The Parekhs: Man, woman and their canvasses

While the Parekhs are among a few practising husband-wife pairs in Indian art, their works are separated by a chasm, notes Gargi Gupta

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She is known for her 'simple' paintings, teeming with two-dimensional forms of human and animal figures, the kinds one sees in children's drawings or tribal murals. He is best known for his surreal landscapes of Benaras, characterised by gestural brushwork that is at once pensive and vibrant.

He learnt his craft at JJ School of Art, one of the most celebrated art schools in India; she is largely self-taught. He is eloquent, holding forth with articulate energy on his art, the painters who influenced him, the politics of art, etc. She is ever cordial, reticent and prefers to stick to a corner at art events. Media interviews, she admits, bore her.

The contrast between the personality and practice of Manu and Madhvi Parekh, one of the few practising husband-wife pairs in Indian art, couldn't be more glaring. And yet, as one looks at paintings made over the decades at their concurrently running retrospectives in the capital (Manu Parekh: 60 years of Selected Works was on show at the National Gallery of Modern Art from mid-August to last Sunday, while Madhvi Parekh: The Curious Seeker, opened on September 21 at Delhi Art Gallery and will run till the end of November) one notices that they share a common penchant for experimentation and for trying out new expressions and subjects as a response to new realities, new places and new paintings. This is not common in contemporary art where artists tend to stick with an expression that has found favour with patrons and critics.

"I think it was because I had a job that I could do so much experimental work. The pressure of the market was not there," says Manu Parekh, who worked for over 25 years with the Weavers Service Centre, under the Ministry of Textiles, helping traditional artisans develop new designs. In fact, many of the saris that she wears, Madhvi says, are her husband's designs. "It was my job," continues Manu, "that gave me the freedom to do the Ritual Oblation series at one time, then turn to Graffiti of Violence, and a week later do the Bhagalpur series."

For Madhvi, whose first exercise in art under the tutelage of her husband entailed making squares, circles and triangles, the complexity of her recent canvasses is the result of her exposure to new places and new art seen during her travels. The Parekhs married in 1958, when she was just 16 and he 19, and have two daughters, the elder of whom, Manisha, is a well-known contemporary artist. "Until 1994, when my younger daughter Deepa left home, I was a full-time mother," says Madhvi. The Last Supper series, for instance, grew out of the experience of Leonardo da Vinci's legendary painting at the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. "I've made several versions of the painting over the past few years," she says. "It's hard," she adds, with rare candour, "to get all the details right — the composition of the figures, the position of the fingers holding a cup, the expression of innocence and guilt."

Madhvi, unlike most artists, including her husband, does not have a studio. She paints at home in a small room off the kitchen, sitting on a wicker stool with the canvas propped against a wall, from where she can check whether the maid has swabbed the floor. The room even has a swing — a fixture in most traditional Gujarati homes. Painting, one gets the sense, is life itself, to be done along with all the other things one does. As Madhvi says, "You cook, you take care of the children's studyies, you cook and you paint."

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