Gieve Patel was announced to the world as both a poet and a painter in 1966 – with Poems (published by Nissim Ezekiel) and his first Exhibition mounted at Jehangir Art Gallery, Bombay. He had started practising medicine as a physician before this and would become an acclaimed playwright later. Among those who became intimately associated with him in his multiple avatars was Ranjit Hoskote, himself a man of many parts – poet, curator and cultural theorist. To Break and To Branch is his tribute to Patel – six essays collated in memoriam of his friend.

“How does one summarise, or bear adequate witness to, a friendship that spanned 37 years?” he asks in his Introduction. In effect, what he does is “to chart the artist’s flight path: the urgencies on which he had at various points focused his energy, the debates in which his images found their contours, the histories in which his oeuvre could find habitation”.

The collation of these essays marks a special publication by Seagull Books (who had earlier published Patel’s three plays in a single volume). The essays are Hoskote’s contributions to various brochures of Patel’s Exhibitions, spanning two decades – spread out at equal intervals, every few years – comprising a substantial part of his artistic career.

Patel had three main preoccupations as a painter – the human being in a rural or urban setting, death and decay, and (looking into) wells. The six essays of this volume, related to six Exhibitions, map out and analyse the changing emphases of these subjects.

The artist

“An Economy of Violence” deals with a group of Gieve Patel’s anti-portraits exhibited in 2000, which showed the artist’s “evolving preoccupation with the nature of violence”: from violence enacted upon the human body to the victim placed in a larger context. “Crushed Head”, “Battered Man in a Landscape”, and “Crows with Debris” are some of the paintings that mark that evolution.

“The Incarnate Particularity of Forms” is about a suite of paintings, done between 2001 and 2003, which bear witness to the “interpenetration of the urban and the rural” in Patel’s work – through marginal presences like a man caught up in torrential rain in the city, a scribe and his client (an illiterate migrant worker from another state, but who is the “employer” in this case), and a madman in the street. Hoskote argues that Patel’s childhood vacations at his grandparents’ in the seaside village of Nargol in Guijrat and his medical internship in the village of Sanjan shaped his worldview as much as the teeming metropolis of Bombay, where he lived all his life, leading to a more nuanced understanding of the interrelationship between the city and the village in post-colonial India.

“The Startling View from the Studio” is about a joint show of Gieve Patel and Sudhir Patwardhan that was held in New York in 2005-2006. Introduced by the critic DG Nadkarni in 1975, Patel and Patwardhan’s friendship would last a lifetime, a bond that derived in no small measure from their common investment in “the specificities of a regional self” in their art and in being “complicit observers” of the people and society around them. There is also something distinctive about the people they portray, according to Hoskote:

Patwardhan draws his protagonists largely from among the urban proletariat or the tenuously perched middle class; Patel, from among the city’s marginal, deviant or eccentric floating population. Despite the fact that this subaltern figure is the unit of measurement for social anguish or private unease, it is never a victim; on the contrary, it is almost always a survivor.

To Break and To Branch deals with Patel as a sculptor, with his engagement with the twin myths of Eklavya and Daphne (2006-2007). Though they are a departure in his practice, Hoskote contends that they are “not marked by the hesitancy of the beginner” but “possess an instinctive assurance”.

“Sight as Covenant” is an essay on the Exhibition “Wells, Clouds, Skulls” (2011) that navigates “the transcendental dimension of experience”. The set of drawings and paintings here focuses on visual experience: looking into a well, looking at clouds, and looking at a skull. For the first time, the human figure is absent in Patel’s work. What’s most interesting about the three paintings of the “Looking into a Well” series is that they are part of an ongoing series since 1991 – an exploration of a childhood experience at Nargol that Patel began at the age of 50 and continued till his death.

