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Life, art and the personal in disruption: A conversation with artist Manisha Parekh

Manisha Parekh. Photograph by Ashok Ahuja

Manisha Parekh talks to Santanu Borah about her art practice, and how a continual desire to invent keeps an artist in the thick of the action and contextually relevant. She also dwelt on disruption as a personal idea. This is part 2 of a four part series. You can read Part 1 here.

Manisha Parekh is an exemplary artist, whose practice is multi-varied and inspiring. Many of you are probably well aware of her work, as she has exhibited around the globe, essaying an engaging way of looking at materials and images. This writer was in conversation with her over the phone, a safer bet during these times of the pandemonium that surrounds the pandemic.

While talking to her about the necessity of disruption in art, one thing was clear: if you operate from a safe space always, you are not going to see or feel anything new.


We also spoke about her practice and about life as an artist in general. When asked about her view on the conventional wisdom that “live your life and art will follow”, she agreed absolutely, but she also threw in a rider: live your life sensitively and art may come. There are no guarantees.


The first question, obviously, was about what to look for in art in the context of disruption, especially her subjective experience as an artist. While she respects tradition immensely, and yet she chooses to be inventive. “My first thought, without screening much, is that disruption is needed. It’s a good thing, because it makes you stop and think. I don’t know, but I feel these disruptions come from within and some from outside. They pose little challenges and make you question your own path and journey, question your own practice because it is so easy to be set in your comfort zone, which is a basic human pattern. You don’t have to be an artist for that. Any human being who is in a comfort zone requires disruptions to question that. Actually, what we are facing since the last one year is a disruption of a different kind. I do not know if we have a handle on it. It actually makes you think and question our entire existence in some ways. Do we know where we are going? So, there are many things to think about… I don’t know,” she says with a chuckle.

For the benefit of those who may not be aware, we need to delve little deeper into Manisha’s journey in order to understand where she is coming from.


So, how did her journey begin? “Well, I did my graduation and post-graduation from the Faculty of Fine Arts, M S University, in the ‘80s and the ‘90s. Then I got a scholarship to do a second master’s degree in London from the Royal College of Art. So, that’s like too much education. You have to then sit an unlearn many things,” she says, taking a dig at herself. Continuing about her education, she adds, “Two MAs and a BA does not mean much, but your grit and desire to be wanting to work is the main driving force. One must recognize that within oneself. Education, I think, helps you in terms of exposure. I am talking about a time when there was no internet. So, I think at that time to spend two years in UK and travel really made a very big difference. Even today, somethings have not changed. For instance, to see an artwork in the flesh is a very different experience. You can browse paintings online but it has its limitations, like everything else. When you see something in the flesh it’s a direct contact. That experiential learning is irreplaceable in some way. While technology is advancing very fast and you might soon be able to get a real experience, still when you standing in front of a major historical artwork it’s a difference presence altogether. So, I am grateful for those years abroad. Then again, while learning is important, the unlearning starts when you confront your own work in the studio. You really have to find resources and the energy to come up with something that is your own. That’s what I mean when I say ‘unlearning’. It’s a process of learning about yourself.”



Talking about her early work while she was in M S University, she made art that was “very much in the figurative school of the Baroda training of those days”. It was her two-year stint in London that brought about a profound change in her visual language. “The visual references for me which were familiar changed completely. So, one was at a loss, which was a disruption and one had to re-learn,” she says. As for finding her own voice, which was something that the education in Baroda stressed, she says it is a “continual process”. “Even now I am working with this idea,” she adds. “But those two years being away from India, I think I was in a situation where I felt a little cornered in a different culture. Maybe, there are some inner conversations triggers a certain engagement. That might have been the beginning. Then it is a continual journey of exploring material medium, you discover new things and that makes it a happy departure,” she says, reminiscing about her early days. That was the time when the figurative idiom of her early days “took a complete walk out” of her work. “That was clearly a disruption,” she says. \"\"

Elaborating on her departure from the figurative work she did in India, she adds, “The figures that we see in India are completely different than in England. The weather plays an important part. Everyone covers up due to the cold and you don’t see fingers and toes. It is just amazing how culture and climate impact visual references. I found myself in an unfamiliar territory. So, my work became about objects that were emblematic of the cultural difference. I started drawing a lot of bathtubs. See, it is a colonial thing even if you have it in India.” The reason why she saw the bathtub as an emblem of difference is because it did not feel natural for her to be immersed in water that was enclose in a space. What is crucial to note over here is that something very simple or even quotidian can become a disruptive element in an art practice.

Her tryst with the unfamiliar everyday objects of an alien culture continued and she found herself drawing a lot of hats and shoes. “It was like the bathtub contained the body while the hates and shoes contained the extremities of the body. These were the kind of stories I was weaving,” she explains. \"\"

Clearly, from the days in the bathtub to now, when she works from her home studio in Delhi, has been a long journey. The direction she is taking now is almost a sea-change from the Manisha who lived and learnt in England. Dwelling on her current work, she says, “Right now the work that I am moving towards is very material based. I do get excited with the material I am working. I really like the idea of recognizing the property of the material and then be guided by it, and then find ways to explore it. So, I like the relationship I build with the material and what it shows me. It gives me a direction. Similarly, when I involved with watercolours, I like how the water behaves on the paper and it’s different from graphite. So, I am recognizing the properties of each material. And this, in turn, becomes an association or an encounter with an emotion or a story.”

