The London-based painter Shanti Panchal was born in the mid-to-late 1950s (his exact birthdate is unknown) in the Indian village of Mesar, attended the Sir JJ School of Art in Bombay and first came to London (on a British Council Scholarship) in 1978. Many of the male figures in his fresco-like watercolours of subtle vibrancy – inspired as much by paintings by El Greco and Francis Bacon as Indian Miniatures and Buddhist and Jain frescoes – reflect diverse aspects of himself.
Artist and the Lost Studio was painted in late 2014, when Panchal was faced with the prospect of losing his north London studio. ‘I felt I was being stripped naked of the things I had worked for over many years. Circumstances were forcing me to move – the studio was being snatched away from me.’ The artist’s nakedness symbolises his acute sense of vulnerability. He sits rather tentatively on a simple wooden chair of ‘refreshing watery cobalt blue. I’m looking into the distance – into the uncertain future – but really it is a more inward look, accompanied by the hand’s thoughtful gesture.’
From the black string round his neck hangs a silver capsule suspended between two seeds, rudraksha in Sanskrit (from an evergreen broad-leaved tree) – used traditionally as Hindu prayer beads. ‘A relative gave it to me – and for its sacred associations, I always wear it.’ On the table is a neutral grey symbolic model of his studio, towards which the figure of the baby Lord Krishna stretches forward in plaintive supplication. The backdrop, painted a warm silvery grey, contains a convex mirror conjuring up the artist in boldly silhouetted profile fiercely focussed in the act of painting – the small globe of light falling on his spectacle appears in strong relief. The slender framed rectangle of vermilion to the right evokes something of the inspired ardour of the artist’s creativity. ‘The distinctive colours here are meant to blend as in a raga, or Indian melody, of subtle rhythmic harmony.’
The painting is a moving meditation on both the pressing urgency of Panchal’s current studio predicament and the universal sources of his creativity – beyond conventional exigencies of time and space.
Panchal’s first identifiable and definitive self-portrait was The Wreck (2010). A collector had invited Panchal to stay in his apartment in Barcelona; the city’s ubiquitous culture impressed him. ‘I was walking on the beach with this friend, and saw this rusted shipwreck. This first self-portrait was of me sitting on the beach, facing the sea, with the shipwreck behind – inspiring me as a metaphor for myself – as I had recently had a personal crisis. The simple shape of the ship, and the propeller half-buried in the sand, interested me. I was wearing a dark shirt and sunglasses. As it was my first attempt painting myself, there was a mysterious element I wanted to maintain. The weather was very grey – but there is space – and glowing colours around – for the figure to breathe.’
Speaking of the wrecked but now becalmed vessel in the desolate sands: ‘We live a life of difficulty and conditioning – and at the same time there is hope. The rusty wreck has already had its journey, its adventures; similarly, I have my own history. These simultaneous histories are presented (and simplified here) in a kind of unified enigmatic narrative.’
Shapes of the artist and the inert yet surreally sea-creature-like vessel reflect each other; the main difference being that Panchal’s left hand (stretching out onto a lilac blue tablecloth, suggesting a refreshingly serene swathe of sea) is full of sinuous, muscularly expressive possibilities – whereas the half-occluded ship’s propeller is rendered lifelessly redundant. The colours of the artist’s spaciously abstracted works can partly be related to the ‘very dry ochres and reds and browns’ predominant in his rural upbringing – though in this self-portrait, the palette is uncharacteristically attenuated.
Since 2010, Panchal has painted several other self-portraits. The Artist’s Head (2010) is a small, intensely focussed work – with starkly stylised black hair, eyebrows, goatee and vast emphatic eyes resembling those in a Jain miniature – set against an orange backdrop perhaps reminiscent of ‘monumental skies… and burning days’ he knew as a child. The figure has ‘a self-generating light – rather than one falling externally’. He identifies here ‘a very gentle, vulnerable look’ – but there is dynamic resoluteness too of a man dedicated to his multi-layered, infinitely painstaking art and its taut focus on metaphysical meaning.
In 2001, Panchal won First Prize in The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition in London, and in 2011 Second Prize. He won the third biennial Ruth Borchard Self-Portrait Prize in 2015. His paintings are in numerous public collections, including those of The Arts Council, The British Museum and The Imperial War Museum.