An Iconic Mainstream Artist Who Stayed Invisible

A childlike curiosity and a rare urge to get closer to his ‘multiple identities’ defined Dashrath Patel’s explorations in art. Yet an amnesic nation chooses not to remember independent India’s first multi-media artist and design educator.

Note: This article was originally published on October 29, 2017 and is being republished on December 1, 2020 to mark Dashrath Patel’s 10th death anniversary.

Dashrath Patel, one of India’s most versatile modernists, would have been 93 this year. By itself the number might not count for much. There is a specific ‘black hole’ of art history into which many artists vanish, never to be spoken of again. In a facetious way, one could even ask, what is an artist compared to even the Taj Mahal that is facing erasure today.

It is no surprise few remember Patel in a country that suffers from short-term memory loss, even as it dredges up memories of imagined traditions from a hoary past. Reviewing Iffat Fatima’s documentary In the Realm of the Visual, on Patel’s 1998 retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi, the Midweek Review (in 2002), described Dashrath as “an artist whose work has incorporated just about every possible form of visual medium. Painter, sculptor, rug weaver, photographer, architectural designer, potter, and more, Patel and the breadth and fluidity of his artistry cannot be adequately expressed in any conventional way.” To designate Patel therefore only as a painter, a ceramist, photographer, designer, educator or activist would be both reductionist and pointless.

A possible way to comprehend Patel’s oeuvre is through the narration, by critic/curator Sadanand Menon (who identifies himself as Patel’s shagird), of the story of the Japanese artist, Hokusai, who began his career, at a very young age, as a painter. Declared a master of painting by the time he was ten, he now wanted to do sculpture. But, he thought, Hokusai is a painter; how can he be a sculptor? So he changed his name, became a sculptor and soon was declared a master. Then he wanted to weave brocades and changed his name again. Legend has it that he changed his name several times, mastering jade carving, ceramics, jewellery, sketching and more till, at the age of 80, he returned to painting and recovered his old name and died Hokusai. Dashrath Patel did not change his name, only his visual medium, getting closer to his “plural self” and “multiple identities” through a restless transition from medium to medium.

Patel came to study art in Madras around the same time that Chandralekha (the dancer who went on to become his close friend and interlocutor) came there to learn Bharatanatyam. Patel joined the Government College of Fine Arts to study with Debiprasad Roy Chowdhury and, through the poet Harindranath Chattopadhyay, who lived in Madras those days, met Chandralekha. They would remain lifelong friends. After his graduation in 1953, he went on to the École Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts, Paris where, apart from painting, he studied sculpture and ceramics (1953-1955).

Patel’s exposure to the paintings of European masters taught him that they created texture on canvas by using brush strokes, applying different degrees of pressure, not through layering and slathering of expensive paint using flat instruments, as he had done in trying to imitate them, while a student.

According to many who knew him, there was something childlike about Patel’s energy and curiosity. This can be seen especially in his work with ceramics. His openness to possibilities and willingness to be surprised led him to insert, into the ceramic platters in his kiln in Prague, screws, washers, keys, metal pieces, pebbles and even fish from the market, leading to unexpectedly beautiful, if somewhat smelly and sparky, results. He was there on scholarship, to learn advanced ceramics from the renowned master, Professor Otto Eckert. Patel is supposed to have said that he would allow himself 200 mistakes, at the end of which if he had learned nothing, he would give up. His experiments with clay were a test not only of his own creative curiosity but also pushing the medium itself to the limits of its possibilities.

Also read: When it Comes to Urban Planning, India Suffers From a Poverty of Imagination

Patel was a contemporary of modern masters Tyeb Mehta, M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza and V.S. Gaitonde and, in the late 1950s, they were all together at the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial studios in Bombay. Early in his career, he had also exhibited alongside them. It was at one of Patel’s exhibitions at Galerie Barbizon, Paris, that the legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson thrust a camera into his reluctant hands asking him to take a shot. He thought Patel ‘saw’ well. Cartier-Bresson’s hunch proved right and he succeeded in convincing Patel to ‘stay’ with the camera. In an interview with celebrated art historian B.N. Goswamy, Patel recalls his first meeting with Cartier-Bresson and subsequent friendship and credits him as being someone who taught him new ways of seeing and looking at many disciplines.