Materiality is her latest concern now. In the last couple of years, she has started working welders and mild steel. She feels that the art made out of mild steel is like a “three-dimensional drawing”. “My work is a lot about drawing, even when I am doing watercolours. It is guided by different brush marks, different lines, different textures… different kind of pitch one can create from big, wide marks to smaller, more dedicated activity,” she says. She compares this process to composing music, which has various components like notations and time signature come together to form a whole, like a symphony or a song. “For instance, the three-dimensional form of my mild steel ‘drawing’ cast interesting shadows that really got me thinking. It kind of shook me. While it might not be disruption, it helped see what I could do with it and where I could go. I could say it was a discovery, if not a disruption,” she adds.


The pandemic has left an indelible mark on our lives and Manisha considers it to be the real disruption because it has made us reorganise our lives, so that we can adapt to the “new normal”. Talking about her life post Covid, she says, “I can’t really pin it down, but I am lucky to have a studio at home. I am continuing to work. I must confess that I could have been more productive because we are locked in, but I am steadily working and that is good.” She believes that with time she might reflect on it and, more or less, understand how this worldwide event has affected her. But for now, it is about exploring and learning newer things. “When it (pandemic) all started the unknown was a bit unnerving. But now we have more used to it. We have had to make our circle tight because of elderly parents. My parents are outgoing, but we have had to be a bit strict about socializing. However, both my parents are artists and they have their studios at home, and that has been our saving grace,” she adds.

One of the issues many emerging artists face is an obstacle that we call “artist’s block”. This writer asked Manisha how could one get out of this rather painful quagmire. Her answer was simple: “Try out new things. Go ahead and be disruptive. Explore. For instance, I tend to do things that may not be in line with my nature. Of course, I can’t really say it like that, after all everything I do contributes to my practice. However, it is good to shake up things. From that something new will emanate.”


Like everything in this world, the very act of disruption also comes with certain problems. The prime among them being that there is a very fine line between disruption and gimmick. While considering this, Manisha advice is to be acutely aware and alert. But how does one become aware of it? “That’s a tough question because there is no one easy answer to it. Whatever I might say might seem like jargon to some, but when you see something good or hear something good, or read a good piece of poetry… something that you connect with, then you find some truth in it, right? Now, I also don’t know how to explain that truth, but being away from that truth or honesty can become gimmicky,” explains Manisha.

Her advice to young artists looking to find their own voice is to be “alive and alert”. “One should have a constant conversation with oneself. See a lot, listen to a lot. You need to train your senses. Take the case of Netflix. It is superstore of so many interesting things, it’s a nice mix. But you don’t have to watch thrillers all the time. You can also see documentaries or real-life stories. Basically, there is a possibility of shifting, changing and exploring one’s own palette. Youth is about experimenting and exploring. Be fearless about it,” she says. And do not get bogged down by criticism. “Criticism is good. That makes you question and you must always question yourself. Taking criticism and learning from it is easier said than done, but there might be something that rings inside you later. That might be helpful in reflecting on your work,” she adds.

Finally, it’s time to ask her what we set out to do in the first place: find out from artists what are those three or four artworks that affected them and changed the way they look at history. In short, what was it that disrupted their view of art? “It is not easy to answer this as there are always newer experiences covering the old ones. However, one exhibition that comes to mind is one I saw on a trip to New York in 2017. It was by Rei Kawakubo, who is the brains behind the Comme des Garçons (CDG) fashion label, which literally means ‘like boys’. There was a huge exhibition at the Met. It was about her different works, and what moved me the most was how sculptural these so-called fashion garments were. I believe that fashion is really an extension of one’s body and behaviour, and her designs were truly a sculptural extension of one’s body. That was truly exciting. I also saw a beautiful exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffee around that time, which was great. Along with her work, she also made garments, which was a nice revelation. It’s not just works you make in the studio, but it also extends to what you do otherwise. It was reassuring to see that because that is also what I believe in. In India, I really admire the women artists like Nasreen Mohamedi, who has been my teacher in MSU. I am completely enamoured by Zarina Hashmi’s work. I also learnt a lot from Arpita Singh, Nilima Sheikh, my mother Madhvi Parekh and Nalini Malani. That was actually a group that showed together when I was in college and it was illuminating,” she says.

Manisha believes that currently what is happening in India is really interesting. The explorations by various artists are mostly removed from the western idiom, and a truly unique collective language is emerging. This itself can be seen as a ‘socio-aesthetic’ disruption of sorts.


As for her interaction or conversations with modern Indian masters, she has it easier because she “has two of them at home” (Manu and Madhvi Parekh. However, she adds that she has a regular family, who engage in the usual family things. She even calls her conversations with her parents “mundane”, her tongue-in-cheek description of her average family, which to regular folks is definitely far from average.  Though, of course, there has been an environment of art surrounding her ever since she was a child, and that has also informed her journey as an artist.

As we end our conversation, there is something that cannot be overlooked. What does Manisha Parekh think of the Old Masters? Is there anyone she admires? “I really like an Italian artist called Giorgio Morandi. His entire career he made only still life in oils. And he lived in a small village. It’s an example that you can spend an entire lifetime doing one thing. And almost all of his works are small paintings and not some grand statements in scale. I also look at miniatures and I think there is so much to learn from art history. Everything is done, and beautifully done. But there is still space for a personal voice and hopefully that will keep one’s practice alive. Basically, I don’t myself too serious.

As we sign off, she says that it is all about keeping at it and doing what you are doing. “You have to listen to your inner voice. There is always somebody better and art history shows us everything has been done par excellence. But the thing is to follow your own calling.” We agree. There is no contest there. Just being yourself and quietly keeping at your work, regardless of anything, itself is a disruptive idea.

(Manisha Parekh\’s photograph has been taken by Ashok Ahuja. She is represented by Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai, and Nature Morte, New Delhi)


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