Four stages of life
`Ulhasnagar', Sudhir Patwardhan's recent and monumental landscape painting, and its companion piece `Lower Parel' were the twin foci of his exhibition, recently shown in Bangalore and soon to go on view at the Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai. In these works, says RANJIT HOSKOTE, Patwardhan gives renewed expression to the main themes of his art.
The four panel painting "Ulhasnagar" ... ...
SWEEPING, from left to right, across the four panels that comprise Sudhir Patwardhan's recent and monumental landscape painting, titled "Ulhasnagar", the viewer's eye traverses not only space, but also time. The painting offers us, ostensibly, a panoramic view of a township at the edge of metropolitan Mumbai, an assemblage of residential, commercial and industrial buildings built on an island around which a river curves. But the eye is not long deceived by the seeming tranquillity and consistency of the scene. Gradually, as it dwells on the buildings, the railway track, the bridge, the river, and the figures that populate the four panels, the eye recognises the anomalies and deceptions built into the painting.
The four panels incarnate this eminent painter's formal preoccupation with landscape as a practice: they are alternately horizontal and vertical, laid along a rhythm that is not immediately apparent, so skillfully has it been masked by the unifying colour scheme of pastel greens, blues, purples and browns, and the soft light. But here, too, lurk surprises: the intensity of the light in the painting changes, as we pass from panel to panel, so that, in going from left to right, we go also from dawn to dusk, from spring to winter.
From the milling crowds, the gaze passes through habitations and places of activity, to a serene and relatively untouched pastoral scene; were we foolhardy enough, we might even read this as a trope for the manner in which society itself might pass from the hurly-burly of industrial life to an envisaged Utopia in which technology and nature are reconciled. Patwardhan suggests the simultaneous presence of several time-scales, intimate and epic, individual and collective, in this tetraptych; and quite without forcing such a schema on the viewer, he manages subtly to suggest the idea of the four stages of life, the pilgrim's journey.
The still, fresh water in the first panel is succeeded, in the second, by a toxic but seductively beautiful vortex of effluent that curdles the flow; in the third panel, the unwavering water mirrors the buildings on the bank without a hint of turbidity, while in the fourth, the river moves again towards the world of the villages and nature. Having reached the last panel, the eye travels back along the river: it can be read in reverse to reveal an alternative narrative, one leading from the villages, through increasing urbanisation, to the churning human traffic of the railway station.
"Ulhasnagar" has evolved from numerous field trips that Patwardhan has undertaken, over the years, to the Ambarnath-Ulhasnagar industrial belt, situated north of Mumbai and close to Thane, where he lives and leads his dual career as an artist and a radiologist. Industrial architecture and vigorous nature confront each other in this region, throwing up a landscape of intriguing details: coolant towers and sewage tumuli scattered along a riverbank overgrown by shrubbery, sinking into slush; skies turning brilliant sulphur and crimson from the miscegenation of polluted and pure air; rivers so polluted by industrial effluent as to poison their fish, but in whose waters the reaction among discharged chemicals can produce a play of shimmering colours.
Using this landscape as the topos of his meditation, Patwardhan layers it over with other experiences, other points of reference: if it obliquely suggests the desolation of the Zone in Tarkovsky's Stalker, it more directly signals the influence of Brueghel's robust landscapes and such illuminated manuscripts as the Limbourg Book of Hours. In "Ulhasnagar", we see the works of humankind set within nature's larger cycles: as the seasons change, people set out for work and return home, settle, move on; the arrivals and departures of trains meter their lives; the gardener sows, the tree bears promise of fruit.
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"Ulhasnagar" and its companion piece, another large-scale painting titled "Lower Parel", are the twin foci of Patwardhan's exhibition, recently shown in Bangalore and soon to go on view at the Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai, on February 9. The exhibition also includes a sequence of drawings, many of them being preparatory studies for the figures and architectural forms that eventually occupy the paintings. Patwardhan's paintings grow through a process of slow enrichment, a considerable gestation that begins long before brush touches canvas, as he builds up alternative versions and partial approaches from photographs he takes of the site, sketches he makes of people he sees.
... Time scales that are intimate, epic, individual and collective.
In these recent works, Patwardhan gives renewed expression to the two central themes of his art: the industrial landscape and the labouring body. Born in 1949 and formally trained in medicine, Patwardhan is one of a constellation of artists also including Bhupen Khakhar, Nalini Malani, Vivan Sundaram and Gieve Patel who came to prominence during the early 1970s, and who underwent a radicalisation through the influence of Marxist philosophy and the dissident international politics of the period. Determined to operate from the recognition of a Third World specificity of location, they imported the local environment, its look and feel, its explicit and encoded histories, into the painted frame.
The implications of this manoeuvre for the figure were momentous: losing the highly symbolic, transcendental quality that had marked it in the art of the first generation of post-colonial Indian painters, it acquired a specificity of character, of class, region and ethnicity. In these lineaments, the figure spoke viscerally of situations of dominance and slavery, it demonstrated men as machines rather than as gods, women as victims rather than as goddesses. The labouring body was established in these paintings by its particular physiques, ranging from the resilient, load-bearing musculature of Patwardhan's figures to the emaciation of Patel's diseased and marginalised protagonists. And these figures carried their locales with them: not only the crowded metropolis, but also the suburb, the satellite township, the small town, habitats that had not so far been memorialised in the frame of modern Indian art.
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"Lower Parel" is set in Mumbai's mill district, once a vibrant proletarian quarter and the driving engine of the city's industry, but today reduced to a wasteland dominated by the hulks of defunct textile mills. Simultaneously, however, the district has undergone social and economic transformation, having become a site of small-scale enterprise through which its proletarian residents have re-built their lives. In recent times, the mill district has also become the setting for a process of gentrification, with exclusive high-rise housing projects re-shaping the old mill properties and cultural entrepreneurs having moved into the invitingly large warehouse and shed spaces now available. Indeed, the Sakshi Gallery is itself located in the precincts of a former mill in Lower Parel, which lends piquancy and a certain site-specificity to Patwardhan's exhibition.
"Lower Parel" gathers in evidence of all these phases of the district's recent history, so that his painting functions as a palimpsest: we see, simultaneously, a bridge and its attendant system of pedestrian staircases giving access to a crowded marketplace, the buildings and chimney of a closed mill, and a skyscraper under construction. While fitting together into an integrated composition, each architectural element preserves its distinct identity, in terms of colour, amount of lighting, and evocation of surface; the people in the street, gathered into a coherent group, are likewise carefully individualised, each figure the precipitate of a particular moment of seeing, a particular encounter the artist has had with a fellow, if anonymous, human being.
This painting records the change in Patwardhan's view of his role as a painter committed to a political vision: over the last decade, he has become increasingly distrustful of what he regards as the "behalfism" of an artist who would speak in the name of an oppressed class; often, it happens that history moves on, leaving the self-appointed spokesperson behind. Such, as he recognises, has been the case with the urban proletariat and its privileged, intellectual partisans: while the latter have entrenched themselves in the fortress of ideological doctrine, the former have sought to re-invent themselves, seizing whatever agency they are allowed by the process of globalisation, which takes away, but also gives, in unpredictable ways.
And so the people of Lower Parel, children or grandchildren of dispossessed mill-workers, have picked themselves up and joined the ranks of the small shopkeepers, couriers, telephone kiosk operators, cable-TV technicians, video mechanics, and other functionaries who keep the wheels of the post-colonial metropolis turning in the epoch of globalisation. It is to this transition that Sudhir Patwardhan bears witness in these compelling new paintings.
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