Jan 21 2016

Jeram Patel (1930–2016)

by Toivo Kai Yan Siu

Photograph of artist Jeram Patel taken at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda, around 1958. Photo by Jhoti Bhatt. 

Vadodara-based artist Jeram Patel passed away on January 18 at the age of 86. With a career that spanned over half a decade, Patel is considered one of the pioneers of abstract art in India. According to his contemporaries, such as poet and art critic Prayag Shukla, the eminent artist was a man of a quiet demeanor and a powerful, artistic language that was ahead of his time.

In the 1960s, when artists in India were experimenting with form, Patel was pursuing a new kind of medium in abstraction—one that involved engraving on burnt wood that he set alight with a blowtorch. This method later became one of his most celebrated styles, along with his iconic black strokes and saturated shapes of ink on paper. Despite having a background in drawing and painting from Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai, Patel later found inspiration to go beyond the canvas and paper during a visit to Japan in the late 1950s, where different materials for creating works were being used there at the time. For Patel, the process of burning and destructing wood involved plunging into an unknown area and creating something that instinctively responded to his inner creative feelings. Regarding the innovative medium that he developed, he said, “[T]here is a search for the unknown which, I think, has always found expression in my works.”

Patel was among the founding members of Group 1890, a collective formed in 1962 that comprised of 11 artists—among them Jagdish Swaminathan (1928–1994), Ambadas Khobragade (1922–2012) and Gulammohammed Sheikh—that initiated a new movement in Indian art in the aftermath of the country’s Independence in 1947. Seeking for a local but contemporary means of creative expression that would take on the institutionalized Western idiom, the group held their first and last exhibition at the LKA Gallery, New Delhi, with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurating the show. Although the collective was short-lived, many of the members later went on to make progressive contributions to the contemporary Indian art scene.

Known as an introverted and utterly private person, Patel is considered by many as one of the most underrated artists in India. Delhi Art Gallery director Ashish Anand praises Patel’s signature “Hospital Series” (1966)—crow quill drawings that narrate tales of pain, suffering and sickness—as “some of the best works produced by an Indian artist ever.”

Born in 1930 at Sojitra in the Kheda district of Gujarat, Patel completed his studies in Mumbai before pursuing art at the Central School of Art and Craft in London. In 1976, Patel was appointed professor at the Faculty of Fine Arts, M. S. University, Baroda, where he later became the dean. Patel’s exquisite works also won him numerous awards, such as the Ravishankar Raval Award by the Government of Gujarat in 1992, and the National Award by the Lalit Kala Akademi in 1957, 1963, 1973 and 1984.