Understanding Dashrath Patel

Print edition : July 17, 1999

On an artist whose work spans a wide range of creative activity, taking the ordinary aesthetics of daily life beyond their limitations.

WHEN I first met Dashrath Patel at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi, he burst into deep, tormented tears at the mention of the name of Harindranath Chattopadhyay. I immediately understood why; around me were works repeating the lines of the poet in P. Sundarayya's "Telengana People's Struggle and its Lessons", describing nature's equalising power, but in their own way:

Nought is superior or inferior To aught in her untamperable plan Of oneness and equality; no headiness Dwells in her countless details, every detail, Worthy of life, is conscious of itself And of its station in the masterpiece.

It is only from this perspective of the unity of each creative effort with others and its essential harmony with nature that one can understand the sweep of Patel's activity. Indeed, Sadanand Menon, in his curatorial note, highlights Patel's "extraordinary body of artistic work - including figurative, narrative and impressionist paintings from the late forties... the transition to conscious abstraction in the middle phase and contemporary mixed media and multi-media collages in recent years."

The same myriad quality of nature affects each medium he touches. Take ceramics; his hand flits "from the village potter's wheel at Vastrapur, Ahmedabad, to glazed pottery at Bombay potteries, to his path-breaking work in glazes and art ceramics at the School of Art, Prague, to his setting up of the ceramics department at the National Institute of Design and the industrial ceramic prototypes he made there for the NID showroom and, later, for the Rural Design School at Sewapuri." And nowhere do we see it falter. Even when he picks up mass-produced objects of use, such as bags and notebooks, he transforms them and liberates them from their pedestrian existence. One might say, just as he has liberated himself from the shackles his extraordinary creativity had been burdened with under the patronage of a state, Harindranath had mocked in the following words:

Dashrath Patel at work.-

You government Of brutal tyranny, of tinsel crowns, Self-puffed exploiters, seeming benefactors, You arms-empowered heroes, one-day actors, Time's bloody bubbles that shall burst - and soon!

So "he kept himself vulnerable and open to critique and, at a stage in his life when most people sink into comfort and sedentary celebrityhood, he chose to tread a path of uncertainty and re-learning all over again," Sadanand points out.

Can one not see in him the picture of Bhishma, lying on his bed of arrows, the father-figure of so many unworthy sons? Indeed, the tears Dashrath Patel shed that afternoon for Harindranath may well be those of the father-figure of the Mahabharata who could not but have suffered to see how the path of conventional duty had so cleverly led him to its final impasse. Dashrath was wiser. But, as in the case of Proust, to regain lost time one has to pay a terrible price.

HOW then does one look at his exhibition, first shown at the NGMA both in New Delhi and in Mumbai? It spans a wide range of creative activity, from architecture to assemblages, installation and photography. And yet, behind it all, a remarkable respect for the inborn aesthetics of the working people. But he does more than that. Taking the ordinary aesthetics of daily life, he extends them beyond their limitations.

"I think I was merely aware in a very strong way of my own limitations," he explains. "I was aware that I was not adequate in my language and that my basic education was not enough. So I had this feeling, this fear of being limited. I always felt the need to learn and do something more than was needed in related fields."

This "doing something more" is the artist in him as opposed to the craftsman who only does what is required. Or the fruit and vegetable packers, who are masters of simple design but do not try to work out original solutions to things. They react to a need to organise elements, but do not "see" them as an artist does, or express themselves in the process of organisation.

"Photograph of an Islamic shrine."-

This comes out in the most concrete manner in Dashrath Patel's first encounter with another artist, Henri Cartier-Bresson:

"He was really interested in seeking," Patel points out, "Taking photographs was secondary. His main interest was in seeing. He was interested in everything around him and in knowing what people were doing... When I exhibited at the Galerie Barbizon, Cartier-Bresson had come to see. Afterwards he put his camera in my hand and said, 'Can you shoot a frame for me?' At that time I hated the camera. All I wanted was to draw at the time. I said, 'I don't do photography. Why should I?' He said, 'You are clear in your drawing, but I also want to know what you see with another tool.' So I clicked a shot and forgot about it. Couple of weeks later he invited me home for a meal and to meet his wife. He showed me many prints. He held up one and said, 'You like it?' By then I had already forgotten that I had shot a picture with his camera - I had done it with so much resistance and prejudice. I said, 'Yes, it's very well seen!' He said 'It's you and it's important you buy a camera and work with it!' That's how I got my first camera."

But 'seeing' is only part of it. Creating the 'seen' within one is another, and being able to communicate its impact widely is yet another. Dashrath Patel has managed to do so on a very wide canvas indeed. The axis of his eye seems to revolve around sharp contrasts of light and shade, something that is natural in an environment with strong sunlight. And the slatted light falling on the wall behind him in his studio gives us an insight into his mixed media abstracts, as also the Sewapuri dhurrie with a similar motif. In fact, the impact of light and shade enters his sight in the form of sharp colour contrasts, as in his wooden bowls with a lacquer finish, as also his photograph of an Islamic shrine. The harsh light of the Indian sun seems to drain away the subtleties of the palette, so it is challenged by our artists with pure bright colours - a challenge that is imbibed not only from Rajasthani miniature art, but also from the craftsmen. And one cannot help but wonder if his use of silver foil is not inspired by the mirror work of Gujarat.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson we learn from Dashrath Patel is not what he can or cannot see, but the simplicity with which he reminds us that everyone has that capacity to see. It is this faith in him that forced him to leave behind the artist's canvas and enter the much more public world of the open exhibition, the fair, the theatre and of the public world that enters our most private existence as design. And in all this he has remained an artist, not only doing what is merely required of him, but reminding us of the vision required of us as thinking human beings confronted by a world that is constantly moving forward. This is neither the general run of things nor easy to achieve. And this also distinguishes him from the craftsman.

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