Said so much with understatement: Gieve Patel’s life in art and poetry
Born in 1940, pursuing medicine for most of his adult life, turning to art in his twenties and acquiring cultish respect in whatever form he turned to, Patel died Friday.
Article in the Indian Express
Friends, eminent artists say Patel would paint the sick & poor & his paintings had political undertones, while his poetry is described as India’s “finest in the English language” (Express File Photo)
For a man whose disciplines were many – painting, poetry, plays, sculpting, medicine – Gieve Patel’s proficiency in each was enviable.
Born in 1940, pursuing medicine for most of his adult life, turning to art in his twenties and acquiring cultish respect in whatever form he turned to, Patel died Friday.
He left a legacy of depth in simplicity, in words, images, and mediums in between.
For his close friend and artist Atul Dodiya, who first became acquainted with Patel after requesting him for a commentary on his first solo show in 1989, Patel’s feeling for his hometown of Mumbai will remain one of his hallmarks.
“He painted the people, and didn’t just depict them. What he painted was felt from within, in a spiritual way – whether he was painting an empty railway platform, an early morning day, or a child looking into a well.”
His preoccupation with childhood memories was one of his “extraordinary efforts” according to art critic Roobina Karode. “He would paint an entire sky, skyscrapers, cities inside a well. He would respond to social and political events not with aggression or protest, but in a much more intense way with sculpts. He was always ready to talk to younger artists, which is a rare and admire quality,” she says.
Painter and poet Gulam Mohammed Sheikh is an admirer of Patel’s poetry, calling him one of India’s “finest in the English language.” He says that Patel’s understated style in words and visuals was his own “seminal way” of communicating his ideas. “His work was often both very personal and dealt with contemporary reality. He would paint the sick and the poor. His paintings had political undertones, one of them being Dead Politician.”
Poet Arundhati Subramaniam’s first association with Patel was in school when she read his poem ‘On killing a tree’, which left her struck. She would meet him years later when he came to her college, soon becoming friends.
“Our friendship became one of shared sensibility and spirit. He was very gentle, and is supposed to have great bedside manner as a physician, as well,” she says, adding, “He was not one of those artists who straddled too much. Whatever [forms he chose], he practised with depth and compassion, and that’s what made our conversations so special.”
Patel’s demise evoked condolensces from across the art world, with artists Ranjit Hoskote and Diwan Manna recalling on social media his showings at Government Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh and National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai. Patel also trained under poet Nissim Ezekiel and published multiple collections throughout his career.
End of an Era: Literature doyen Gieve Patel passes away at 83
Gieve Patel, who had been battling cancer, was admitted to the Pune centre a few weeks ago. A noted playwright, poet, painter, and thinker his passing marks the end of an era in the world of Indian arts and literature
Gieve Patel, atrist and playwrite, photographed at his studio in Mumbai, on January, 24, 2009. (Photograph: ABHIJIT BHATLEKAR/MINT)
Renowned playwright, poet, painter, and thinker Gieve Patel passed away at the Cipla Palliative Care and Training Centre in Pune on Friday afternoon, the Times of India reported. He was 83.
Patel, who had been battling cancer, was admitted to the Pune centre a few weeks ago. He is survived by a daughter, it added.
Born in Mumbai, Gieve Patel was a graduate of Grant Government Medical College. He rose to prominence in the world of arts and literature through his notable contributions as a playwright, poet, and painter.
Condolences from the Literary Community
Noted writer Shanta Gokhale, who translated Patel’s work, “Mister Behram”, into Marathi, shared her memories with the paper, saying, “I knew Gieve for the last fifty years, and our association continued until the final days of his life. He was a multi-talented personality, yet remained down-to-earth.”
Poet Ganesh Vispute expressed the sentiment of a significant loss in the Indian literary circle, stating, “He was a writer, poet, and a great thinker. He was the torchbearer of the Modern Indian literary movement.”
Gieve Patel’s passing marks the end of an era in the world of Indian arts and literature.
‘Soft brain/tough heart’: Gieve Patel (1940-2023), the poet who wrote about besieged corporeality
Gieve Patel died on November 3. He was also a playwright, visual artist, and a physician.
Poet Gieve Patel. | Wikimedia Commons
This is an excerpt from poet Arundhathi Subramaniam’s introduction to the 2017 edition of Gieve Patel’s Collected Poems.
