A ceaseless quest

The work methods of designer, painter, ceramic artist, photographer and
printmaker Dashrath Patel are simplicity itself

I cannot recall any occasion when I was with Dashrath Patel and came away without learning something. Or without getting excited about the world that he inhabits. I had seen him several times, mostly in the company of his two closest friends and associates — Chandralekha, the celebrated dancer, and Sadanand Menon, noted art critic and journalist — but did not really know him till I had the occasion to work with him. It was Giraben Sarabhai, who brought us together at Ahmedabad, asking us to work, if we would on a volume that would give the reader/visitor a ‘feel’ of the great Calico Museum of Textiles and the Sarabhai Foundation.

The Calico Museum is unlike any other museum in India, perhaps the world, not only because it has one of the greatest collections of Indian textiles anywhere but also because the way it is set up, is without a parallel. I was a bit diffident, however, never having worked with a designer before, and because I had no idea of what working with Dashrath would be like. He could be difficult, I thought: opinionated, or someone with ideas that mine did not resonate with.

There was a formidable reputation behind him: as designer, painter, ceramic artist, photographer, print-maker, inspirational teacher, above all, innovator. He had been one of the moving forces behind making the National Institute of Design what it is or was, having taught there for close to 20 years; he had worked under, learnt from, or associated with the finest names in their own fields: Charles Eames, Haren Chattopadhyaya, Louis Kahn, William Hayter, Gautam Sarabhai, Robert Rauschenberg, Buckminster Fuller, Chandralekha, Cartier Bresson; he had been involved with some great exhibitions: New York, Paris, Moscow, bringing the spirit of India to them; some great theatre/dance-stage designs, like for Chandralekha’s Lilavati or Mahakaal, had been his. So, it is understandable, perhaps, that I was not so sure.

Fire. Monumental sculpture for a city square by Dashrath Patel
Fire. Monumental sculpture for a city square by Dashrath Patel

A coloured sketch on paper by the artist
A coloured sketch on paper by the artist

But working with him turned out to be a pleasurable, stimulating experience. His mind, I discovered, was layered, but his work-methods were, like the way he has dressed all his life, simplicity itself. We began by talking about whether there is a truly Indian sense of design, and whether there can be a museum in India that yields to the visitor a different experience, what we call here an anubhuti. I had seen some of his wonderful photographs, taken in bazaar and countryside, of ordinary objects, rather arrangements of objects: dyed textiles spread out to dry in dazzling array on the sandy banks of the Sabarmati, delicacies displayed in rising rows of colours and shapes in a sweets shop, vegetables neatly stacked in seeming awareness of mutual relationships on a vendor’s cart, garlands of glass bangles glistening on a hawker’s pole, elegant jali-windows piercing the expanse of coarsely plastered mud-walls, ample turbans quietly hanging on carved pegs. Can we do something like this, perhaps, with or inside the Calico Museum, we asked ourselves? Draw attention not to individual objects, however brilliant, but to arrangements, the like of which were the very soul of this museum.

Before an answer could be formulated, he was off, camera in hand, clicking away with the blazing speed that is his, moving from space to space, gallery to gallery. The unspoken thing was: let us take some pictures and then see if they work. This, I discovered, is his method or at least one of his methods: collect all that you can, and then sort, order, establish connections, see if a pattern emerges.

From what he photographed, over the next few days, a pattern did truly emerge. He had captured, almost instinctively, all which makes that museum unique: the density of sequencing, the manner in which the objects on display stay invitingly close to the viewer, the absence of any predetermined angles from which the displays are meant to be viewed. Dashrath had taken, camera in hand, a slow, ruminating walk through the galleries, capturing with the gaze of innocence, not so much views and angles as sensations.

The volume was eventually published under the very appropriate title: Experiencing a Museum. My part in it was very small: I simply wrote an Introduction.

Working with him, I discovered that it is fruitful to listen to him closely, let him freely talk, because that is the way he thinks. Thoughts come rushing towards him. He is constantly at it: doing something, working ideas out, scattering them in front of those that he cares for or those that he senses care for them. Even when he is reminiscing, he keeps adding, subtracting, multiplying. He would suddenly re-live the time when he set up that enormous staged event in Moscow, and you could see it through his eyes. He would recall with great vividness the conversations he had with Chandralekha, who used to have very emphatic thoughts of her own, when the set of Mahakaal was being discussed. Quickly, from nowhere it seems, he would pull out, just for sharing, a little volume in which he had documented photographically the lecture that Sir C. V. Raman, the great scientist, gave at Chennai years and years ago on the theme: "Why is the sky blue?" I did not know that he was also a sculptor, but learnt that he had installed, not long ago, a monumental sculpture — a 35 feet tall abstract structure in painted steel — inspired by the tongues of fire. It stands defiantly at a city square in Chennai: cutting into space and then enveloping it, letting birds fly in and out of it, forcing the ordinary viewer, the passer-by, into the domain of puzzlement. The countryside of Madhubani, the walks with camera in hand through the length and breadth of India, the experiments with natural dyes, documenting the old and maze-like city of Ahmedabad: nothing it seems has been outside his ken.

There is something elemental about Dashrath’s energy. He is not young any more, having lived more than 80 years on this planet. He has had his share of health problems — major surgeries, brushes with the beyond — but nothing stops him. The last time I saw him, which was just a few weeks ago, he showed me, on his computer screen, a clutch of stunning photographs of the Taj that he had taken; shared with me some superb, elegant drawings that he, while recovering from a surgery, had turned out by the score from his sick bed just recently. And then, suddenly, he switched to the theme of Form and Shadow, making a long and passionate statement. Why, I do not know. Form, he said, is constant, but shadows change: it is all a matter of light. Like always, he had given you something to think about.