OF the several attempts to describe Jeram Patel, it is perhaps art critic Richard Bartholomew’s recognition of him as a “lone wolf” that defines the artist and his art best. The reticent master was driven by the fire within. It is the force that ignited the blowtorch with which he burnt wood to form carved hollows — his most celebrated style, along with his iconic black strokes and layered shapes painted on paper with ink.
Patel did not exhibit often and several works remained with him in his Vadodara home, till in September 2014 news surfaced of a bulk of his collection being purchased by Kiran Nadar, director of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), for Rs 6 crore. In January 2016, the “lone wolf” breathed his last at the age of 86, while he was in the midst of planning what was to be one of his most exhaustive exhibitions, that has now opened at the KNMA. Comprising 180 works, the show titled “The Dark Loam: Between Memory and Membrane”, curator Roobina Karode states, “is conceptualised to evoke spaces and experiences of being in the interior of a cave, a quarry, a womb, surrounded amidst the repository of archaic memory and existential enigma gradually unearthed and excavated in Jeram Patel’s oeuvre and the display spaces.”
The visual memoir begins years before Patel discovered dark rhythmic patterns. In the 1950s, the young graduate from Mumbai’s Sir JJ School of Art was twirling the brush to create figures. He was at the fore of Group 1890, established as a movement distinct from The Progressive Artists’ Group that was influenced by European modern art and the Bengal School, which was rooted in traditional Indian art. Though short-lived, the group comprising over a dozen artists — including Gulammohammed Sheikh, Jyoti Bhatt and Ambadas Khobragade — allowed its members to follow distinct paths.
But the usual could not hold Patel’s attention for long. A trip to Japan in the late 1950s was to open his mind to varied mediums. Veteran artist and his close associate, Sheikh vividly remembers the summer of 1961, when he first saw Patel burning wood in artist Piraji Sagara’s studio in Ahmedabad. “Piraji was dealing in antiques and had planks of old wood that Patel joined together to make a squarish 3” x 3” board. With a blowtorch in his hand, he literally attacked it, destroying its innards with the flame. He was shaping the wood by burning its edges, occasionally turning to the corners to shape the contours in jagged outlines. I could not understand from where did he get that kind of an energy,” says Sheikh.
The dark void was to influence his paper works too, where Patel painted black swirling patches; adding colour to the contours at times. On other occasions, he settled for floating formations in singular colour, painting them over fevicol poured on board.
At the KNMA we see these, described by art critic Prayag Shukla as, “a state of things in themselves, to be interpreted by us, to be lived and experienced by us, to draw our own conclusions.”
While his constant experiments are recorded in the show, it comprises his celebrated and more public works too. Sheikh draws attention to a 1957 gouache Rasikpriya, which won the Vadodara artist a national award. There is also his much-acclaimed “Hospital” (1966) series done in crow quill, that narrates tales of pain and sickness through contorted bodies.
There is the artist too — looking up at the camera in a Kishore Parekh 1961 photograph. Seated on the floor at the Department of Painting at MS University, he is surrounded with black — a shade he gave varied shapes and meaning.