The eclecticism of Gieve Patel (1940-2023), an autodidact and a man of many callings, is a testament to his quest to seek new forms of creative expression
Gieve Patel (1940-2023), who has passed away at 83, epitomised the archetype of a true polymath. A man of many callings, he was a poet, playwright, physician, painter and sculptor. Having burst on the literary and artistic scene of Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1966 — the year in which he published his debut collection of poetry, Poems, and held his first solo show — for nearly six decades, he quietly and consistently produced works that depict the interaction between the post-colonial rural and urban experiences, and humanise everyday moments and ordinary individuals.
Born in Bombay into a Parsi family from a quaint village of Nargol in southern Gujarat (while his father was a dentist, his mother was the daughter of a doctor), he was educated at Saint Xavier High School and Grant Medical College. An autodidact (he was never a formal student of literature), he began writing poetry at the age of 18. Eight years later, his first anthology comprising 24 poems in all, and simply titled Poems, was launched by Nissim Ezekiel (1924-2004), who headed the circle of Bombay poets, consisting of the likes of A.K. Ramanujan, Adil Jussawalla, Arun Kolatkar, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, R. Parthasarathy, Saleem Peeradina, Dom Moraes, Santan Rodrigues, and a few others.
A distinctive poetic voice
Most of these poets, who had a sharp moral focus on the problems of living, had published their landmark volumes around this time: Jussawalla’s Land’s End (1962), Kamala Das’s Summer in Calcutta (1965), and Ramanujan’s The Striders (1966) were critically acclaimed for their novel attempt to break with the conventional modes of writing poetry which had characterised the works that came out in the pre-independent India. Inspired by European poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, WB Yeats, TS Eliot, Ezra Pound and WH Auden, Ezekiel — as Keki N. Daruwalla wrote once — brought into play ‘a modern sensibility in confronting the confusion, bewilderment and disillusion’ of the post-Independence world, transferring poetry from its ‘bucolic habitat to urban one’, abandoning ‘archaisms and the monotonous jangling rhyme schemes of the earlier poets’ and adopting a form which could adequately display the ‘subtle modulations of pace and the strength and sinews of free verse.’
Poems marked the arrival of a distinctive poetic voice. Its opening poem, ‘Killing a Tree,’ which has been widely anthologised, and was even part of the NCERT syllabus for Class 9, is an exploration of the tenacity of life and the futility of attempting to eradicate it completely. “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 / Sprouting leaves,” reads the first stanza. The poem uses the act of killing a tree as a metaphor for the arduous task of destroying something that has deep roots — and a long history — it highlights the idea that life, in all its forms, resists annihilation and persists against adversity. Patel employs vivid imagery to describe the tree’s tenacity — from its slow growth, its consumption of the earth, and its ability to heal and regenerate. The poem questions the human desire to control and dominate the natural world, suggesting that life will always find a way to survive.
While some critics found issues with Patel’s detached and deadpan tone, and his spare imagery, others like Bruce King found it refreshing. “Patel’s compressed manner, distrust of sentiments, physical awareness and the way he writes from personal experience, while guarding himself against emotional involvement, is new to Indian poetry,” wrote King. Another critic, K.N. Kutty, praised Patel for not couching his verses in clichés, and for being neither derivative nor imitative, neither romantic nor sentimental. SR Sawant wrote that the most apt summation came from K. Ayyappa Paniker, who described the two poetic modes practised by Patel in Poems succinctly as ‘the tightlaced lyric’ and the ‘slowly unfolding drama.’ Poems like ’On Killing a Tree’, ‘Servants’ and’ Commerce’ belong to the former mode: ‘there is formal subtlety, refinement of language, and care for precision, with the opening lines usually containing the essential theme and the rest of the poem being a pain-staking illustration, elaboration, reconsideration or rebuttal of the opening statement.’ Other poems, like ‘Nargol’ and ‘Naryal Purnima’ in the collection, on the other hand, are structured in a way that betrays a sense of drama.
