On the 3rd of November, 2023, Gieve Patel, an exemplary poet, playwright, painter, and physician slipped beyond the veil at the age of 83, leaving behind an incurable void in Mumbai’s literary and art world. In the face of cancer's cruel embrace, his spirit soared beyond the confines of earthly pain. Condolences poured in from his loved ones, the people who’ve worked with him, and all those who were impacted by Patel’s visceral lines, insightful plays, and thought-provoking paintings and sculptures.
Shanta Gokhale, renowned writer, who translated Patel's work, "Mister Behram", into Marathi, shared her thoughts with Mint
Today we shall explore the enduring legacy of Gieve Patel as the torchbearer of the modern Indian literary movement and even amidst all the gloom, look back fondly at a life well-lived.
Born in 1940 in Mumbai (then Bombay), Patel hailed from a family of medical practitioners. His father was a dentist and his grandfather (mother’s father), a blissful influence during Patel’s formative years, was a doctor in Nargol, Gujarat, a village where his family had its roots. The early exposure to the practice of medicine influenced his decision to become a doctor, which he pursued from Grant Medical College, Mumbai, later on in life.
However, his passion for poetry emerged at a young age, and he began writing poems when he was just 16 years old. Under the mentorship of Nissim Ezekiel, Patel's first book of poetry, Poems, was published in 1966. This marked the beginning of a poetic journey that would continue to evolve and captivate readers for decades to come. He would go on to become a legendary figure among the Bombay’s 'Beat Generation' of poets during the 1970s and 1980s, along with other distinguished contemporary poets such as Nissim Ezekiel, Jayanta Mahapatra, Eunice de Souza, Arun Kolatkar, Adil Jussawalla, and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra.
Patel's poetry delved into the intricate relationship between his landowning family and the tribal Warlis who worked on their estate. His poems, such as How Do You Withstand, Body, and Mirrored Mirroring, explored themes of identity, social dynamics, and the human experience. Through his evocative verses, Patel offered a unique perspective on the world, inviting readers to contemplate the complexities of life and the interplay between different cultures and classes. Patel’s proclivity for medicine and understanding of the human body was reflected in his language usage — like a doctor dissecting the human body, his language anatomized the body as a site of social war.
In addition to his poetic prowess, Gieve Patel's paintings garnered significant attention and acclaim. His artistic journey began with the Politician series in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which provided a thought-provoking commentary on the political landscape of the time. However, it was his Railway Platform series that truly captured the essence of urban life. Through his paintings, Patel depicted the bustling train platforms of Mumbai, where he spent many an hour watching people and trains arrive and depart. There is a sense of solitude amidst the chaos, where the artist, as the observer, finds himself on the periphery of society. Patel's keen observation and attention to detail allowed him to subvert the notion of shared experiences in the city, highlighting the marginalized and often overlooked aspects of urban life. The series offers a critical lens through which viewers can confront the harsh realities of life, prompting introspection and a deeper understanding of alienation in the human condition, much like the way Edward Hopper portrayed quotidian loneliness in a modern world.
As a dramatist, Gieve Patel showcased his storytelling prowess and deep understanding of human nature. His plays, including Princes (1970), Savaksa (1982), and Mister Behram (1988), delved into Parsi culture, a subject with which he was intimately familiar. However, Patel resisted the label of a "Parsi playwright", emphasizing that his works should not be confined to a specific cultural identity. While his English plays may not have received significant recognition in the theater world, Patel's contributions to Indian drama cannot be overlooked. His plays explored themes of identity, societal inequalities, and the complexities of human relationships, offering audiences a thought-provoking and nuanced perspective on Parsi culture and beyond.
In 2010, Gieve Patel ventured into the realm of sculpture, further expanding his artistic repertoire. His sculptures were inspired by two distinct themes: the story of Ekalavya from the Mahabharata and the transformation of Daphne in Greek mythology. Through these sculptures, Patel explored the concepts of identity, sacrifice, and metamorphosis.
In the Ekalavya series, Patel focused on the narrative centered around Ekalavya's hand and broken thumb, symbolizing the sacrifices made in pursuit of knowledge and mastery. The Daphne series depicted the semi-transformed state of Daphne as she turned into a tree to escape the lustfulness of the Greek god Apollo. These sculptures showcased Patel's ability to capture the essence of mythology and translate it into tangible forms, inviting viewers to contemplate the timeless themes embedded within ancient tales.
Gieve Patel's artistic legacy extends far beyond his individual works. As a founding member of the Green Movement, he actively participated in efforts to protect the environment, highlighting the inseparability of art and activism. His contributions to Indian literature, painting, and sculpture have left an indelible impact on the cultural landscape; inspiring future generations of artists and thinkers. Patel's ability to seamlessly navigate multiple artistic disciplines showcased his versatility and creative genius. Even in his corporal absences, his work continues to resonate with audiences; provoking thought, challenging societal norms, and offering a politically insightful take on life, illuminated by a humanizing light.
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