From a distance, Madhvi Parekh’s early paintings look like Kantha embroidery. Dots and lines add up on the canvas to form whirlpools, waves, a stretch of road. These guide the eye to focus on the fantastical animals, mythological figures, trees, and people that populate her work.

A new retrospective of Parekh’s works, The Curious Seeker, at the DAG Modern art gallery in Delhi has 70 works made over five decades, and at least as many examples of how the dots and dashes foreground certain elements and give cues on how to read the work.

In King of The Water, a work from 1980 made on paper with pen, ink and glitter pen, for example, the dashes and dots are dense in the bottom third of the canvas and thin out as you go up. The density is a marker of depth. The dots and dashes also form the down of a bird and the pores or fine hair on human skin.

Credit: Madhvi Parekh

Critics have often remarked on the influence of Paul Klee (who used triangles, circles, dots and lines) in Parekh’s paintings, and the likeness between the bulbous creatures in her work and works by Spanish painter Joan Miro. These are plain enough to see in King of the Water, with one key difference: the creatures in Parekh’s art – both fantastical as well as the lifelike ones – have their origins in her lived experiences.

“I don’t have to scrounge for ideas on what to make next,” said Parekh. “I was born and raised in a village. The ideas [I paint] run through my mind like a film reel. The life forms inside larger creatures, like the king of the water, are like unborn children. We have seen cows calving, dogs having pups, it’s all part of village life.

The influence of her life is apparent throughout the works in The Curious Seeker. Incidents and memories from her life in Sanjaya village in Gujarat, where she was born, filter clearly into a lot of the works. As do her experiences in the urban centres of Mumbai, Kolkata and New Delhi, where she has lived since she married artist Manu Parekh in 1958 (and where her daughters were born); and the art camps at Kasauli where she was invited with her husband, and exposed to the Weavers Service Centre; as well as travels to museums abroad since the 1980s.

Credit: Madhvi Parekh

In Storyteller (1970), for example, the village storyteller takes up most of the canvas. In his belly, and spewing from his mouth are fantastical creatures and narratives. The stories of gods and goddesses that Parekh heard through her childhood are an influence in her work, as are fables about animals and scenes of everyday life. The result is a picture as varied as a village street, and as full of action.

Parekh is self-taught. When Manu Parekh went to the JJ School of Art in Mumbai, soon after they married, Madhvi did not harbour any ambitions of becoming an artist herself. “It was Manu who always wanted to be an artist, and I supported him,” she said. The two were engaged when she was a nine-year-old and married when she was 16. When she finally picked up a pencil to draw, it was the 1960s and she was pregnant with their first daughter, Manisha. Manu Parekh simply gave her the tools and support to get started.

“In our community, women traditionally read the Ramayana when they are with child,” Parekh said.

Her husband added, “It’s supposed to encourage positivity and wisdom.”

When Madhvi was expecting Manisha, Manu Parekh said, “I gave her some drawing exercises inspired by Paul Klee. It was to make circles, triangles and squares. But within three or four days, she was doing these exercises in her own way. I saw that she was on to something”.

Parekh explained: “You can’t eat dal-chawal every day, can you? I got bored [of the exercises] in four days and started doing my own thing with the triangles.”

Madhvi Parekh.

Indeed, the retrospective shows how she found her own vocabulary early on in her career, and stayed consistent even as the range of subjects that interested her grew from village life to life events like motherhood, mythology, capturing the movements of a flying man or a dancer, and most recently The Last Supper – of which she has her own five-panelled rendition in the retrospective. Parekh said she finds it easier to make large works because the hand has room in these to follow through on an idea or a whim without exacting the same kind of thought and planning that goes into smaller pieces.

In the years that followed those drawing exercises, she went on to make oil on canvas paintings, reverse paintings, serigraphs and etchings as well as drawings using everything from glitter pens to brush and ink on art paper. Kishore Singh, curator of The Curious Seeker, said this was made possible in part because she had the self-confidence to learn from others.

A clear example is the series titled The Last Supper, which is done almost entirely using reverse painting, a technique she learnt from Nalini Malani.

Through her career, Parekh found herself at the cusp of debates around modernity in Indian art and contemporary women artists. She joined Nalini Malani, Arpita Singh and Nilima Sheikh to form a group of contemporary women artists who showed important exhibitions such as Through the Looking Glass in 1988 together. At the same time, her art came from an immediate, internalised source. “Art needs to come from within,” she said.

To return to The King of the Water, the dots and lines form a patina over some things as much as they foreground others. It’s as if Parekh were trying to eke these creatures out of memory, from the half remembered stories of her childhood. Each time you look at the image, you stand to discover something new.

The Curious Seeker is on at DAG Modern, Hauz Khas Village, New Delhi, till 30 November.

Madhvi Parekh.