There are two kinds of artists. Those who carve a niche for themselves in the art world through aesthetic experimentations and formal vigour and live in and engage with an “art world” that transcends time and space. And then there are others whose art—its form and themes, practice and expression, aesthetics and politics—is a relentless engagement with the space and time they live in. They are rooted in their land and breathe history.
If in the former case, the artists’ engagement is more with themselves and their art, in the latter case, it is more about the world and life around. Their “world” is very much “social”; it is the lived and historical reality of their times. Sudhir Patwardhan belongs to the second group. His oeuvre, which spans more than half a century, is a visual archive of Bombay/Mumbai, the city he lives in, and of the turbulent post-Independence decades he lived through.
His images resonate with the emergence of new dreams and the betrayals of epic promises, the rise and fall of labour movements, the hopes and despair of people. His paintings trace the scars and wounds that these surges and ruptures leave upon the body politic, human bodies, and living spaces. One can see the march of time as history in/through human bodies, their postures, and movements, and in the geographical terrains, their rivulets, nullahs, cityscapes, and winding bylanes and buildings.
Ranjit Hoskote describes Patwardhan as a “complicit observer” who “deals with jagged, robust subjects, the exertion of muscle, the moisture of sweat; lives drafted at the margins of cities; landscapes broken by haphazard architecture and coloured by the unearthly effulgence of poisoned rivers. Patwardhan’s order is the expression of a will to defy fragmentation and organise the episodic bursts of turbulent experience into a pattern; to shape and true the wheel of understanding as it cycles through a treacherous landscape of insight and illusion” (p. 207).
As Timothy Hyman puts it: “[W]e can survey the long sequence of Patwardhan’s ambitiously-scaled, complex images ... his lifework as hinged on that ever-challenging ‘possibility’: a language of representation sufficiently flexible to reflect the condition of modern India in modern painting.”
The show & the book
The painstaking effort that goes behind mounting a comprehensive retrospective of a major artist in a national gallery recedes into oblivion once the exhibition is over. The aim of any book on such artist retrospectives is to document and thus memorialise art events and interventions.
The book Sudhir Patwardhan: Walking Through Soul City (A Retrospective curated by Nancy Adajania, published by The Guild with the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, with essays by Timothy Hyman, R. Siva Kumar, and Madhav Imartey) goes far beyond that with regard to its structure, content, and layout. It is a textual and visual retrospective par excellence that takes the reader virtually through the different gallery levels and phases of the artist’s work. Sections of the book are ordered chronologically, detailing the evolution of Patwardhan as an artist, and as a walk-through along the various levels of the exhibition venue.
The panoramic photographs of the gallery space in each section provide the reader with the spatial coordinates of sorts to reimagine the show itself.
ALSO READ: An ode to womanpower
The book begins with prefatory notes from the Director General and Director of the National Gallery of Modern Art, where the show was held, and a foreword by Shalini Sawhney, founder director of The Guild, co-publisher, and co-organiser. A detailed curatorial monograph by Adajania takes the reader through the life and times of the artist and the evolving themes and styles in his oeuvre. These richly illustrated chapters provide a comprehensive historical-aesthetic perspective on the artist and his life and works.
The next part of the book consists of three sections of plates that showcase select paintings and sketches with illuminating notes by Patwardhan and critics. These are interspersed with scholarly and insightful studies by Hyman and Siva Kumar (art historian) in English and Imartey in Marathi that delve into various aspects of the artist’s work in the art historical context. The last section, “The Reflection of Identity: An Artistic Journey”, comprises a brief biography, personal photographs, and factual details about Patwardhan’s artistic career and exhibitions.
The excellent reproductions from Patwardhan’s long career trace the emergence and evolution of his major themes and style and include iconic works such as Irani Restaurant, The City, Train, Street Play, Accident on May Day, Nullah, Street Corner, Memory (from 1970 to 1990), Riot, Station Road, Ulhasnagar (from 1991 to 2000), Bylanes Saga, Death on the Street, The Clearing, Nostalgia, Mumbai Proverbs, Building a Home: Exploring the World, Another day in the Old City, and Erase (from the last two decades).
Human beings, cityscapes, and landscapes predominate Patwardhan’s paintings: human bodies in different states of rest, action, and movement, sometimes cold, calm, and contemplative, other times mute, muted, and morose but always resolute and resilient. His cityscapes and human conglomerations are a palimpsest of different spaces: private and public, personal and social, intimate and indifferent. Like humans, the physical geography too is haunted by history: carrying the scars of the past and seared by the present, they are always on the move, gravitating towards uncertain futures.
Through the decades, the figural and metaphoric presence of spaces and humans in Patwardhan’s paintings has undergone a transformation. In earlier images one finds more cohesion between the artist, figures, and the field. According to Siva Kumar: “their space is clearly urban and the figures are located within it, and they are connected, even if not fully integrated, with what is unfolding. In short, they are more narrative than iconic.” There, the artist too is present amidst them “as an interested viewer”
ALSO READ: ‘Forging solidarities across differences’
But in the post-1990s works, “there is no space separating him from his subjects, no distance that will allow him to see them in their wholeness, or to gauge them as individuals. Pressing forward and moving together as a group, as in some common pursuit, these are men and women propelled by a common fate but not held together by common values or ideological fraternity.” If they were representatives of a class who shared hopes of collective action earlier, now they are the “de-unionised and unorganised denizens of the commercial city emerging out of the embers of a now destroyed industrial city” (Siva Kumar, p. 189).
No other contemporary Indian artist has archived humans as “people” with such passionate persistence, political conviction (though it seems to become more melancholic through time), and graphic intensity. Equally intense and persistent is his engagement with Bombay/Mumbai, its chaotic urban expansion, ever-morphing architecture, labyrinthine alleys, umpteen livelihoods, and the crowds that live in and through all this flux and flows.
This is how the artist explains the process: “through a practice of laying tracings and collaging photographs, altering and manipulating viewpoints, changing perspectives and playing with scales, these multiple views develop into a single image. This is the art, or artifice behind this apparently realistic and straightforward view of the city” (p. 269).
Patwardhan is an artist whose life and work poses a lot of questions about art practice in India. While discussing his work, the book engages with vital questions such as what it means to be a socially conscious artist in India. How does one image the complex palimpsest called India? Given the horizontal sociocultural diversity and vertical structures of caste/political power that frame Indian society, where does or should Indian artists position themselves: along the verticals and their conflicts or along the pluriversal horizontality of life? How to envision oneself between/through politics and life, commitment and expression? Also, how to do art that does justice to one’s time and also to the demands of the galleries?
This retrospective throws light upon the different ways and levels at which a visual artist grappled with such questions and sought answers about the complex relationship between art and life, form and content, intent and impact, expression and commitment, freedom and responsibility, and the individual and society.
Textual retrospectives of this kind and scale are all the more relevant and urgent in times like the present when the idea, practice, institutions, and networks of art are shrinking. A book like this, even if one just glances through the images in it, lays out the epic scope of Patwardhan’s art in terms of its persisting concerns, stylistic forays, and visual imaginaries. This elegantly produced and profusely illustrated book is a treat for art lovers and a memorable Festschrift of sorts to one of the greatest Indian artists.
C.S. Venkiteswaran is a film critic and documentary filmmaker based in Thiruvananthapuram.