Born in 1940, Gieve Patel is an important presence in the history of modern Indian poetry in English. He is a poet, playwright and painter, as well as a doctor by profession. He has written three books of poetry (Poems, How Do You Withstand, Body and Mirrored Mirroring); three plays (Princes, Savaksa and Mr Behram); and held several exhibitions of his paintings in India and abroad. He lives in Mumbai.
“Gieve Patel is hardly an avant-garde writer and he does not pretend to be one,” writes scholar Sudesh Mishra. “Belonging to the same generation as (Adil) Jussawalla and (Arvind Krishna) Mehrotra, he is a poet whose vision eludes simplistic modernist labels and equations.” Mishra attributes this to the fact that Patel (like poets Kamala Das and Jayanta Mahapatra) has never been a formal student of literature or linguistics.
The enduring concerns in Patel’s poetry are the besieged terrain of the human body, its frailty, absurdity and perishability; the vulgar social inequalities of caste and class that continue to assail post-Independence India; the predicament of the subaltern, perennially relegated to the sidelines of history and art; the daily catalogue of violence, conflict and pain that make up “the century’s folk song”; the perpetual looming shadow of physical death; and a probing curiosity about what – if anything – lies beyond a world of fraught materiality.
In the accompanying interview, Patel describes himself as “a profane monk” whose poetry reveals “a slightly sick concern with the body”. This preoccupation is evident in Patel’s poetic terrain (evoked time and again with horrified but rapt fascination): a world of nerve endings and viscera, ragged fibre and vein, gnarled root and leprous hide, pervaded by the overwhelmingly organic odours of sex, secretion and excretion. The tone is frequently flat, dispassionate, even offhand, wary of any attempt to ennoble, prettify or sentimentalise the subject matter. The existential questions – and they are never far away in Patel’s work – are not presented as airy abstractions; they emerge thickly, haltingly, from the glutinous dough of corporeality that is the focus of what seems to be the gaze of a committed forensic pathologist.
Patel makes no gestures at discerning harmony or resolution in the “chorale” that rises daily “from the world’s forsaken cellars”. But in the relentless feverish probing of the darkest areas of human pain and desolation, he acknowledges, particularly in the later work, the emergence of something else. God may be too grand a word for it. Transcendence too big. But there is a growing realisation that
it makes sense not
to have the body
hermetically sealed, a
box of incorruptibles.
There is even something akin to gratitude at being “Interpenetrated/ – with the world.”
This edition features a selection of poems from his three books as well as an interview with the poet.
Also on this site
The Poet as Profane Monk
Interview with Gieve Patel by Arundhathi Subramaniam.
Poems. Nissim Ezekiel, Mumbai 1966.
How Do You Withstand, Body. Clearing House, 1976.
Mirrored, Mirroring. Oxford University Press, 1991.
Varnamala: Indian English Poetry
Two poems by Gieve Patel.
The Hindu Magazine
Images of Survival and Transcendence: Review of Gieve Patel’s Exhibition by Ranjit Hoskote (January, 2004).
Highlights of Indian Art
Artsindia.com: Customised Preview of Indian art; three images of Gieve Patel’s paintings (oil on canvas).
Open Space India: Events and Activities Index
Talking Poetry: Four poems by Gieve Patel.