Aerial photograph of Sabarmati river, Ahmedabad, 1961. Credit: Dashrath patel Archive, Ahmedabad

Aerial photograph of Sabarmati river, Ahmedabad, 1961. Credit: Dashrath Patel Archive, Ahmedabad

Photographs, for Patel, were also a way to share experiences and to tell a story, not merely to frame a moment, although he did frame moments of dance with a mastery rarely seen. In photographing dance, he privileged the performance picture above the posed studio shot. Having internalised the secret of ‘dance time’ in his pictures, he communicated a sense of still continuing movement, creating a sense of extension of time. He preserved the kinetic energy in his photographs, capturing the mo(ve)ment a fraction before fullness: an eternal movement in time.

Chandralekha and Kamadev in Navagraha, 1972. Credit: Dashrath patel Archive, Ahmedabad

Chandralekha and Kamadev in Navagraha, 1972. Credit: Dashrath Patel Archive, Ahmedabad

Patel admitted that photography also helped him understand the quality of light. His recognition of the magic of light is seen across all media he worked with, from photographs of the bright Indian marketplaces, to oils, watercolors and abstract line drawings and tapestry to the glaze of his ceramics. But it is most evident in the vibrant juxtapositions of colour in his collages.

Patel’s collages themselves are an unabashed celebration of the spirit of colour and vibrancy of the Indian street. In a perceptive article, critic Ranjit Hoskote points out that Patel adopts the strategy of an installation artist considering the mutability of the material he used for his collages: “In a recycling economy like ours, nothing is thrown away, not even legends. Elements are born, renewed.” Hoskote describes the interplay of light and movement in Patel’s collages as forcing the viewer into “an encounter of active interpretation.” Engaging with the collages becomes an “an experiment in visual partnership.” Patel believed that an art-work should not merely be an object whose long familiarity “erodes fascination.” He was convinced that the “weighted political economy of viewing space” needed to be dismantled and so intended, through his collage installation, to provide agency to the viewer such that if the artist had the “prerogative of creation”, the viewer “may at least enjoy the privilege of re-creating the given art-work.”

Collage, paper on wood, 1991. Credit: Dashrath patel Archive, Ahmedabad

Collage, paper on wood, 1991. Credit: Dashrath Patel Archive, Ahmedabad

Many of Patel’s multi and trans-disciplinary works are exhibited in a private museum – The Dashrath Patel Museum – tucked away in Alibaug, off Mumbai, where he also spent part of the last decade of his life working in his studio. A visit to the museum gives one an idea of his “breadth and fluidity of artistry.” As one moves from exhibit to exhibit through interestingly designed spaces, one notices that walls and doorways lead and open out to new areas. Nothing shuts off or seals one from another. Patel said he learnt not to get locked into compartments from his friends Harindranath and Chandralekha. They taught him “to be equally involved and concerned and interested in several disciplines” and all his life he explored this possibility.

Patel’s longest stint was as Founder-Secretary and first Director of Education of the National Institute of Design (NID). The NID was founded in 1961 to establish design practice and provide design education, following a report to the Indian government, in 1958, by the celebrated design couple, Charles and Ray Eames. The industrialist family from Ahmedabad, the Sarabhais, was responsible for the institute being set up in their city. The Sarabhais hand-picked Patel for the job. Legend has it that NID began with one table, one chair and one Dashrath Patel. During the 19 years of Patel’s association with the institution, he was a one-man army launching professional industrial design practice, establishing diverse departments and training its first crop of teachers.

Also read: Dashrath Patel: The Teacher Who Taught Students to ‘See’

Through the 1960s, he also designed every major self-promotional international exhibition India was participating in during that period, which also saw him emerge as among the early Indian explorers of new media practices, an insufficiently acknowledged facet of his work. His outrageously improvised creation of a nine-screen ‘circarama-type’ projection for the India Pavilion at the Montreal World Fair was truly innovative. So was his tensile pavilion housing the Gandhi Centenary Exhibition in Delhi, 1970, where he stretched khadi, woven by prisoners of Sabarmati Jail, to cover 16,000 square metres of space using Frei Otto’s latest architectural intervention. Later, in a classic collaboration with light designer Tapas Sen, he designed the remarkable laser-lights installation for the inaugural events of the Festival of India, at the Lenin Stadium in Moscow.

Self portrait surrounded by nine-screen projection, India Pavilion, Montreal World Fair, 1967. Credit: Dashrath Patel Archive, Ahmedabad

In 1980, Patel resigned from NID, a disappointed man with many regrets and questions. He involved himself with the Madras-based Skills Collective for ‘alternate media’ and, later, the Gandhian integrated rural development project at Sewapuri, near Varanasi. He also started a Rural Design School in Sewapuri, which was diametrically opposite in its intention and activity from NID. According to Menon, the premier institution, despite its founding ambition to be a partner to the country’s nascent, fledgling industrial sector, ended up a poor imitator of international ‘styling’ for elite markets, with little impact on day-to-day life in India. “Design in India,” rues Menon “is a utopia gone sour.” Ironically, the official narrative of NID does not even acknowledge Patel, repudiating its own history.