I first read “On Killing a Tree” in a high school textbook – perhaps not the best place to encounter a poem. Despite the somewhat drearily prescriptive nature of its domain, however, the poem lingered. There was something about its crisply enunciated brutality. The images were violent, but the tone patiently instructional, studiedly deadpan. I have a vague recollection of a Class Nine teacher making some pronouncement about how the killing of a tree could be likened to the uprooting of tradition. Her voice droned on above me.
For me it was clear that this was a poem about a tree. And what remained was the impression of a gaze of weird fascination – a poet’s need to document a ritual of violent indignity by which a figure of blazing aliveness was systematically annihilated, its private parts laid bare to public view; a need to witness obscenely intimate mutilation, the process of gouging out “the source, white and wet”, followed by the “scorching and choking…/ browning, hardening/ twisting, withering” in the sun. This was clearly also a poem about pain – meeting it head-on, refusing to shy away from its green blood, the primal cellular lust for life.
As far as I could see, this was a poem about a tree and the end of the tree – and the refusal to conjecture what might lie beyond its erasure. It was my first realisation that a gaze unclouded by sentiment could evoke something truer than sympathy. That an unspoken poignancy could lie in the act of not averting one’s gaze. That poetry could lie in a simple unblinking intensity of attention. And so, my interest in the poetry of Gieve Patel began to take root.
More than 35 years after that first encounter, my engagement with Patel’s work has ripened. I recognise the timbre of a Patel poem. When I find myself unexpectedly quoting lines from his work, I realise that I have been carrying echoes of his verse around with me for a long time. Which is why this particular book takes on a significance that is personal, even while I recognise its contextual importance. In the province of Indian literature, a volume of Collected Poems by Gieve Patel could be described in a single word: news. It is news for various reasons.
For one, a Collected offers a reader the rewards of an immersive reading. Here is a chance to view the trajectory of a poet who has been a quietly enduring presence in the country’s literary scene for five decades (even if his output has been intermittent). It offers the serious reader an opportunity to view changing approaches to form, inflections of theme, as well as a certain underlying obstinacy of preoccupation. This book also takes on an altogether new urgency for pragmatic reasons, given that not a single one of Patel’s earlier books of poetry is in print. Not being in print is, of course, as poet Jeet Thayil once pointed out, “business as usual” for the Indian poet. It is left to the few remaining publishers of foresight such as this one to invite the poet to compile such a volume. Reading a poet’s oeuvre also offers an insight into a changing cultural climate and literary ecosystem in oblique ways.
Patel is unmistakably a “Bombay” poet: his first book was published by Nissim Ezekiel, and the second by the writers’ cooperative, Clearing House (started by Adil Jussawalla, Arun Kolatkar, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Patel in 1976). He appears to have shared a close association with poets, Ezekiel and AK Ramanujan in particular, and is yet in many ways, a stubbornly individual voice, “whose vision (in the words of writer and critic Sudesh Mishra) eludes simplistic modernist labels and equations”.
The idiosyncratic nature of that voice is ascribed by Mishra to the fact that Patel was never a formal student of literature. There are other undeniable factors at play as well: long years of medical practice in rural and urban India, an engagement with visual art, an abiding involvement with the theatre, as well as the temperament of a solitary traveller and fiercely independent autodidact, resistant to the caprices of cultural fashion. As someone who has addressed the demands of diverse disciplines with exacting levels of commitment, it is perhaps not entirely surprising that this book of poetry (which includes nineteen new poems and a glimpse into his longstanding translation project) emerges twenty-seven years after his last. It emerges not a moment too soon.
To read Patel’s work from the beginning to the present is to find oneself immersed in a churning and ever-deepening set of preoccupations. With each book, these concerns seem to intensify, producing a different series of resonances. Patel’s poetic universe is one of nerve endings and viscera, ragged fibre and vein, gnarled root and “leprous hide”, pervaded by overwhelming corporeal odours. The tone is frequently offhand, abrupt, staccato, mistrustful of easy flights of lyricism, chronically uneasy with the impulse to prettify or euphemise.
The churning life-and-death questions – and there are many – are not airy abstractions; they emerge thickly, haltingly, jerkily, from the dough of embattled materiality that the poet confronts with something akin to the gaze of a seasoned forensic pathologist. What remains recurrent is the hypnotic fascination with the fraught human body, its brief glory (“cranium, grand dome” and “regal column of the neck”) diminished all too soon into “a mere beast/ prepared for the cooking pot”, fragile, perishable, pathetic in its tenacious lust for life.
