New Delhi

Madhvi Parekh, Untitled (Durga II), 2006, acrylic paint on acrylic sheet, 48 x 351/2"

Madhvi Parekh, Untitled (Durga II), 2006, acrylic paint on acrylic sheet, 48 x 351/2"

Madhvi Parekh

Madhvi Parekh, Untitled (Durga II), 2006, acrylic paint on acrylic sheet, 48 x 351/2"

A childlike naïveté and a sense of wonder permeate Madhvi Parekh’s paintings. Is it because the septuagenarian draws her creative sustenance not from the teeming cities where she has spent most of her adult life but from her memories of growing up in a village? “I have never forgotten the sights and sounds of my village; I carry them with me everywhere, and although they are often combined with elements I have imbibed living in the city, they still endure,” she confided to me several years ago.

The village she refers to is Sanjaya, in the Indian state of Gujarat, where she spent a happy childhood as the daughter of a primary-school principal. Various motifs from these early days crop up in her paintings: grazing cattle, a rustic charpoy bed, paths to the village shrine. There is, however, a twist. These are no simple vignettes of rural life but remembered scenes that have undergone a magical transformation, fueled in no small measure by the myriad myths and fables she heard as a child. How else can one explain the phenomena of flora and fauna mutating to sprout human heads or fantastical fishtailed creatures pregnant with chimerical beings?

This luminous retrospective, “The Curious Seeker,” curated by Kishore Singh, included more than sixty works dating from 1964 through 2015. Especially delightful were Parekh’s paintings of the 1970s, when her two daughters were still very young. Take, for example, Fountain, 1974, in which amorphous, amoeba-like forms appear to morph and mutate before one’s eyes. Likewise, in Deepa’s Family, 1974, similar lively protean creatures of the imagination entrance and beguile; given the painting’s gleeful jubilance, one wondered if Parekh was attempting to envision the world through the eyes of her younger daughter, Deepa. The Dolls, 1977, with its three colorfully outlined figures, also invited us into a world of cheerful make-believe. The richly patterned surfaces of these works, with their dots and dashes of color, summon images of the rural craft of hand-stitched embroidery, as do their exuberant hues. But they equally recall works by Miró, Matisse, and, above all, Klee—unsurprisingly, one might add, since Parekh’s husband, the artist Manu Parekh, introduced her to Klee’s 1925 Pedagogisches Skizzenbuch (Pedagogical Sketchbook) early in their marriage.

In Parekh’s watercolors and gouaches from the 1990s and 2000s, one observed a simplification of the ground, with a paring-down of detail. But throughout these decades, her fantastical protagonists continue to cavort and impossibly contort their limbs in joyful abandon. Parekh’s fascination with the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, and more recently with the figure of Christ, was also evident. In some works, she enshrines a figure in the center of the frame like a presiding deity, surrounding it with a border of boxed-in creatures, creating an almost parallel narrative. The multiarmed, weapon-wielding goddess Durga is a special favorite, dancing circles around her opponents or floating above a battleground, as in Flying Goddess, 1992. Parekh’s works depicting biblical scenes, such as the large-scale Last Supper, 2011, reverse-painted on an acrylic sheet, appeared a trifle more sedate.

Parekh’s style has often been labeled folksy, given that her pictorial vocabulary draws from India’s rich traditions of vernacular imagery. But what cannot be overlooked is that, like some of her artistic predecessors, she melds this with a modernist sensibility and a sophisticated handling of color and material. Much like the conjurer in World of Magician, 2004, she puts her sleight of hand to good use, summoning up magical, fabular worlds.

Meera Menezes