IN ONE OF HIS LAST few exhibitions titled ‘The Footboard Rider’ in 2017 in Mumbai, Gieve Patel included a large work that had the view of the surface of a well. Wells were a later preoccupation in Patel’s life as a painter, the first of which he reportedly painted in 1991. He had an entire series called ‘Looking into the Well’. They originated from his remembrances of his visits to a village in Gujarat named Nargol, where his family hailed from. There were many such wells there and as a child, and even later, as an adult sometimes, he formed the habit of looking into them. Many have found these paintings akin to a spiritual quest, where Patel was in fact looking into himself. Some have even found it morbid, that he was presenting to viewers things most would rather not acknowledge. “I don’t see this as morbid,” he told the Indian Express then. “I’d say that comes more from a desire to not evade things which might puzzle one or frighten one… By not evading them, you have a certain degree of freedom from them.”
Patel, who died from cancer recently, was hailed, both in his paintings and poems, for his unvarnished and idiosyncratic voice. Perhaps the better description, as he had suggested, would be the freedom that came from un-evasiveness and clarity.
Viewed as one of the key figures in Indian poetry and painting in the last few decades, he was also a playwright and, interestingly, a doctor. He ran a clinic as a general physician for about four decades in Mumbai Central with most of his patients constituting the city’s poor. He retired from medical practice sometime in the mid-2000s. Many have been curious about this unusual combination of roles and wondered if one did not affect the other. And Patel is once said to have jokingly remarked to a journalist, “I write in the early morning, then practice [medicine], and paint in the afternoon.” He had become a doctor because many in his family had been in the medical profession, including a grandfather, and his father who was a dentist. If these roles did clash with one another, he didn’t admit to it. The only time it did, he told the poet Arundhathi Subramaniam, was the period he was in medical college when his family wanted him to pursue medicine only. “But then, these people began to give up on me. That helped! I decided to do all three and I’ve been happy since,” he told her.
Born in 1940 in then Bombay, Patel is believed to have started writing poems in his teens. He found a mentor in the celebrated poet Nissim Ezekiel, who helped publish the young poet’s first collection, titled Poems when he was just 26 years old. Mumbai was a vibrant space for emerging writers then. There was however a dearth of spaces where poets could publish their works, and in 1976, Patel and a few other celebrated poets like Arun Kolatkar, Adil Jussawalla, and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra tried rectifying that when they formed a publishing cooperative called Clearing House. It turned out to be a shortlived experiment, but in the years it was operational, it published many well-regarded works, including Patel’s second book How Do You Withstand, Body?
He was working on his art too, just as he was on his poems, early in life. Entirely self-taught, he had begun, he told interviewers, by copying reproductions from books and colouring them. Later, he would seek out artists at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai. Interestingly, he exhibited his first collection of paintings in the same year (1966) he published his first book of poems. Patel also wrote several plays.
Patel, his admirers say, had the tendency to look unflinchingly at every experience or grim aspect of life, whether these were his ‘Looking into the Well’ series or his poems, some of which looked closely at the human body (one of them even describes an autopsy). “What motivates most of my creative activity is the need for knowledge,” he told Subramaniam. “My way of ‘knowing’ something is by writing or painting. This gives me a sense of having made it on my own. The end result is a move towards inner clarity, however, clothed in ambivalence.”