The poems also offer a sharp critique of unexamined social hierarchies, the condescensions and servitudes of a world where some act and others mutely receive (where the “servants”, as one of the early poems comments, are always “watching”). Indeed, the deepest horror in Patel’s work is at any imposed passivity, life that is more acted upon than acting. Whether it is the felling of a speechless tree, the many strategies to render voiceless the already disempowered segments of society, the onslaught of violence and tyranny on the puzzled and ravaged human body, the poet returns obsessively to the ‘the thin continuous cry’ that “hounds the universe”, “the century’s folk song” of daily, unheroic anguish. There is, however, no easy sympathy. There is something more complicated at work here – a horrified entrancement at the human compulsion to tyrannise and violate.
Time and again the poems explore the allure of violence – the power, “the classical feeling”, the predatory surge of adrenaline—through which the poet seeks to reach the moment when there is “nothing/ not thought of, not done before”. Interestingly, as they explore this daily drama of desecration, from the routine banality of violence to the grand classical theatre of the dissection table, the gaze is that of a witness-archivist who is capable of seeing himself as a potential perpetrator as well.
There are poems that express the thrill of discovery at the cutting through the limits of the human body (“It is startling to see how quickly/ A man may be sliced/ From chin to prick”). Rituals of decay and dying, and the moments of liminality attendant upon them, are particular areas of fascination: “soft brain, liver gel, tough heart” surrendering to the unitary “appetite” of a stealthily marauding bacillus; or the mysterious otherness of the man who comes to the hospital “bewildered, but firmly holding/ a loop of his own gut/ in his hands”. There is a fascination too with death, the transition of carnal being to cadaver. The poet marvels in one poem at the “sprinkling of water/ the disappearance of an odour/ a turn of bed-sheets” with which traces of individual life are obliterated.
In another poem, he is transfixed by the image of the “recent dead” who still give off the odour of a recent tryst with life (“the mouth not dried/ into attitude”). And there is a fevered curiosity in the question: “after cremation do ashes writhe,/ remember the living body’s/ fight?” However, for all the muscular engagement with life, there are distancing devices at work. Patel’s is not the poetry of easily presumed empathy. At times he might seem to lament this condition of distance, as he does in “The Ambiguous Fate of Gieve Patel, He Being Neither Muslim nor Hindu in India” where he rues the outsider role imposed upon him by an accident of birth and faith (“To be no part of this hate is deprivation”). But this lament is obviously laden with irony.
Much of the time, the speaker’s tone resembles that of the medical professional – clinical, impersonal, unsurprised. While the surgical scalpel might transgress physical boundaries, the poet’s gaze never presumes to trespass beyond them. He might imagine, wonder, speculate, but there is always the self-doubt – indeed, the humility – to never pretend to “know”. In poetry so committed to excavating the darkest areas of human desolation, any musicality would seem like dissonance, any resolution like dishonesty.
However, even as Patel witnesses and archives the “chorale” that rises “from the world’s forsaken cellars”, there is an implicit sense of wonder about what – if anything – lies beyond this scream of besieged corporeality. This wonder intensifies in the later work. It is in the third book, Mirrored Mirroring, that he allows himself to acknowledge an altogether new possibility.
The “spirit” may be too conclusive a word for it; “transcendence” too mystical. But there is a quiet, almost embarrassed surge of curiosity about how we got “caught up/ in God’s effort/ to understand Himself”. There are questions too about how a Maker who loftily regards his creation “in overview” would find it very different from a Maker who gets his hands soiled, “embroiled in detail” – “sniffing at our faeces, licking our genitals/ puzzled, puzzled”. This puzzlement, shared by witness and Creator alike, suddenly becomes the cause for a palpable buoyancy. There is a growing exuberance in these poems as they embrace the profane with a newfound relish – opening up to a life “freely contaminate” with trivia, excess and distraction. Even the urban dystopia of Bombay Central station is suddenly permeated by “miraculous, heraldic/ shafts of sunlight”.
Death too is accorded an expansive welcome, as long as it happens on Indian Railways, in “a thirdclass carriage/ with open windows/ on a day/ not/ too crowded”. The mood of these poems is discernibly upbeat. The world is depraved, the body besieged, the mind bedevilled, but the humour is affectionate rather than caustic. The assaulted body becomes a less reified object, more contiguous with its context. There is a grudging realisation that it, in fact, “makes sense not/ to have the body/ seamless,/ hermetically sealed, a non-orificial/ box of incorruptibles.” There is even something akin to gratitude at being ‘interpenetrated/ – with the world.”
