The Modern Mythopoeic

by Shujaat Mirza


Harshil Patel's work exists in a space between tradition and abstraction. It posits a standpoint that gives as a subtle shake-up to the way art is perceived largely through handed-down frames of reference. Such a perception has been buttressed by a Euro-centric approach to art, which he is habituated to question, including received wisdoms.


Exhibition 'Transposing Myths' at Amdavad Ni Gufa Art Gallery, Ahmedabad

(Image courtesy of Shujaat Mirza)


Over long periods of travels to quaint, neglected locations, seeking a new iconography, he has arrived at a slightly different interpretation of the religious as a living deity in places around us. For long, the sole focus has been on the grand and the monumental. However, through his travels he has found hidden rudimentary aesthetics – makeshift temples and roadside places of worship; geographically unique iconography; wall art in crevices of forest enclosures; and so on– all of which go beyond the pale of the common understanding of what constitutes Indian art. His approach to art is the living module of how religion and spirituality can be experienced first-hand and imbibed in the present. His works thus retain traces of past tradition with added vitality of innovation, which indeed is the weft and weave of a thriving, vibrant socio-cultural space.


This inquisitiveness didn't always come easy to him. In fact, he was nudged by the faculty at the University of Arts, London, where he did his Master's, to delve deep and seek out the life-defining experiences that formed the central aspects of his persona. This led him to rethink his entire journey afresh and see it in a different light. He realized that his childhood spent at Shrinathji in the town of Nathdwara in Rajasthan and the way he immersed himself in the quotidian prayer routines of the place, submitting himself to the aspects of ritual rigour and its atmospheric memory, was embedded in him as a visual, tactile and olfactory storehouse and was the one place he felt most at home. And as the faculty prodded him further about the choices of materials and mediums, he grappled with it and began questioning his choices from a standpoint of their utility in expressing himself more deeply. This foundation helped him to refine his concepts and gave a new pedagogical approach that has held him in good stead.

In the devastated landscape of a post-colonial revisitation, the abject need for revision and revival of certain lost strands of material discourse is urgent. It can admittedly pander to a heuristic probe which goes for the lesser connotations of what constitutes cultural roots if not kept in check. But at the same time it can also be an essential exercise if the necessary riders of rigour and not overplaying the hand are kept in mind.

These findings and discoveries are collected in Harshil Patel's creative ecosphere and he uses them as cues to make sense of the rich traditions that we ordinarily overlook, attuned as we are to view the perceived world around us with the filters of our received knowledge base. Such a blinkered view inevitably leads us not just astray but twice removed from our formative aesthetic. In a way this exhibition, 'Transposing Myths', at Amdavad Ni Gufa Art Gallery (an experimental art space co-designed by B.V. Doshi and M.F. Hussain) in Ahmedabad is part of a continuing project of re-familiarizing viewers with the Indian cultural landscape in a controlled environment. The artist discovers traces of abstraction, surrealism, pointillism, and so on, in the wayfaring art of the makeshift divine spaces that abound in forests, hills, and nooks and corners that have also contributed to the making of an alternative, rich art form, starting with readily available materials, while eschewing the idea of permanent, hierarchical spaces of worship.


In this series of works, done in the relatively relaxed time span that the lockdown afforded, he has freed himself from the fear of experimenting with new colours and processes. The works are a radical departure in terms of the colour palette and scalability being linked directly to the need of the narrative, rather than to showcase any particular praxis.


As we enter the exhibition space through a reconstituted replica of a 'Chandarwo', the traditional Gujarati wedding canopy, made of crimson holy threads additionally scented with sandalwood and saffron fragrance, we go through the preparatory motions of entering a sanctified space, leaving behind the hustle and bustle of the outside world. It is an anusthan, a beginning of a shubh karya, an auspicious occasion.

