Sudhir Patwardhan: Painter of the Particular

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'Truck', Sudhir Patwardhan, 1977 | 'Sudhir Patwardhan: The Complicit Observer', by Ranjit Hoskote
‘Inside (Window)’, Sudhir Patwardhan, 2009 | mutualart.com

On a cursory glance, Sudhir Patwardhan’s cityscapes might look akin to Edward Hopper’s paintings. But while Hopper’s scenes often show figures in solitude against the backdrop of the geometrically laid-out Western city, Sudhir’s canvases are often brimming with toiling bodies struggling in a bustling Indian city in construction.

The Social backdrop of Sudhir’s Patwardhan’s visual language

A book by the eminent art critic Ranjit Hoskote, ‘Sudhir Patwardhan: The Complicit Observer’, gives us good insight into the makings of the artist’s distinct oeuvre, rooted in the particular conditions of his surroundings— both visual and socio-political.

In the book, Hoskote states, “Patwardhan, who was born in Pune on 13 January 1949, came of age at the close of the 1960s.… After Nehru’s death in 1964, India made its transition into a period of crisis; by 1970, the postcolonial polity had revealed its continuities with the oppression and paranoia of the British colonial regime. Resistance to the state broke out in the Naxalite revolt of 1967 and the Srikakulam peasant uprising of 1968-69, which prefigured the widespread unrest among students and workers that would fuel the socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan’s call for ‘total revolution’ in the mid-1970s. The certitudes of the nationalist struggle were now behind the Republic; young people of Patwardhan’s generation confronted a very different political and cultural reality. Patwardhan’s generation of artists, writers, intellectuals and activists — who constituted independent India’s first self-conscious and dissenting youth subculture — became seized by a sense of betrayal and a loss of idealism.”

‘Riot’, Sudhir Patwardhan, 1996 | ‘Sudhir Patwardhan: The Complicit Observer’, Ranjit Hoskote

The Particular— A New Wave of Figurative Painting in Independent India

Hoskote continues, “In the years when Patwardhan became interested in art, the Indian art world was still dominated by the styles of early postcolonial Indian modernism, which took the School of Paris and New York for their models. Alongside these were positioned such abstractionist styles as the ‘neo-Tantric’, which had acquired prestige by appeal to a specious ‘Indianness’ and ‘mysticism’. The art of Bombay’s Progressive Artists Group, Delhi’s Silpi Chakra and the Calcutta Group, which had defied the academic-realist taste of the connoisseurial elite of the 1950s, had long since been co-opted by the art establishment…. Over the late 1960s and early 1970s, this agreeably complacent state of affairs was to be challenged by a grouping of younger artists, centred largely in Baroda and Bombay, but with connections in Delhi and Santiniketan. Radical in their politics and broadly postmodernist in their aesthetic choices, these artists —  who included, among others, Gieve Patel, Nalini Malani, Bhupen Khakhar, Vivan Sundaram, Gulammohammed Sheikh, Nilima Sheikh and Jogen Chowdhury — insisted on foregrounding the particular against the universal.

‘Construction Site’, Sudhir Patwardhan, 1977 | ‘Sudhir Patwardhan: The Complicit Observer’, by Sudhir Patwardhan

… Their art bore testimony to an India that was shaping itself within the horizons of the present, in response to internal conflicts as well as external stimuli.… Determined to operate from a recognition of their Third World location, these artists 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 symbolic, transcendental and universal quality that had marked it in the art of the first generation of postcolonial Indian painters, it acquired a specific character — of class, occupation, region and ethnicity. …Most importantly, these artists re-invented their role, assuming the mandate of the social agent, a participant in the processes of self-definition by which Indian society and the Indian citizen were constructing themselves in relation to their political and cultural realities. (Hoskote 2000) Shifting to Bombay in 1973, Patwardhan gravitated towards the avant-garde formation, participated in its discussions, and eventually showed in its landmark exhibition, ‘Place for People’ (1981).”

Breaking away from the Progressives

Patwardhan wasn’t opposed to the vision of the Progressives though, but steered away from them in locating his vision in the Particular instead of the Universal. In fact, Hoskote’s book contains Patwardhan’s artist statement for a Pompidou Centre Exhibition Catalgoue from 1985. In it, the artist stated, “My love for the early expressionist figuration of Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee and M.F. Husain was never lost though. I continued to harbour within myself an expressionist bias. Painterly options were posed for me within the figurative idiom, and I never felt the need to move outside it.” 

‘Man with Cylinder’, Sudhir Patwardhan, 1976 | ‘Sudhir Patwardhan: The Complicit Observer’, by Ranjit Hoskote

In his book, Hoskote informs us that “Patwardhan and [Gieve] Patel, especially, had always felt close to [Akbar] Padamsee and [Tyeb] Mehta. The opposition was of world-views; as Patwardhan phrases it, “They spoke of Man with a capital ‘M’. We had lost confidence in the artistic capacity to talk of ‘human fate’, so we chose the particular.””

In the Pompidou catalogue, Patwardhan continued, “This may sound unnecessarily self-righteous, but the remoteness of artistic aims from the immediate and pressing needs of ordinary people bothers me. I would have liked to be a revolutionary, or one who works directly for the improvement of society. I became an artist instead. And the guilt of this choice has not left me.”