There are various possible explanations. One is that the sense of “inner necessity” (the Kandinsky phrase that Patel is fond of) seemed muted, or perhaps more operational in the domain of painting than poetry. Patel’s life as a visual artist certainly seems to have been vigorous in these past two decades.
The other explanation is the curiously alive and intimate relationship Patel seems to have nurtured these past 50 years with a long-dead poet – the 17th-century Gujarati mystic, Akho. “Sometime in 1967 or ’68, in Baroda, I happened to be sitting one afternoon with my friend, the writer Suresh Joshi, discussing poetry and drinking tea,” Patel told me in an interview in 2005. “Sureshbhai (considered by many to be the Father of Modern Gujarati literature) asked me if I had read the work of Akho, and when I said I hadn’t, he pulled something out of the shelf with a puff of dust.” With that “puff of dust” began a conversation – if a relationship with a dead poet could be given that name – that was to last a lifetime.
As Patel reflected in the course of the same interview, “I think my translations of Akho have probably come in as a kind of substitute for writing my own poetry.” If each previous volume of poetry dwelt on a certain area of preoccupation, Akho’s work seemed to offer a way for Patel to explore his own life experiences in a very singular way. “Each of my earlier books explored a certain chunk of experience. Perhaps my present chunk of experience needs something like Akho’s poetry to come through. I’ve had his poetry for years, but have never been able to translate it successfully. Now I find Akho’s vision and my technical capability to handle that vision, seem to have come together naturally.”
It is easy to see why the Gujarati poet’s finely chiselled, astringent verse would appeal to Patel. “What motivates most of my creative activity,” Patel has said, “is the need for knowledge. My way of ‘knowing’ something is by writing or painting. This gives me a sense of having made it my own. The end result is a move towards inner clarity, however clothed in ambivalence.” We hear in Akho’s verse the contemplative voice of the jnana margi rather than the wild abandon of the avadhuta, a voice of reflection rather than rapture, irony rather than ecstasy. Indeed, the quiet poise and precision of these poems have none of the inspired self-forgetfulness of a Dionysian poet. But there is a capacity for self-implication – to critique not just the self-deceptions of the ignorant but the “wisdom” of the pretentious – that clearly resonates with Patel’s unfaltering quest for authenticity and his suspicion of fluent victories.
Patel sees Akho’s refusal to describe the sacred as a testimony to the integrity of his spiritual calling. Indeed, in the savage indictment of the spiritual hypocrisies of his time, Akho’s work seems to reflect Patel’s own impulse to gaze at the grim realities around him rather than resort to metaphysical abstraction. Although separated by three centuries, one senses a certain temperamental affinity in lines such as these: “Surrender simplicity/ Give up wisdom too…/… Diamond and ash, drop them both/ on the riverbank” or “Confront her head-on/ you can’t evade maya/… Don’t fret,/ don’t look away/ Would the night vanish/ if you run from it?”
In many ways, Akho seems to have offered Patel not just an ongoing translation project, but something more symbiotic and profoundly self-revelatory. In these translations, it would seem, Akho and Patel enter into a “mirrored, mirroring” relationship of their own: Akho finds a conduit in Patel and Patel finds in Akho a figure on whom he can project a voice. Here is a process that resembles both séance and ventriloquism.
Patel has spoken of the very specific literary relationship he shared with Nissim Ezekiel and AK Ramanujan – two unlikely figures, given the marked variance in their poetics. As one reads these poems, however, one begins to see what Patel might mean when he speaks of their “almost dotty sharing of concerns”. One begins to discern the kinship he might have perceived with Ezekiel’s self-directed irony, the need to probe the compulsions of body, and the capacity to imbue a verse of clarity with (what Patel once called) “finely shaded inner movements”. One also sees shared resonances with Ramanujan’s engagement with translation, and the muscular tension between the physical and metaphysical – or what Patel describes as “a slightly sick concern with the body”.
