I met Gieve Patel for the first time in 1975, a year or so after moving to Bombay. He was one of the two artists whose work I was drawn to early, the other being Bhupen Khakhar. As Gieve and I were both doctors, I went to visit him at his clinic on Lamington Road and asked him to come and see my work. Later on, he would joke that his initial impression of me was that here comes another doctor and a Sunday painter who wanted him to look at his work! But when Gieve did see my works at our place in Girgaon, he immediately responded to them. These were some of my early figurative works. We found a kinship and became friends after that.
He was instrumental in actually talking about me to other people, for example Geeta Kapur, Vivan Sundaram, and others. In a sense, he helped to promote my work. He was very generous and very giving as a friend, and he was not the kind to be casual with his friendships. He took his relationships very seriously. He was very critical and observant about people he met, but if he did establish some kind of trust with someone, the relationship became important for him.
He looked for authenticity in people. His friendships lasted a lifetime, whether it was with peers or younger artists like Anju and Atul Dodiya or Aditi Singh, and also some of his students from the Rishi Valley School, where he taught poetry for many years.
As a poet, painter, and playwright, he was obviously a man of multiple talents and interests. There was a deep involvement in each of the things he did and he worked very seriously at all these different creative disciplines. The most important thing about him as a thinker and artist was that in all these three mediums he was able to confront his deepest anxieties and fears. In each work there was a struggle to reach some understanding of the dark depth of the soul, be it the play Mr Behram or his paintings of dead people and crows. He managed to convey the experience of what makes us vulnerable and human. It is impossible to look at his paintings or read his writing and not be shaken first, and then moved by his profound empathy.
We mostly think of Gieve as a quintessential “Bombay boy”, but at heart he was a man who loved nature, tranquillity and some quiet time with himself. For him, nature was a constant source of joy and renewal. Frequent trips to his village in Gujarat and the time he spent there were crucial to his sustenance and development as an artist. These encounters with nature gave him something that the city of Mumbai could not. For instance, his “wells” paintings are connected to his early memories of looking into the wells in his village. And this looking became associated with a spiritual quest of looking into oneself.
There has always been a spiritual aspect to his art. Even though these works were inspired by such an apparently simple act, there is a complex and layered seeking in them. Gieve was particularly interested in Vedic literature such as the Upanishads in which he found the metaphor of the well as the “navel of the earth”. Informed by such deep contemplation, these resplendent series of well paintings are unlike anything else in the tradition of “landscape” or “nature” painting.
I will not hesitate to admit that his was the most important friendship in my life. In Gieve’s passing, I think I have lost a brother. It so happened that my older brother lived in Pune and Gieve’s younger brother was in America. I believe that we both in some ways filled in these roles in each other’s lives. He had a huge influence on my life and thinking.
Among other things, I learnt how to read and appreciate poetry from Gieve. He would invariably bring some poems to read to my wife Shanta and I when he visited us at our home in Thane. During our younger days, after clinic hours, we used to sit at Marine Drive at night and talk about anything and everything—poetry, literature, art, music, family, life, and relationships. And then I would take the last local back to Thane.
We shared a lot. We saw things similarly and we painted similar subjects. Both of us had found a muse in the city of Bombay and both of us tried in our own way to give a place to the downtrodden and social outcasts in our art. This humanism was always a part of our joint endeavour. When our perspectives did diverge, there was always opportunity for conversation and discussion that made us both accept differences and overlaps.
Friendship and creativity can go hand in hand when your bond is such that there is no need in it to please the other person. There is enough trust that you can speak your mind freely and fearlessly. To do that takes a lot of courage on both sides. Any criticism is difficult to take but Gieve was receptive to feedback. If he had to say something critical of my work, he would speak gently but firmly about what he felt.
Whenever he or I would finish a work, we would rush to show it to each other. There was a childlike enthusiasm in doing that. Till the very end, we did that. There was excitement, but also anxiety: “Okay, so will he like it?” “What will he say?” Of course, the first viewer of a work you create is always you—the creator—but then after you it is the person who knows you best. In my case, it was Gieve. Today each one of his friends remembers Gieve in their own way. We all miss him, but since each friendship was special for him we will all have our own special memories.
As told to Shaikh Ayaz. A former radiologist, Sudhir Patwardhan is a noted Indian artist who has drawn much inspiration and creative sustenance from Mumbai and its common people for over five decades. He continues to live and paint in his favourite city.