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Ishu Patel

Overview of work

Ishu Patel

Divine Spirit
By Marc Glassman

Ishu Patel has created a body of work that is obsessively concerned with profound philosophical issues. Is there an afterlife? What is the fate of humanity? Why does death exist? What must we learn to find paradise? These questions haunt the films of Patel.

<strong><em>Paradise</em></strong> (1984). © NFB<strong><em>Bead Game</em></strong> (1977). © NFB
Paradise (1984). © NFBBead Game (1977). © NFB

A brilliant animator, always willing to experiment, Ishu Patel’s artistry propels his work, raising it to levels of complexity that justify his constant search for meaning in life. In Bead Game, Patel plays with a multitude of beads, transforming them into creatures ranging from birds to mammals, inevitably moving to the most fearsome of animals, human beings armed with weapons. The rapidity of movement, the use of the beads and the clever choices in colour make this a remarkable film that can easily carry its message, condemning humanity’s propensity for carnage and aggression.

Afterlife, one of Patel’s masterpieces, is similarly well crafted. Here, he creates plasticine shapes, places them on glass and lights the results from below. The film is extraordinary: Patel’s visions are perfectly realized, in vivid colours, transporting the viewer into a place between life and death, where the drama of “afterlife” may take place. Afterlife won awards at animation’s Cannes in Annecy, Canada’s Oscars (then called Etrogs), the Chicago Film Festival and the Montreal’s Festival du monde.

<strong><em>Afterlife</em></strong> (1978). © NFB<strong><em>How Death Came to Earth</em></strong> (1972). © NFB
Afterlife (1978). © NFBHow Death Came to Earth (1972). © NFB

The gorgeous Paradise followed soon afterward. The mythic landscape is envisioned as a lush tropical garden surrounding a dazzling castle in which an emperor is entertained by a bird whose plumage is a riot of colours. Outside, in the garden, an envious black bird dreams of becoming as desirable as his rival. But when he discovers that a golden cage accompanies the emperor’s appreciation of beauty, the appeal of free skies and a natural environment proves to be irresistible for the bird. The parables on freedom and equality at the heart of Paradise would not be as impressive if Patel possessed less technique. The film uses backlit lighting, cel animation, cutouts and multiple photographic exposures to achieve its results. Paradise won prizes from Los Angeles to Hamilton to Annecy to Melbourne.

Divine Fate plays again with such big ideas as: what is free will? Can mankind be responsible for its own preservation? Can humans be generous? Not as successful as Paradise or Afterlife, the film still uses characteristic Patel devices. The mathematical precision of his technique combined with his ability to create luminous images marks Patel as an artist of the first rank.

Ishu Patel was born in India and received a graphics degree in Basel, Switzerland as well as a scholarship from the prestigious U.S. based Rockefeller Foundation before moving to Canada to work at the NFB. His interest in the mystical nature of life fit nicely into the Board’s environment, where such thinking artists as Tom Daly, René Jodoin and Colin Low were being employed. That said, Patel likely achieved his best results working with producer Derek Lamb whose practical nature forced the South Asian artist to structure his narratives as skilfully as he did his animation techniques.

Though Patel is a sophisticated person, his origins in India, choice of subjects and working colleagues mark him as a pioneer. Patel has used imagery from Buddhist philosophy and Indian myths in his tales. His choices of such remarkable—and remarkably different—musicians as U.S. jazz flutist Herbie Mann, legendary Japanese koto player and composer Michio Miyagi, Romanian pan pipes player Gheorghe Zamfir and Indian drummer J.P. Ghosh to create soundtracks for the films mark Ishu Patel as a “world” animation director in a time when such figures are just beginning to receive prominence. It is likely that Patel’s work will enjoy an enduring status thanks to his cross-cultural creativity as well as his brilliant technique and philosophical subject matter.


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