“Crossing the Bridge of Paradox” engages with the Exhibition “Footboard Rider” (2017-2018), where the human figure returns – marginal, vulnerable or going through some intense experience. The title work is disorienting for the viewer because we are never quite sure whether we are looking at the Footboard Rider from within a train compartment or whether we are given his perspective from outside the window. Also notable in this Exhibition are “Meditations on Old Age”, “Mourners”, and “Embrace” – which could be read equally as a sacred moment of communion between a martyred saint and an apostle, or one conveying “homoerotic kinship”.

The critic

There are three distinct facets of Hoskote’s criticism as manifested in this book – detailed description and contextualisation of artworks, insight born of a long association with the artist, and poetic language. A representative example would be a passage from the essay that gives the book its title:

As emotional provocations, Patel’s sculptures draw together the themes of desire and woundedness, lust and betrayal, which have exercised his poetry and drama for four decades. Two figures from myth dominate this suite of works, one culled from Graeco-Roman mythology, the other recruited from the Indian epics: Daphne and Eklavya. Daphne, water nymph and daughter of a river god, becomes the object of Apollo’s affections; but the sun god’s love manifests itself as unruly lust, and he chases her to the river bank, the harmony of his music and prosody forgotten. Unwilling to become a victim so readily, Daphne prays for redemption: she is saved from rape by being turned into a laurel, and her divine pursuer’s fingers close on the leaves that spring from her flesh. Soon, she is a shrub, and he is left inconsolable at his haste and folly. The story, originally an episode in the cycles of Aegean folklore, is movingly told by Ovid in his classic Metamorphoses, was captured memorably in marble, centuries later, by Bernini, and has inspired countless lyrical, narrative and pictorial interpretations as a topos of love running amok and causing its own defeat, desire transmogrified into wanton destructiveness.

Both Daphne and Eklavya are figures maimed or ruined by forces that demanded their submission: the nymph who defies the sun god’s lust, the hunter who dares to equal the warrior-prince, both punished for their transgression. 

This ability to analyse with insight, and articulate with precision and beauty makes Hoskote’s essays good entry points to engage with the work of artists one does not know well or is encountering for the first time. It also allows one to understand what one is familiar with, better.

There have been critics or art historians who have engaged with single artists for long (R Siva Kumar on KG Subramanyan being a case in point). But a critic’s contribution to six Exhibition catalogues of a single artist is rare. What made it possible is the fact that Hoskote’s association with Patel went far beyond the painterly; it embraced poetry, notably, and also a deep interest in the spiritual.

More accessible books on visual art

There needs to be more books similar to To Break and To Branch – both collations of works on single artists, and collations of works by single critics on various artists. It would especially be useful to have a compendium of Ranjit Hoskote’s writings on visual art, culled from the many Exhibitions that he has himself curated or those to which he has contributed essays. Since that covers more than three decades, it would also cover the evolution of the visual arts in India since the 1990s, especially with respect to Bombay. Similar collations would not only expand existing scholarship in this field but also help disseminate both knowledge and interest in the visual arts and its distinguished practitioners among a wider audience, beyond those in “the art world”.

One such accessible series of books to which Ranjit Hoskote (along with Nancy Adajania) contributed was “The Dialogues Series” – pocket-sized, modestly-priced, illustrated books that explore the careers of some of India’s most acclaimed contemporary artists, published by Popular Prakashan Pvt Ltd and foundation b & g. (Hoskote and Adajania’s dialogues were with Atul Dodiya, Anju Dodiya, Manu Parekh, Baiju Parthan, and Veer Munshi).

With almost 50 illustrations (most of them in colour), To Break and To Branch has images to accompany almost every analysis or description of artwork in the book. More of such books are welcome; more of such books are required. Seagull Books already has a sizable number of books on, and by, Somenath Hore and KG Subramanyan. It would be wonderful if they expanded this category of books on art.

The danger of a review of a book of art criticism is that it is a critique of a critique – thus twice removed from the art itself. But here’s hoping readers would be sufficiently interested to directly engage with Gieve Patel’s art in To Break and to Branch.

To Break and to Branch: Six Essays on Gieve Patel, Ranjit Hoskote, Seagull Books.