Thinker in the visual realm


Remembering Dashrath Patel, India’s first multi-disciplinary artist whose explorations led to the re-interpretation of design as a blueprint of resistance and sustainable development.

Four years ago, following the memorial service of his closest friend, dancer-choreographer Chandralekha, Dashrath Patel told some friends in his droll manner, “A big businessman has asked me to design his house. I’ve told him, I don’t have much time (he was touching 80) so you’d better hurry.”

The puckish genius, who brought an unparalleled sense of play, cultural rootedness and inquiry to his six-decade-long artistic journey, passed away on December 1 in Ahmedabad. He was 83. In his lifetime, Dashrath effortlessly wore many an iconic mantle. He is acknowledged as independent India’s first multi-disciplinary artist with a rare urge to explore the unending visual possibilities inherent in every new material.

As a founder member of the premier National Institute of Design (NID), he almost singlehandedly laid the foundation of an Indian design practice and education, training an entire generation of designers and teachers to imbibe a self-reliant design ethic in a country with a growing industry. Lastly, by interpreting design as a blueprint of resistance and sustainable development, Dashrath created significant interventions in alternate design practice.

Sculpting space anew

A contemporary of V.S. Gaitonde and M.F. Husain, DP — as he was fondly called — scoffed at notions of compartmentalisation and monochromatic vision. To this ‘seer’ every new medium offered a promise, and challenge, of sculpting space anew, of conceiving a fresh, tactile art of seeing the world — through collage, painting, drawing, studio pottery, ceramics, photography, industrial design or stadium-scale exhibition design.

Dashrath’s unabashed celebration of the creative process was based on a deep understanding of the Indian colour palette which “has the ability to receive and then release light. It was designed to interact with the sun…”

No wonder the vibrancy characterising much of the artist’s work brings to mind the colours and design aesthetic of India’s streets: the red of apples contrasting with the green of guavas on a roadside cart; the swish of an orange lehnga and purple blouse against the red and cream stripes of a temple wall; a blue shop hoarding reflecting on the metallic maroon of a passing bus.

Viewing Dashrath’s body of work is akin to being in the hub of creation. Witness the explosive purity of abstraction in his shimmering paper collages on wood; they change shade with the changing light of the day. The shadowy shape of viewers reflected on the surface, changing its hue, makes them feel part of the creative process.

The artist’s ceramic works resonate with the textures of churning earth, like artefacts in time. The dynamic planes and angles of simple line drawings draw attention to the filigree elegance that lies hidden in every mass.

As for Dashrath’s abstract photo-collages, they destroy all preconceived notions of ‘knowing’ one’s reality. The breath-taking aerial photographs of clothes drying on the bank of Sabarmati River, beg the question: is that realistic or fantastic?

In his words, Dashrath “kept moving from one discipline to another…because of my strong belief that they were all connected…” Not for this Padma Shree awardee (1981) the burden of being ‘creative’: “My attitude was, if one thing did not work, so what? Try something else…Very often this is what keeps me ordinary”.

The idea of the perfect image never held Dashrath in thrall; the process of seeing an event or subject through time is what fascinated him. Often he returned to the same place and people to mark the passage of time and experience.

Early days

Dashrath’s journey began in Nadiad, Gujarat, where he was born on October 6, 1927. A childhood rebellion at 10 hinted at a future trajectory; the youngster preferred to ‘draw’ the world closer, in preference to being formally schooled. Thus began a quest to express through tones, tactile shapes, kinetic lines and angles the invisible movement of the Earth, the velocity of air, and nature’s secret of transformation.

For a youngster all too aware of his “inadequacies in language and basic education and a fear of being limited”, a pursuit of diverse disciplines offered a possibility of self-transformation too. Early associations with equally multi-dimensional personalities like Harindranath Chattopadhyay and Debi Prasad Roy Choudhury (the latter was his mentor at the College of Art, Chennai (1949-53), eased his entry into a world of playful but intense learning; based on the first principle of linking up with and contributing to creative endeavours around him.

This became a lifelong mantra for Dashrath, as is evident from his meticulous documentation of friend Chandralekha’s pathbreaking work in contemporary dance choreography over the years, exploring spaces sculpted by movements in time.

What followed was a never-ending process of “learning without a pause”. In the 1950s it took the youngster to the Ecole de Beaux Arts, Paris. Here, he loftily told a visitor to his show — Henri Cartier Bresson — that photography did not interest him! He was soon initiated into photography by the master.

An apprenticeship with Czech master ceramist Prof. Eckert made him realise that the essence of clay was best gleaned through “acts of mischief” that shunned received wisdom and had no fear of ‘failure’.

Memorable associations with world spirits such as Buckminster Fuller, Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, Frei Otto, John Cage and Chandralekha further fuelled the artist’s hunger to capture the multifarious dimensions of time, space, sound and energy.

The 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were eventful. In the public sphere, Dashrath designed the first training programme in visual communication at NID, helped by renowned designers Charles and Ray Eames. He followed it up with courses in product, ceramic and exhibition design.

Dashrath’s personal trajectory included a path-breaking pursuit of ceramics and exhaustive photo-documentation of India’s diverse craft traditions. Officially he handled the task of constructing an image of India in festivals of India abroad, including Paris, Moscow and New York. The latter reflected the artist’s desire to ‘try out’ new things before returning to first principles with new insights.

In 1981, Dashrath resigned from NID, ending a 20-year association. This move not only reflected his deep disillusionment with an industry content with the West’s rejects; it heralded a new look at the seams of socio-economic realities.

Sustainable designs

DP started a Rural Design School in Sewapuri, near Varanasi, adding a vital design component to a Gandhian rural development project underway. For close to a decade he trained children of artisans to develop product prototypes for rural markets based on their needs and on sustainable principles. Simultaneously, he helped develop low-cost screen-printed posters for various women’s groups; torch operated slide projectors for Chipko movement activists and proto-types of low-cost field darkrooms for processing photographs.

He had a reason for doing so. “The camera is a tool usually in the hands of a class of people who see the world in an objectified way. But if the camera were to be consciously used by people at the other end of society, to locate themselves and their problems and conflicts, we could have an entirely new sensibility about the world around us.”

In 1998 and 1999, a retrospective of 50 years of Dashrath’s work at the National Gallery of Modern Art, in Delhi and Mumbai respectively, paid tribute to the living treasure that Dashrath’s body of work represented. It was fittingly titled ‘In the Realm of the Visual’.

Curated by Sadanand Menon, the exhibition unerringly captured the essence of an artist who revelled in his multi-disciplinary flair to visualise the resonances of lived experience that are symbolic of the pact between human and material, form and function.

Dashrath’s quest for new trajectories continued into the new millennium, most significant of which was the creation of his own studio and gallery in Alibagh, off Mumbai. Call it the artist’s last master stroke. For, the presence of Dashrath Patel’s vast and iconic body of work under one roof is a testament to the irrepressible genius’ art of seeing.

In the end, the artist who had achieved a unique mastery over space could not master time. What one remembers is the brilliance of a lifetime sculpted into striking expressions of visuality as have rarely been seen in our times.
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This post was submitted by Mudit Agrawal.

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