“It was,” as he put it “the case of one fellow profane monk recognising the other. Our journeys were very different but we knew we were carrying all this difficult baggage with us.” Patel also clearly recognised in Ramanujan the case of a man who channelled much of his own life experience into his translations. There is in both the dual impulse to wonder at a possible beyond, but a firm rejection of a trite spirituality. It is probably Ramanujan’s impulse to “simultaneously sneak towards and edge away from the mystical” (in Patel’s description) that drew him to the older poet’s work. The ability to see the translation of mystical poetry not just as creative nourishment but as a means of self-discovery is clearly a significant point of commonality between the two.
The deepening of early preoccupations is obvious in Patel’s later poetry. The revulsion at the grotesque inequalities of caste and class, the curiosity about the tics and itches of the body, the unexamined ferocities and lusts of the psyche – these are abiding. But there are differences too. As the reader journeys from the much-anthologised “On Killing a Tree”, to the more recent poem, “All Night”, the shift in tone is subtle but discernible. From the measured documentation of a tree’s massacre, we seem to be led to a place of hidden yearning for what could mean a possible uprooting. A tree’s dangerous dreams of derangement – “hair all awry…/ exultant screams splintering the air” – suggests that a terminal restlessness could be a possible doorway to ecstasy. The ultimate uprooting is no longer externally inflicted annihilation but a dangerous inner longing for possible oblivion. While it may take “much time to kill a tree”, sometimes a tree might triumph by colluding in its own termination.
And so, the dim outlines of another possible story of freedom and anchorage begin to take shape in Patel’s work. It is particularly interesting to examine how the recurrent motif of skins and hides permeates these poems. “On Killing a Tree” invokes the “leprous hide” of a tree. “How Do You Withstand, Body” wonders at the “hedgehog” hide of the human body, and the ‘deep sea’ mysteries that lie beyond the “skinwound” of human flesh. In the later poems, however, the fascination with skins, sheaths, tissues, veils and integuments deepens. There is skin as sensuality: a picture of veiled women from the Salar Jung Museum that provokes a reflection on scaffoldings, nettings and veils. There is sheath as playful erotic reverie triggered by the discovery of sloughed-off, soft magenta male underwear on the beach (was it worn by “a young Adonis” or a soft-bellied octogenarian, the poet wonders).
There is skin as a site of divestment and liberation as Karna finds when he gives up his armour and walks to his certain death at Kurukshetra – formidable in his vulnerability. There is skin as dough as the ritual of shaving turns an individual face to “shapelessness” before restoring it to its recognizable identity. There is sheath as a trigger for a playfully tender fantasy, as a package of three bras and panties (“gleaming pearl-hued and off-white”) is surreptitiously delivered in “the auditorium’s half dark” to the soaring strains of Verdi. There is skin as robust life-affirmation epitomised by stray dogs in Bombay who reveal at least one “patch of fur…./… clear/ of fleas, in the middle/ of all the mange”.
In these anthems to the epidermis, there remains an unspoken sense of wonder at something that might perhaps lie beyond all the delirium of unveiling. It is fitting that in Patel’s work, the possibility of transcendence is articulated in a poem about the most quotidian of subjects. And so, the bed bugs that bore ambrosial inner passageways through a meditation mat suddenly seem to stumble upon the ultimate promise of clarity. Something, it would seem, might actually lie beyond the relentlessly punctured and bruised “century’s skin”. Remote it might be. Dim, certainly. Tenuous, undeniably, and flickering. But it is acknowledged. And with that “possible light”, there heaves into view the promise of a hard-won luminosity into the fevered, darkly human poetic world of Gieve Patel.
– from the introduction by Arundhati Subramaniam.
On Killing a Tree
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 leperous 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
No, 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.
Then the matter
Of scorching and choking
In sun and air,
And then it is done.
Allow me a difference
You would obliterate:
I see it all the time.
Tourists come to my city
And my sight smears
Over their bodies, is halted
Not just by the colour
But the smoothness or roughness,
The density of the pore,
And the grass-shoot hair.
The skin is soul-deep.
Perhaps then, it is the inside –
The always red muscle and blood
That shows man one;
And to get there
The body is to be opened,
As yours has been opened, Kennedy,
To grieve my simple mother,
To affect many of us, brought
Strangely close to your land
By your youth,
Old Man’s Death
There may be a very small comfort
In knowing yourself finally
Useless – when even grandchildren
Have grown beyond your love,
And your would-be widow
Has outhobbled you and
Won’t be around to break with
One or two of her last thick tears,
And you not caring much for
Your fellowmen, the doctors
Won’t get your body –
To know how simply you
Will be bundled away, startling
A lifelong friend who finds
He cannot mourn
The quick and easy changes:
A sprinkling of water,
The disappearance of an odour,
A turn of bed-sheets, leaving
A bed, a chair,
Perhaps a whole room,
With clarity in them.
