Sudhir Patwardhan: An Artist Every Day

Raul Irani
Rosalyn D’Mello is an art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover
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Sudhir Patwardhan’s works draw their immediacy from the memories of the city

UNDER THE PRETEXT of two upcoming shows, I made every attempt to invite myself over to veteran artist Sudhir Patwardhan’s studio in Mumbai. He’d be happy to have me, but there was a minor technicality. Around 2008, he’d relocated his studio into his home in Thane. It was early October, and the first viewing of his latest show, Spectres , at Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, was barely a day or two away. His studio would be next to empty. Added to this was the fact that for the eight-day duration of the show, he and his wife, Shanta, would be living in South Mumbai. I had to be content with the privilege of viewing the show at Jehangir, on the last day, alongside a swarm of Mumbaikars. I even managed a quick snapshot of the couple framed against his spectacular new cityscape, Another Day in the Old City, a meticulously framed ode to Pune, where he spent many years studying medicine and understanding in a more scholarly way, the anatomical underpinnings of the human figure, training himself to be an artist by sketching people he met on the streets, liberating himself from the trappings of an art-school education.

Patwardhan and his wife smile lovingly at my lens and do not hesitate to brandish their intimacy. Given that I had already done my rounds and spent time with his works, photographing the two has become something of a more complex undertaking. There is no posturing, only a genuine camaraderie that seeps through their collaborative smiles. However, lurking in the negative space of my composition are the spectres of their lives, the intangible dots that condense the gap between ways of seeing and ways of being, the personal and the private. It had surprised me to see a male artist portray the vulnerability and fragility commonly associated with feminine art, all through the prism of an autobiographically inclined narrative. Yes, Shanta and Sudhir Patwardhan would be recorded on my smart phone consciously poised. But across so many of his canvases the two had been inscribed like protagonists in a still-moving panel representing not just the frailties of a riper age but the freshly dichotomous life of an artist who is still finding his footing in the recently collapsed boundaries between his home and his work place. “It’s about two people being together for a very long period of time; a kind of commitment,” Patwardhan says in response to Jitish Kallat’s question in the show’s catalogue about the theme of companionship that is so integral to this current work. “The tension between being alone and yet not being alone. How do you negotiate that? How are you to be truthful to that commitment and yet maintain that aloneness within that space? Some complex give-and-take needs to take place in such a space, and this seeps through this body of work, I think. What also seeps through, and I don’t know if I should put a name to it, is a kind of gloominess that comes with loneliness. So, there is that too, in some sense.”

THE IMAGINATIVE, logistical, and recently domestic nature of the artist’s home studio seems to have been the muse for Patwardhan’s latest show, Spectres, currently on view at Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery, the consequence of a move he and his wife made in 2008, three years after his retirement, when they shifted homes in Thane itself. “For 30 years I had a studio which was separate from my home. One switched off from a certain life when one went into the studio and then switched off and came back home. Now, going into the studio is basically just going into another room,” Patwardhan explains. We are seated on the ground floor of the gallery. His chair is angled such that he is positioned against Erase, a 36”x80” acrylic-on-canvas painting, which is to his left. In it an elderly artist is at work in his studio, a room within a large apartment, and occupies the left portion of the panoramic canvas. A wall divides this room from the bedroom where a woman with grey hair stares out the window from the edge of the bed. Beyond, in nearly the centre of the canvas, a spectre haunts a corridor, a subtle allusion to a Velazquez masterpiece, Las Meninas or The Ladies in Waiting. The apartment features multiple points of entry, but most noticeably, there is no fourth wall. The canvas the artist seems to be erasing with a paint-stained rag is invisible, offering the viewer the voyeuristic thrill of peering through a one-way mirror. Erase is one among a suite of five paintings that explore the home and studio, or the home as studio. ‘In numerical terms, they constitute a small portion of the show, but that’s like stating the heart forms a negligible proportion of the human body’s weight,’ writes Girish Shahane, whom Patwardhan credits with suggesting the show’s title, Spectres. ‘They are the most profound, revelatory, and inventive works in the exhibition, and will certainly claim a conspicuous place within an oeuvre already crowded with extraordinary paintings and drawings,’ writes Shahane in the show’s catalogue essay.

There is the gesture of erasure which is not to do with the viewer, but to do with the artist as viewer, viewing himself . The artist is trapped between representations, in a way to erase his own subjectivity

Just as Kallat predicted in his conversation with Patwardhan published in the show’s catalogue, as a viewer, I feel both relocated and dislocated. It was Patwardhan’s intention to bring the viewer ‘right up to the picture-surface’. “And there is the gesture of erasure which is not so much to do with the viewer, but to do with the artist as viewer viewing himself… The artist trapped between representations, and between the mirror and the camera, in a way to erase his own subjectivity,” Patwardhan says in his exchange with Kallat.

