Director: Ishu Patel
By the February of 1966, Ishu Patel had already come a long way for a 23-year-old kid from the sticks. Born to a farming family in a small village in Gujarat, he had gone on to graduate from the Fine Arts program at MS University, Baroda in 1963, when he was selected by Gira Sarabhai to train as an “apprentice” at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, then still housed on the second floor of the Corbusier building known as the Sanskar Kendra. It was an invitation to join the advance team of one of post-colonial India’s most remarkable experiments in modernity.
The years that followed had included high-profile visits from figures like Louis Kahn, Frei Otto, Buckminster Fuller and John Cage — the latter arriving in the company of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which performed at Ahmedabad’s “Town Hall” in 1964 — not to mention NID guiding lights Ray and Charles Eames. Especially significant for Patel was the presence of legendary Swiss-born graphic designer and educator Armin Hofmann, who was on the faculty in 1965. Ahmedabad had become a key, if unlikely, way station in the cosmopolitan circuitry of international art and design. So it really wasn’t all that surprising to be going to a party that February in honor of yet another prestigious visitor: the Indophilic Magnum photographer Henri-Cartier Bresson.
Cartier-Bresson had, in fact, already been around Ahmedabad for a few months by then, although you would scarcely know it. He kept a low profile, venturing out with NID founding faculty member and longtime friend Dashrath Patel to photograph the city and its people, working with a young photographer and technician named Parmanand Dalwadi in NID’s bustling darkroom — all students at NID were, at the time, required to learn how to process film and make prints — but otherwise keeping to himself. It was his fifth visit to India and, after Ahmedabad, he planned to travel to Allahabad to photograph the Kumbh Mela and then to Jaipur, where the Congress Party was holding a session with India’s brand new Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (who was friendly with Cartier-Bresson) in attendance. Ishu Patel had seen Cartier-Bresson from afar, had watched Dalwadi process his negatives and handled the master’s contact prints, but before that evening in February, they had never actually met.
Then he was recruited to help out with the party.
It was an unusual assignment, to be sure. The occasion was Maha Shivratri and — as per tradition on Lord Shiva’s day — there was to be bhang. Obviously someone had to test it out beforehand, for strength. To be on the safe side, Patel and several of the other apprentices took a full dose of bhang lassi and then some. It seemed fine. It seemed better than fine. Cartier-Bresson arrived at the party, was offered the bhang, consumed just a small amount and… promptly freaked out. According to Patel, the doyen of le moment décisif “could not tolerate the experience. We got scared, rushed him to the family doctor and the party was over!”
Such was the life of an apprentice at NID during its first decade. Patel went on to accompany Cartier-Bresson as his personal assistant on the trip to Allahabad and Jaipur, an experience he recounts in wonderful detail. They remained in touch, and Patel later visited Cartier-Bresson in Paris, in March of 1968, during a break from a yearlong period of study with Armin Hofmann at the Allegemeine Gewerbschule in Basel. They went out one night to Le Lido.
In 1970, Patel received a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship to study animation in the US — he had been hand-picked by the Sarabhais to become NID’s first faculty in the medium and had already worked under Leo Lionni and Giulio Gianini on the fabulous handcut paper animation “Swimmy.” He managed to turn this into an opportunity to spend a year at the National Film Board of Canada, working with one of his heroes, Norman McLaren. McLaren had taught animation in India in 1952 under the auspices of UNESCO and his films were frequently screened at NID; to be able to actually meet and work with him was the high point in Patel’s career. Patel resigned from NID in 1972 — the institution was in a state of crisis at the time — and returned to Canada to join McLaren at the NFBC, where he spent the next twenty-five years making his own films, producing the work of other animators and mentoring generations of young animators.
“Perspectrum" (1975) would go well with a heady draught of that bhang lassi: animated using paper cutouts, it shows how well Patel was able to assimilate the influences of McLaren, Hofmann, Gianini, Lionni and Indian design gurus like Dashrath Patel and H. Kumar Vyas — and it is a splendid example of Patel’s own ingenuity, one born from years of working with minimal equipment and supervision in the self-guided learning environment that was the hallmark of NID’s first decade. Prepare yourself for six minutes of dancing, folding geometric abstraction set to a recording of lovely koto music by Michio Miyagi. World music for the eyes.
Special bonus: Patel’s first film after his return to Canada “How Death Came to Earth" (1972). Sadly, the only version of this mythopoetic, Gianini-influenced animation available online has had its original sound replaced by the uploader, and is missing the last 5 minutes. But press the mute button and have a look: this little wonder of a film owes much to influences from Patel’s rural childhood in the 1950s, one he describes as characterized by “no electricity, scary pitch black nights in the village with only tiny fires burning, fantastic stories, superstitions, deaths, births, marriages, birds and animals, foliage and flowers, farming methods, folklore, travelling puppet theatres, music, colour, life, etc.”