Ranjit Hoskote has very thoughtfully and eloquently commented on Sudhir’s focus on the Particular thus: “At the core of the rich circuitousness of Patwardhan’s activity — as painter, sculptor and participant in the evolving cultural politics of postcolonial India  — stand the human individual, resolutely enfleshed rather than an idealist’s abstraction, concretely situated in the material, symbolic and psychological textures of a specific society at a specific historical moment.” 

A ‘Place for People’

As discussed earlier, Sudhir Patwardhan showed at the seminal 1981 exhibition, ‘Place for People’, along with Bhupen Khakhar, Jogen Chowdhury, Gulammohammed Sheikh, Nalini Malani and Vivan Sundaram. This show was shown at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai, and the Lalit Kala Akademi in New Delhi. Among the six luminaries, Sudhir and Bhupen were self-taught artists. 

‘The City’, Sudhir Patwardhan, 1979, exhibited at ‘Place for People’ | ‘Sudhir Patwardhan: The Complicit Observer’, by Sudhir Patwardhan
‘Train’, Sudhir Patwardhan, 1980, exhibited at ‘Place for People’ | ‘Sudhir Patwardhan: The Complicit Observer’, by Sudhir Patwardhan
‘Street Play’, Sudhir Patwardhan, 1981, exhibited at ‘Place for People’ | ‘Sudhir Patwardhan: The Complicit Observer’, by Sudhir Patwardhan

This group show is considered to be one of the key paradigm-shifting exhibitions in Indian art history, as it brought attention back to the figurative in art in India. The catalogue for the exhibition, by Geeta Kapur, was titled, ‘Partisan Views about the Human Figure’. The common goal was to not only highlight social reality on canvas, while also lending dignity to the figure portrayed. 

In his artist statement in the exhibition catalogue, Sudhir stated, “My aim is to make figures that can become self-images for the people who are the subjects of my work.” 

 

Grappling with the representation of the Other

In this same writeup, Sudhir went on to confess his internal struggle pertaining to the faithful representation of a class of people more unfortunate than him. He spoke about trying to ensure an objectivity towards letting the representation speak for the subject, rather than display a distorted projection of the artist. After the sentence quoted above, Patwardhan stated, “One of the questions I have asked myself in this context is how close or distanced must I be from the figures I paint. Too close a relation may overburden the image with the artist’s private impulses. These impulses give the image intensity, but at the same time, they may also insulate the image from other approaches. The spectator who is reluctant (with good reason, I think) to step into the artist’s skin, would find such an image difficult to appropriate.”

‘Man with TV’, Sudhir Patwardhan, 1991 | ‘Sudhir Patwardhan: The Complicit Observer’, by Ranjit Hoskote

In an article for Open magazine, titled ‘Sudhir Patwardhan: An Artist Every Day’, art critic Rosalyn D’Mello quotes Patwardhan and comments on his approach, ““Each one is a person who has lived a certain life and has a certain history. In looking at him, seeing him, there is something I get out of that relationship with that person.” The routine gesture of looking at routine gestures themselves forms the premise of many of his works. “Suddenly, at some moment when you’re observing, a certain gesture seems to kind of be more than just that functional job, it transcends the everyday-ness and endows it with something else, the impulse is to find within the everyday a spark, something that lights up that moment,” he elaborates. It explains why, across his work, bodies are never just bodies, they are fully formed presences. “From the beginning, the main impulse to depict was to depict people, to understand their lives,” he said in his conversation with [Jitish] Kallat”.

Questioning the composition of ‘Development’ 

While Patwardhan began painting in the mould of the Progressives, his attention soon turned to portraying the people around him, especially those involved in the construction of the big city. Having moved to Mumbai (‘Bombay’ back then) from the small town of Pune in 1973, he must have found the juxtaposition of the developed city and the city in development quite intriguing.

In an Art Heritage catalogue from 1978-79, Sudhir said, “After an initial interest in landscape, I began to concentrate solely on the figure, sometime in 1973. The first significant and fruitful convergence of my intellectual and pictorial preoccupations occurred in ‘75. I had been working with a kind of autobiographical and expressionist drawing when I became preoccupied with an image of the sitting man — the worker — encountered daily in the suburban train.”

Patwardhan’s theatre of the big city is composed of many individual participants sustaining it and in turn being sustained by it. And Patwardhan has been careful in imbuing his individuals with agency.

‘Lower Parel’, Sudhir Patwardhan, 2001 | architecturaldigest.in

The city depicted in Patwardhan’s paintings is not the prim-and-proper bustling megalopolis composed of highrise buildings and photogenic traffic. It is a city in construction, a city being constructed by rural migrants, brick by brick. At the same time, this is also a city where old hubs have been deserted, leading many of its inhabitants to search for new avenues for survival. This is a city being built and rebuilt in the new era of global competition. In his book, Ranjit Hoskote describes at length a painting from 2001 by Patwardhan, titled, ‘Lower Parel’. The following is an illuminating excerpt from this passage, as it highlights the context occupied by the figures painted: “…the denizens 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 postcolonial metropolis turning in the epoch of globalisation.” The Lower Parel area in question contains a now-deserted textile mill, one that used to be a bustling centre of employment for many, but was closed down due to a massive political unrest between mill workers and owners in the 1980s.

Sources: 

  1. ‘Sudhir Patwardhan: The Complicit Observer’ by Ranjit Hoskote, published by Sakshi Gallery and Synergy Art Foundation.
  2. ‘Sudhir Patwardhan: An Artist Every Day’, by Rosalyn D’Mello, for Open magazine.
  3. Asia Art Archive, Catalogue Essays, ‘Partisan Views about the Human Figure’.

 

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