How Madhvi Parekh’s art inspires us to keep learning

Does education end with school? Or do we stop learning once we graduate? At The Heritage Lab, we aspire to learn (and share what we learn) everyday. So when we came across artist Madhvi Parekh, we found an instant connection! This self-taught artist never let her lack of formal training stand in the way of her growth. In fact, if anything, it worked to her advantage. She learned from what she saw around her and translated that on to her canvas. With no rules to govern to her style, she was free to follow her own artistic impulse!

Through this article, let’s transport ourselves into Madhvi’s world, and understand her art, life and passions.

Udan Khatola, A papier mache sculpture painted by Madhvi Parekh

Induction into art

Madhvi Parekh is one of India’s leading artists today. So it is difficult to imagine that she stumbled into this career accidentally. Born and raised in Sanjaya village, near Ahmedabad in Gujarat, she had no inclination to be an artist. In fact, she dreamed of becoming a doctor; though like most women of the time, was trained only to be a housewife. At the age of 16, she got married to Manu Parekh who was an aspiring artist at the time. Little did Madhvi know that this marriage would open a new door into the world of art for her.

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Madhvi Parekh, with artist and husband Manu Parekh

At the time she was expecting her first child, Manu introduced her to the works of Swiss German artist, Paul Klee. He gave her an activity book inspired by Klee’s work. Madhvi practiced diligently for a few days, then got bored and started playing around with shapes in her own style to create human figures. Apparently, this was a moment of epiphany for Madhvi and her husband, who clearly saw the artist inside her.

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Castle and Sun, Paul Klee
This is the kind of painting Madhvi must have first practiced on- look at the different shapes he’s used!

While so many women still struggle to get back to work after pregnancy, Madhvi found a new career during hers. And thus began her journey!

Childhood memories and rural life

Even though it was a modernist like Klee who prompted her to paint, Madhvi’s paintings are rooted in the simple charm of rural landscapes from her childhood days. The trees, flowers, sun, houses, animals, the narrow lanes, the Panchatantra tales, mythology, the colourful characters from her village and local folklore- all appear abundantly  in her paintings. In her interviews, she often says that she barely has to look outwards for inspiration. It all just comes out, to use her words, “like a film reel.”

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World of Magician

Inspired Adventures

Apart from her childhood, Madhvi’s many travels find their way into their paintings. For instance, on her trip to Israel, Madhvi was intrigued by Jesus, Christianity and of course, the fables associated with his life.

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She went on to paint a series of paintings where she tried to breathe life into those tales. The figure of Jesus became Madhvi’s muse and was depicted in many of her works.

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Portrait of Christ

Many artists have tried their hand at ‘the Last Supper’ and you might be familiar with Leonardo Da Vinci’s version below.

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The Last Supper, Leonardo Da Vinci

What happened when Madhvi came across ‘The Last Supper’ on one of her trips? She painted it, of course! Look at how vibrant her depiction is-

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The Last Supper, Madhvi Parekh

Embroidery & Folk Elements

Her work also reflects folklorist elements and reminds us of of Gujarati embroidery, Kantha embroidery from West Bengal and folk art, like rangoli and mandana, that she grew up with.

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A mandana painting, which is a folk art form from Rajasthan

Some have also observed a parallel between her paintings and Pichhwai art from Rajasthan and Kalamkari from Andhra Pradesh. In these narrative art forms, the deity is usually in the centre of the painting and the border has other elements of the story.

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Compare the Pichhwai form above, with Madhvi’s art below. The format is strikingly similar!

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Biography of me and my neighbor (The Sky, land & water), a painting that bears striking resemblance to the Rajasthani folk art, Pichwai.

If you look at some of her early paintings from a distance, they actually seem like an embroidery or rangoli design, but as you move closer, the painting and its mesmerizing elements start to unravel themselves.

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The Street

The dots and dashes of her brushstroke look as if they are embroidered on canvas. In this painting, her brushstroke reminds us of Kantha or Sujani embroidery!

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Sujani embroidery (left)
Kantha embroidery, (right)

Her style is often regarded as a bridge between rural and urban life, and therefore is colloquially called ‘rurban’ by many critics and admirers. It also combines abstract elements, with expressionism, all dipped in folk art.

A Lifelong Learner  

Madhvi immersed herself in her surroundings and quickly picked up what she saw. Her experiences in urban centres like Kolkata (which we’ve mentioned above), Mumbai and New Delhi significantly shaped her as an artist.

Madhvi always let her surroundings impress upon her. For example, while living in Kolkata, Madhvi was drawn towards the image of Kali and Durga. And thus followed a series of paintings depicting the two goddesses. The use of elemental colours like black, red; the folkish touch, and dark outlines make in the paintings below reflect how generous and emancipated her artistic vision was. Don’t you agree?

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The Goddess

While living in metros, going to art galleries further exposed her to new styles. In addition, her husband’s close association with the Weaver’s Resource Centre also had an impact on her. She understood the importance of learning to invigorate her and her art. Thus, she never missed a chance to attend art camps or visit museums in India and abroad.

She also learnt from her peers!

Fellow contemporary artist, Nalini Malani taught Madhvi the technique of reverse acrylic painting. Paul Klee was an early influence, but Madhvi was also inspired by Joan Miro, particularly his bulging and gigantic human and animal figures.

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House of the King of Poland, Joan Miro

Another foreign artist, Rouault, influenced the dark, thick black outlines and silhouettes tat we often see in her work.

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Biblical landscape, Georges Rouault

A Unique Vision: Personal and Social Reflections

Undoubtedly, Madhvi’s style has evolved immensely all over the years. In terms of techniques, she has experimented with oil paintings, reverse paintings, serigraphs, etchings to ink and even glitter pens. However, she retains certain common elements – thick black lines, dots, lots of geometrical shapes, vibrant colours and vivid designs- and of course her distinct vision.

She has a unique ability to extract from her day-to-day life experiences, stories and fables, and mix them with her own imagination.

As human beings, we have either lived through the same experiences and stories, or heard them or seen them, sometime or the other. Her work may start with individual experiences but at the same time, bear universal resonance. This is her strength, which makes her so relatable as an artist. Life itself is her muse.

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