The word ‘everyday’ and its adjectival corollaries and synonyms resonate like echoes in Patwardhan’s speech, a clear manifestation of how deeply embedded the notion is within his painterly vocabulary. It is perhaps one reason why many describe the 68-year-old artist as a documentarian of his inhabited city, a categorisation that he is suspicious of endorsing because, although street photography and sketching have always been organic to his practice, they remain a means to an end. They are aide-memoires or records that assume the function of mnemonic devices. Patwardhan’s oeuvre derives its immediacy from his sustained act of looking and recording the city and the diversity of individual routines. The final composition, however, rarely invites any neat categorisation. His large-scale paintings aren’t usually either purely portraits or cityscapes or still life. Facets from all of these genres figure into the stylising.

Observation is data for Patwardhan, who, upon his return to the conceptual boundaries of the studio, sifts through his compendium of recorded and remembered details, which become starting points. “There is a sort of tussle between one’s attraction to a face, one’s wanting to hold it, trace one’s finger around it, and allowing it to be itself. There’s a conflict in that sense, and between the two, the image takes place,” he tells me. “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 Kallat, who, over its course, purports how Patwardhan treats rooms, too, as if they were bodies, citing the example of a recent work, Inner Room. “One feels this through one’s experience of homes— one’s own home of course, but also the experience of other’s homes,” Patwardhan replies. “There are rooms in such homes where sick people have been taken care of, people have died. They leave behind something in those rooms. And people live along with that. You might whitewash it or whatever, but it will continue to haunt. Perhaps ‘haunt’ is an unnecessarily grim word, it’s just that those presences linger. So, in that sense, these homes go back in time, they carry memories of past generations, and they look forward to connecting with the world outside; they’re both. They’re a kind of threshold to allowing, like you said, the breeze in, but also a place for not letting go of family pathologies.”

RETIREMENT PREDISPOSED Patwardhan to a more family-oriented life. This new phase of being was punctuated by the birth of his grandson in 2005, because of which he and Shanta spent between six to eight months in Chicago. The complexity of depicting familial figures was the subject of his 2011 exhibition, Family Fiction, a predecessor to Spectres. “What I realised is when one begins to paint the family, it becomes much tougher in a sense to be authentic about what you’re feeling about people. With people you don’t know, whom you encounter on the streets, you invest them with whatever emotion you feel, and they’re not around to question. But with family, you have to take on the responsibility of both respecting their autonomy and giving vent to your interaction with them,” he tells me. While his subject matter became more intimate and inter-woven with images of frailty, his commitment to painting was fortified. When I asked whether he was ever tempted to deviate from this genre of art-making, if he was ever seduced by the prospects of installation or more conceptually inclined forms, it seemed obvious that his relationship with painting has never been to reduce it to a medium. Patwardhan has always conceived of painting as a tradition and his practice is inflected by his deep understanding of the painterly legacy, his autodidactic erudition of the masters who came before, some of which is implied through conscious referencing, whether of Renaissance painting, Mughal miniature or the work of his peers, like Bhupen Khakhar. Sketching and street photography form the basis for his accumulation of memory, but within the sanctity and the solitude of the studio, he allows for structures and rhythms to form. It begins with a sense of simultaneous planes that serve as the scaffolding, a very deliberate attempt at composition during which he depicts the distorted perspectives in the form of projections of pre-collaged structures.

But even his less laborious works share the effortless quality of his larger paintings. Spectres includes a range of portraits that offers the viewer a peep into Patwardhan’s conception of portraiture. Beyond these and the suite of five works that form the conceptual crux of the show are two paintings displayed alongside each other, serving almost like a diptych, that stand out for the quality of their line—The High Bed and Man Pouring Milk, both featuring the same male figure, an elderly, lightly pot-bellied man relating to the objects and gestures described in each of the titles. These sketch-like works, the former pastel on paper, the later acrylic and coloured charcoal on paper, are not just excellent studies of the ageing body, but also play with a sense of animation, negating the rigidity of either still life or portraiture and achieving an in-between form. The two works hone in on two otherwise unconsidered moments of someone else’s routine and wondrously demonstrate, through purely visual language, the intangible nature of transcendence.

(Sudhir Patwardhan’s solo exhibition Spectres runs at Vadehra Art Gallery, Delhi till November 24th, 2017)