Poster making workshops using low-cost screen printing technique, in Dindigul 1982, Lonavala 1984 and Varanasi, 1981. Dashrath Patel Archive, Ahmedabad

Poster making workshops using low-cost screen printing technique, in Dindigul 1982, Lonavala 1984 and Varanasi, 1981. Dashrath Patel Archive, Ahmedabad

Patel’s search for alternatives was not an “impetuous shifting of priorities” but a hope of his life-long idealist quest of “design being able to transform society and industry positively.” His brief time, working with the Madras-based Skills collective in 1980s, was an attempt at that. His innovations in simple, inexpensive, accessible systems of printing, photo-documenting and image projection produced astounding results for activists and NGOs to broadcast their messages. In Patel’s own words, “I had the media, but no message. When the media went into the hands of those who had things to say, design intervention really achieved something.”

Patel had an opportunity to involve himself with the problems of the obsolete production process at the Gandhian Saghan Kshetra Vikas Samiti (SKVS), Sewapuri, in 1982. He saw the possibility of reprioritising his approach to the question of design intervention in India and was sufficiently convinced to start a Rural Design School (RDS) that would offer a two-year programme in design at Sewapuri. The idea was to make the people there self-sufficient, do away with urban design inputs and train local youth and children of artisans to be responsive to their own needs. Youngsters enrolled and discussed and designed products for day-to-day use: kitchenware, leather-ware, durries, handmade paper, turned-wood products, low-fired ceramic-ware and khadi fabric.

Patel’s focus was also on streamlining processes and using indigenously devised machinery, where necessary, to ensure worker safety. He proposed that, at the distribution end, 80% of the products could be appropriately low-priced, for local consumption. The remaining 20% would be deemed export (any distance beyond 100 km) and could be specially priced to help subsidise production costs. After almost eight years of succeeding in providing an alternate model, the experiment suffered reverses due to internal politics and caste tensions in the village and had to be abandoned, even as the SKVS itself was shut down.

In that same period Patel was responsible for conceiving and executing the spectacular inaugural events of some of the Festivals of India (FoI) in UK, USA, France and the USSR which packaged and sold India abroad to a highly receptive international market.

Langas and Manganiars perform against giant decorative arches, inaugural events, Tashkent, FoI USSR, 1987. Credit: Dashrath Patel Archive, Ahmedabad

The FoI in Paris (1985) was his first show as an independent freelancer and he worked with many first timers, puncturing the hype and mystique built around the practice of design. The unprecedented scale of the inaugural events celebrated the atmosphere of festivity, colours, sounds and sights of the Indian subcontinent, in a bold commandeering of multiple media. These events, of which he proved to be master, won him many personal accolades but little satisfaction in having propped up a mock façade, a fiction that masked the real India. The critique of these festivals, however, was petty and shallow and did not lay a solid foundation from which to evaluate subsequent displays of national chest thumping which continues into the present.

However, there was one special exhibition he designed, in 1988, for FoI, USSR, called Stree, which was a learning experience and provides a glimpse into the special relationship between dancer Chandralekha and Patel. As the conceptualiser and visualiser of the exhibition, she constantly challenged him to reflect upon the ‘gender’ of space when designing it, something he, perhaps, had not thought about earlier. Stree, the first ever exhibition on Indian women, was his response to her challenge to feminise space. Menon writes about the Krimsky Hall in Moscow, “The space was transformed into an electrifying arena of feminine forces, mother energies, women power.” Both, the use of space, the objects and text panels allowed visitors the opportunity of seeing, hearing, and tactilely engaging with the lives of Indian women (through live workshops on mehndi, kolam, vegetable dyes, veena, dance, etc.). Patel’s “division of spaces was fluid, enabling themes to overlap”, much like the multiple roles in their own lives.

Stree: Women of India exhibition, Krimsky Hall, Moscow, FoI ussr, 1988. Credit: Dashrath Patel Archive, Ahmedabad

Stree: Women of India exhibition, Krimsky Hall, Moscow, FoI ussr, 1988. Credit: Dashrath Patel Archive, Ahmedabad

As Menon says Patel is “an artist who does not easily fit into the canonical mainstream of contemporary Indian art being, at the same time, very much its product.” Our contemporary art historians have notoriously bypassed his work. Despite a recent interest in Patel by Tate Modern, London, he continues to remain invisible in his own country on his 90th anniversary.

Gita Jayaraj is a doctoral scholar in Humanities at IIT, Madras.