Exhibition entrance with the reconstituted replica of a 'Chandarwo'

(Image courtesy of Shujaat Mirza)


Further ahead are three clear, demarcated, delineations that contain different processes and continual sensitizations. The first body of works are made of wood pieces ensconced in a bed of bleached cotton, a throwback to the way jewellery has traditionally been kept wrapped in cotton wool. It gives an effect of a mother of pearl purity that envelops the divine element, distinguishing it as a consecrated object of visual worship. The use of a gold and silver finish, tiny beads, assorted collectibles that are used in daily ritual practices are incorporated in the works, as well traditional good luck and well-being motifs like kumkum (vermilion), betel nut (areca) flakes, and raksha potli, etc. These elements overlap each other to resemble the natural evolution of faith beyond the portals of fixed religious institutions. Camphor lamps have also been placed strategically for a salutary purification that brings us in sync with the ambience thus created. Basic, everyday objects that are used for ceremonials and praying are intermixed playfully within the frame as a tribute to the primordial concept of creational energy – a force that manifests in the multi-dimensional paradigms of Shiva/Shakti.


Wooden works on a bed of bleached cotton (Images courtesy of the artist, Harshil Patel)


Wooden works on a bed of bleached cotton (Images courtesy of Shujaat Mirza)


In the next stage we come to an installation of mixed-media artworks placed in corrugated boxes strung on crimson, holy threads that can be pulled to open up the works for display. The arrangement of the boxes in diverse stages of viewing, from closed, to half-open to fully open is conscious and considered. It emphasizes that learning can be imbibed only through an open mind without situational constraints that can hinder our amalgamation with the infinite truths. Some works look like bas reliefs and frescoes with a few additional thickening layers that bring out diverse patterns; in one work there has been a use of cement as well.


Corrugated box works (Images courtesy of the artist, Harshil Patel)


Corrugated box works (Images courtesy of Shujaat Mirza)


The works have been done on handmade paper sourced from Gandhi Ashram with specific instructions for a particular thickness that makes them feel like parchment. The corrugated boxes have also been made in a specific size to fit the dimensions of the contained works. The works have a quality of renunciation – in some one can trace images of Gandhi and a solitary monk piercing through the formlessness, perhaps as a subliminal homage.


The final section has works on wood pieces foregrounded on a base made of cow dung powder and wood dust mixed in pigment and varnished for longevity, suggestive of the need to preserve the spirit incarnate in us.. In his studio praxis Harshil Patel uses cow dung incense sticks and camphor. He says he wanted to provide a calming effect on the frayed nerves of the visiting public in a difficult year. This is the final halt of the journey as we go from the initial state of awe to a slow understanding of the pitfalls of underexposed spirituality and finally to an acceptance of the natural elements that define us. According to the scriptures, our body itself is composed of the panch tatvas and they coexist in harmony to facilitate our redemption. In these works the Giriraj Swaroop of Lord Krishna is posited as an extension of the artist's childhood days spent at Shrinathji temple, which also celebrates the balak Krishna. Yet the imagery of Shiva as embodied in the lingam and Parvati as symbolized by the three eyes form the binding principle around this last segment. The lasting presence of the aura of this energy field permeates in the culminating part of the exhibition.


Wooden works on cow dung powder and wood dust base (Images courtesy of the artist, Harshil Patel)


Close-up of wooden works on cow dung powder and wood dust base,

(Images courtesy of the artist, Harshil Patel)


Close-up of wooden works on cow dung powder and wood dust base

(Images courtesy of Shujaat Mirza)


Art as an exploration of the religious impulse has always found a place in our parts. In the recent past, we have seen examples of calendar art created by Raja Ravi Varma depicting the pantheon of gods and goddesses for both devotional and defining decorative purposes following in the tradition of Renaissance masters to M.F. Hussain's sparse and kinetic figurative dynamism, especially his archetypal Ganeshas. But such a discourse must avoid the snares of being trapped by something that drums up the resurgent pride of an assertive supremacist vision to stay relevant and instead open up a dialogue of diversities. That said, Harshil Patel's exhibition is a feast for the senses. One hopes in future iterations he will explore it further by expanding the scope of his work to include cross-cultural and borderless linearities to take his art to the next stage of the universal divine.