One of Gieve Patel’s best-known paintings is Looking into a Well: Full Moon (2001). It depicts, in rich grey-blue shades, a village well at midnight, with the full moon reflected on the surface of the water. In a 2017 interview with the Indian Express, Patel explained that the painting was inspired by his memory of village wells in his native Gujarat.
“It’s a seaside village and has a lot of wells,” he said in the interview.
“These are not huge step wells, but are smaller, more modest. In the monsoon, they fill right up to the brim. As a child, I spent quite a lot of time looking into them and that habit hasn’t quite gone. Even now, whenever I pass a well, I feel compelled to look into it.”
In a catalogue note accompanying the painting, Patel wrote: “Looking into a well is a delight to the senses at any time of day or night. It is also a rehearsal for looking into the depths of oneself.” In some ways, all of Patel’s work – as a poet, painter, playwright, or physician – was an act of looking into depths, real or metaphysical, with curiosity and courage.
Gieve Patel (1940-2023), Early Morning Local, 1981. pic.twitter.com/ojWoEjlXoM
— Prathyush Parasuraman (@geekoutyush) November 3, 2023
One of the key figures of post-Independence Indian poetry in English, Patel succumbed to cancer on the afternoon of Friday, November 3, at Cipla Palliative Care and Training Centre in Pune, reported the Times of India. He was 83 and is survived by a daughter. As news of his death spread among poetry lovers, several writers who knew him, took to social media to express their grief. Ashwani Kumar, poet and professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, posted a picture with Patel on Instagram and wrote: “Can’t imagine life of poetry in Mumbai without Gieve… Ah! All seven islands grieving together!”
Poet and translator Sampurna Chattarji also posted a picture and wrote: “That dry chuckle, the impish grin, despite the cough. Too much to process. He went in grace. The way he lived.” Poet and translator Ranjit Hoskote, who is also an art critic, posted a picture with Patel, Sudhir Pathwardhan (with whom Patel had a joint exhibition in New York in 2006), and art critic Nancy Adjania. “We will always remember Gieve like this: bright, wickedly witty, sharp in his insight into human nature, sympathetic but never soppy, his stoic wisdom held in counterpoint by his baleful refusal to suffer fools and his uproarious, infectious laughter,” he wrote.
— Amitav Ghosh (@GhoshAmitav) November 4, 2023
Patel was born in 1940 in Mumbai (then known as Bombay). His father was a dentist and his mother the daughter of a doctor. The family originated in the village of Nargol in Gujarat. The practice of medicine in the family inspired his decision to become a doctor. “My grandfather, the village doctor, was a happy influence,” Patel told literary scholar Anjali Nerlekar in a 2017 interview. “He would take me on night visits to patients’ home in a tonga. It was an amazing experience as a child. Maybe the impulse to become a doctor came from here.” The practice of medicine possibly inspired Patel’s depictions of the human body in both his poetry and his paintings. “(H)is work views the human body as ‘a target of violence: the violence is seen to emanate from the state as well as the psyche of each individual,” claims his biographical note in The Penguin Book of Indian Poets (2022), edited by Jeet Thayil.
One of his best known poems, ‘On Killing a Tree’, perhaps best describes this violence:
It takes much time to kill a tree
Not a simple jab of the knife
Will do it. It has grown
Slowly consuming the earth,
Rising out of it, feeding
Upon its crust, absorbing
Years of sunlight, air, water,
And out of its leprous hide
So hack and chop
But this alone won’t do it.
Not so much pain will do it.
The bleeding bark will heal
And from close to the ground
Will rise curled green twigs,
Which if unchecked will expand again
To former size.
The root is to be pulled out –
Out of the anchoring earth;
It is to be roped, tied,
And pulled out – snapped out
Or pulled out entirely,
Out from the earth-cave,
And the strength of the tree exposed,
The source, white and wet,
The most sensitive, hidden
For years inside the earth.
“In our country you can’t escape being hit all the time by the physical aspect of things,” Patel told Nerlekar. “Because of the weather people don’t cover themselves with a lot of heavy clothing, so the body, its beauty and its ugliness, is always available for viewing. Second, the body is subjected to a lot of trauma – illness, injury – so it seems to me it would be unnatural not to be aware of it.” Patel and his contemporaries approached the human body with “a certain degree of objectivity”, which he described as an “aromatic approach.”
It was an aromantic – I wouldn’t say anti-romantic – an aromantic approach that our generation arrived at. It meant that we were going to look at what was around us with a certain degree of objectivity.
Though Patel started writing poetry when he was 16 years old, his first book, Poems would be published in 1966 – also the year of his first exhibition at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai – under the mentorship of Nissim Ezekiel. But when he first met Ezekiel in 1959, the latter was not very impressed with young poet’s work. “But he said he would like to see the next batch of poems when ready,” Patel told Nerlekar. “So a year and a half later I showed him the new poems. He responded well to these. Later, some of these poems were included in my first collection.” He added: “Nissim published that first book… And Nissim was also the art critic of the Times of India so he reviewed my art show too.”