Excerpted with permission from the introduction by Arundhathi Subramaniam to Collected Poems, Gieve Patel, Poetrywala.
Gieve Patel: Physician and polymath “with a slightly sick concern with the body” passes way
By Reema Gehi
Nov 04, 2023 07:54 AM IST
The play was set in 19th Century south Gujarat where many members of the Parsi community own enormous estates. It’s also home to indigenous tribes including the Warlis, who used to work in the lands of the Parsi landlords
MUMBAI In an old interview, poet Gieve Patel, who published three books, ‘Poems’, ‘How Do You Withstand, Body’ and ‘Mirrored Mirroring’, described himself as “a profane monk” whose poetry reveals “a slightly sick concern with the body”.
Gieve Patel, atrist and playwriter poses with Crafted Skeleton, photographed at his studio in Mumbai, on January, 24, 2009. Photograph: ABHIJIT BHATLEKAR/MINT (for Himanshu’s Story)
As a general physician, perhaps, Patel knew human anatomy only too well, so much so that it almost became a preoccupation of sorts.
At 83, this concern ended for Patel, when he dropped his body on Friday, after a brief illness.
My first introduction to Patel was when I was still in college. I met Patel, the playwright, when I played the central character of Dolly from his play, ‘Mister Behram’, for a drama exam.
The play was set in 19th Century south Gujarat where many members of the Parsi community own enormous estates. It’s also home to indigenous tribes including the Warlis, who used to work in the lands of the Parsi landlords.
Patel’s protagonist Mister Behram is a well-known lawyer and reformist. He adopts a young Warli orphan boy – Naval, whom he sends to study law in London, and even marries off his only daughter Dolly to him. As Naval comes into his own, Mister Behram feels threatened. There begins the tragedy of his own creation.
Though the play talked about the socio-political issues that plagued the community – Patel would often meet the Warlis when he would visit his grandfather in south Gujarat – the heart of the narrative navigated around the complexity of human emotions, which Patel captured beautifully in his plays, poetry and art.
Years later, as an art correspondent for a daily, I met Patel, the artist – first at a space in Napean Sea Road and the second time at his studio located inside an old building in the centre of busy Colaba, where Patel also lived. When people asked Patel if he painted in his bedroom, he often joked with them, “No, I sleep in my studio!”
A small typewriter sat at the corner of the room. Patel not only kept it for sentimental reasons, but also made steady use of it until very recently. He had used this to type all his plays, ‘Mister Behram’, ‘Princes’ and ‘Savaksa’, and poems such as ‘On Killing A Tree’ and ‘From Bombay Central’.
At his Colaba studio then, the artist was in the process of preparing for his upcoming solo show. Pointing to a painting titled Footboard Rider – the work itself lent the title of the show—Patel remarked, “Here, you see a sleeping figure juxtaposed with a man riding the train on the footboard. A common sight we see at the railways.”
Patel was fascinated by the Mumbai Railways and its dynamic imagery, which was a concurrent theme in his work. That particular show also included the theme of looking into a well (also a recurrent subject in Patel’s oeuvre), mourning figures as well as of those consoling mourners.
As an artist, Patel’s work was deeply influenced by his fascination with the human body. His canvases often depicted the human form in various states of existence, exploring the boundaries between life and death, presence and absence.
Being around his paintings, even when he wasn’t actively working on them, was critical to his practice. In their presence, he listened to stalwarts such as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Beethoven and Mozart. Music was essential to his studio time, as was poetry.
I encountered Patel the poet, while researching for a biography on Rudolf von Leyden. Patel recalled how the formidable art critic had invited him over to read his poems to a motley group, when he had just completed his MBBS. A young Patel sat in the esteemed company of his mentor and poet Nissim Ezekiel and R Parthasarthy. In that meeting, Patel also spoke about his role as an art critic for a leading Mumbai publication, where he worked briefly, and wrote pointedly with nuance.
A remarkable polymath, Patel’s long and diverse roles as a physician, artist, poet and playwright, sought to bridge the chasm between science and the humanities, in every sense — a body of work still lives on.