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Footboard Rider: Of Life and Death in Gieve Patel’s Art

‘Footboard Rider’, 2016, acrylic on canvas, by Gieve Patel.

A conversation with the artist Gieve Patel cannot be limited to referencing his art. The rigour with which his work has celebrated and delineated the human condition over decades, the effortless way in which death has been made meaningful – not sensational or gratuitous – and his own wonder at what that last journey might involve...these ideas dominate a Sunday morning meeting with the painter, poet, playwright and physician at his Cusrow Baug residence in Mumbai. One expects to see a life-sized model of a human skeleton hanging about casually, as his work is famous for its intimate and violent expression of the body. Instead, a wooden frame languidly stretches out over a wall – or maybe it’s the wall that is actually the frame. His latest exhibition of art works titled ‘Footboard Rider’ is to show at the Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke in Mumbai, starting January 19.

Patel’s paintings and poetry dance between the profound and the profane, but his demeanour is gentle and unassuming. We sit in a room that doesn’t give away much. There is an empty easel, a few cushions and chairs to sit upon and some books. The 76-year-old Patel is not as reticent. He speaks in evenly- measured tones that occasionally have hints of laughter. He could be talking about science-fiction or reality or the space connecting the two. But always, there is a twinkle behind his gaze.

While the city runs a marathon outside, Patel is doing what he likes to do on a day off – watch the world go by. This is the skin he is most comfortable in – that of an observer, a witness to the truth and beauty of humanity. The new show contains 12 works, both old and new, that journey through his preoccupations over the decades. ‘Footboard Rider’, the single acrylic on canvas from which the show gets its name, is as much about the commuter asleep inside the train as about a man, awake, and hanging out of the window. A second painting titled ‘Looking Into A Well’ again presents the travel between inner and outer spaces and is not just about any one way of looking at the world.

Patel says, “People who see my set of paintings titled ‘Looking Into A Well’ often remark that they feel they are looking up at the world through the mouth of the well. For me, I would say it is the same experience – inner and outer are the same.” It is this notion that gets expressed across his works, inviting viewers to take a second look. Taking the thought further, he says, “One of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century is that thoughts are actions and that there is no difference between the two. When you conceive of something in your mind you are creating an action, though not literally. I have created an action in my life which I have to deal with.” Patel shies from using the word karma. “At one time we used to believe that thought has no substantiality but today one would have to reconsider that.” For Patel, this does not mean an attempt to discipline one’s thought. Instead he calls it a freedom. Acknowledging the existence of a thought and taking responsibility can be liberating, he says.

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