Bombay was an exciting place for a young writer in the 1960s, whether they wrote in English or other languages like Marathi or Gujarati. The presence of a large number of artists, poets, and performers in the city, which has been described by publisher David Davidar in his novel The Solitude of Emperors (2007): “A city of poets and cafés, and all-night sessions of drinking and versifying, a place to rival Joyce’s Dublin or Cavafy’s Alexandria or Pessoa’s Lisbon: Dom (Moraes) hammering away with one finger at his typewriter in Sargent House, spectacles slipping down his nose, as the poems ran wild in his head, Adil (Jussawala) holding court in his eyrie on Cuffe Parade, Nissim (Ezekiel) spinning his demotic verse in coffee houses and poets’ gathering, (Arun) Kolatkar with his strange fierce epic about Gods of stone.”
“The poetry of this period was also rooted, albeit sometimes obliquely, in the sociopolitical climate of the time, and must be read against defining political events and circumstances such as the Emergency (1975–77) and the context of the cultural Cold War… but also the Dalit movement, whose literature sparked the renewal of Marathi language and literary culture,” write literary scholars Nerlekar and Laetitia Zecchini, both of whom have done pioneering work in exploring mid-20th-century Bombay as a space for Indian modernity.
One of the products of this culture was Clearing House, a publishing cooperative set up by Patel, and his contemporaries Arun Kolatkar, Adil Jussawalla, and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. In 2010 interview, Mehrotra told novelist Anjum Hasan the raison d’etre for setting up the collective: “In the early 1970s we all realised that we had manuscripts. There were no publishers. Then Oxford University Press under R Parthasarathy started the New Poetry in India series. Some titles did appear under that. But what would happen to the others? We decided not to wait and formed a co-operative.”
— Bilal Moin (@TheBilalMoin) November 3, 2023
In the very first year of its existence, Clearing House published four books – Arun Kolatkar’s Jejuri, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Nine Enclosures, Adil Jussawalla’s Missing Person, and Gieve Patel’s How Do You Withstand, Body. It also published Dilip Chitre’s Travelling in a Cage and Jayanta Mahapatra’s The False Start in 1980, as well as Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Distance in Statute Miles (1982) and H. O. Nazareth’s Lobo (1984) before folding up because of lack of money. Despite its short existence, however, both Clearing House and the poets associated with it have become legends of sorts in Indian literature. Patel published a third book of poems, Mirrored, Mirroring, with Oxford University Press in 1991.
Besides poetry, Patel also wrote three plays – Princes (1970), Savaksa (1982), and Mister Behram (1988). All of them are located in Parsi culture, with which he was most familiar, though he was unhappy with the tag of “Parsi playwright”. “I don’t think you should label it as a Parsi play, though it is written by a Parsi and filled with Parsi characters,” he told an interviewer. Literary scholar Bruce King asserts that English plays by Ezekiel and Patel “have had little response in the theatre world, where the most significant dramatists since independence have worked in” other languages.
Unlike his plays, however, Patel’s art – he was self-taught – has had a significant response. Often compared with his contemporary Sudhir Patwardhan, Patel’s paintings often represent “everyday scenes in recognisable urban spaces,” writes art historian Karin Zitzewitz, “they resonate with a generalised ‘Bombay’ experience, forcing the viewer to contemplate the city as a shared space, regardless of social position.” But Zitzewitza also adds: “Despite this, Patel and Patwardhan also subvert the notion that the visual experience of the city is shared by finding within it subjects that are socially marginal to the point of being invisible.”
Two Men with Handcart de Gieve Patel, 1979. R IP pic.twitter.com/FxqF9QqCrN
— Richa Roy (@The_RichaRoy) November 3, 2023
As he recollects in his interview with Nerlekar, Patel learnt to paint himself: “I started by copying reproductions from books, and colouring them. Then I began going to the Jehangir Art Gallery to meet some of the artists there.” Akbar Padamsee became a mentor to him. In another essay, Patel writes: “Post-Independence India had no role for the urban, contemporary artist, the man who would fabricate and comment upon the present, and who would not necessarily continue with folk and classical forms.” Patel, Patwardhan, and several of his contemporaries Bhupen Khakhar represented in their paintings the point of view of marginal figures, but devoid of any sentimentality.
Another of Patel’s famous paintings is Crows with Debris (2000), which shows a couple of crows snatching the remains of a rat’s body from each other’s beaks. “Patel commented in an interview that one thing he values about Bombay over the antiseptic cities of the West is that it does not hide its dead, so that death can remain a part of everyday life experience,” writes Zitzewitza. In 1984, Patel accused Patwardhan of editing out the squalor of the city from his paintings, so that people could lead their lives with some hope.
For Patel, a doctor perhaps more familiar with the frailties of the human body, editing away any suffering is unthinkable. For him, it is human to experience and represent in his art and his poetry. Oh, it is all too human.
Uttaran Das Gupta is a New Delhi-based writer and journalist. He teaches journalism at O. P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat.