it’s trampled under someone’s feet,” says Parekh. The uncertainty of their fate is palpable in this work.
The Faith series moves away from Parekh’s recognisable bold lines and deep colours. The brushstrokes are finer, the colour play chic. As Parekh notes, a vernacular observation with a modern technique. The evening skies, small temples lit by diyas, even the sounds of the aarti, come together on canvases and diptychs that are larger than his norm.
While Benares has been his muse for decades, the artist shows the city as a dynamic space full of new contrasts. Has he ever been tempted to step outside that reference? “Never, I can paint Benares for the next 10 years,” he says, explaining that the city is abahana (excuse) to paint India. Parekh went to Benares after a decade of living in Kolkata, his former home that then buzzed with energy.
In contrast, Benares gave him stillness. That stillness became faith.
Karuna John is Associate Editor, Tehelka.com.