‘Of nerve endings and viscera’
As a poet, Patel’s output was intermittent. His second collection of poems, How do You Withstand, Body — comprising 32 poems drawing on Patel's own clinical experiences, it deals with the violence perpetrated on the human body and the spectre of terrors it faces — was published in 1976, under the Clearing House imprint, founded by Jussawalla, Kolatkar, Mehrotra and Patel. His third collection, Mirrored, Mirroring, appeared 15 years later, in 1991.
Marking a clear departure from his earlier preoccupations with social problems and violence (which symbolised his withdrawal from the role of a social being), the poems in Mirrored, Mirroring are steeped in the poet’s fresh concern for, and his quest to seek intimacy with, God and Nature. For him, addressing God is as ludicrous as ‘lisping in public/about candy. At fifty’ (‘The Difficulty’). The poet denied God throughout his life as he didn’t want to ground his nose ‘into the dust’ (‘Simple’). If, at the later stage of his life, he turns to God, he does so only because he has been given ‘a cleaner sense of judgement with which he can understand what is divine and what is not’. He has learnt now that we can ‘best enjoy Nature from a distance’ (‘Speeding’).
When Poetrywala published Collected Poems — which brings together his previous three collections as well as 19 new poems — in 2017, none of his previous work was available in print. The volume, poet Arundhathi Subramaniam writes in her introduction, does not only give us a sense of his trajectory as a poet, but also offers ‘the serious reader an opportunity to view changing approaches to form, inflections of theme, as well as a certain underlying obstinacy of preoccupation.’
Tracing Patel’s sensibility as a poet, Subramaniam points us to his prolonged years as a doctor in rural and urban milieus, his deep engagement with visual art, his abiding involvement with the theatre, and his temperament of a solitary traveller and a self-taught artist, resistant to the caprices of cultural fashion. “To read Patel’s work from 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 euphemize,” writes Subramaniam.
The depths of self-exploration
Having held his first art show at Jehangir Art Gallery in 1966, Patel went on to have several major exhibitions in India and abroad. He was catapulted to public attention after he painted the Politician series in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Subsequently, he painted the Railway Platform series. In the 1980s, he began painting multiple figures after he happened to see 14th-century painter Pietro Lorenzetti’s Crucifixion during a visit to Italy. It was also the time he came out with his remaining two plays, Savaksa (1982) and Mr. Behram (1987); his first play, Princes, had appeared in 1971.
It was only after he retired from his medical practice in 2005 that Patel came to be fully engaged in art. He introduced sculpture into his repertoire in 2010, imbuing his work with mythological narratives. His sculptures, centred around the tales of Ekalavya in the Mahabharata and the Greek myth of Daphne, lent a new dimension to his artistic practice. Through these sculptures, he explored the interplay of human and divine, the corporeal and the metaphysical.
In his works, we see the darker facets of human experience; in his wounded figures, he gazes unflinchingly at the brutality of existence, perhaps urging us to reckon with our demons. In his later years, Patel explored a seemingly banal yet tremendously symbolic act of gazing into a well. “Looking into a Well,” a series inspired by wells in his native village, served as a window into Patel’s own psyche, an introspective journey that took him into the depths of self-exploration, inviting us to peer into our own consciousness. In his acrylic and oil paintings, Patel often portrayed people on the margins, markers of old age, death.
To Patel, translating 17th century Gujarati poet Akho had become a mission of sorts. It was sometime in 1967 or 1968 in Baroda, when he was sitting with writer Suresh Joshi, discussing poetry and drinking tea, when Joshi — considered to be the Father of Modern Gujarati literature — asked him if he had read the work of Akho. “When I said I hadn’t, he pulled something out of the shelf with a puff of dust,” Patel told Subramaniam in an interview. “I think my translations of Akho have probably come in as a kind of substitute for writing my own poetry. What motivates most of my creative activity 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,” he had said. Patel’s eclectic body of work is a testimony to this quest for knowledge.