Monday, November 6, 2017

The Spectres of the Earth: Sudhir Patwardhan’s New Works

(Wounding and Tending by Sudhir Patwardhan)

As mutual haters we act
In a drama which has no audience
We play a game of freshly cooked words
With which we check how much
We could hurt each other
With pointed gazes we wound one another
In between, as if to hurt, he touches me
I forget all my promises
He becomes a wall, and myself a flower.
 (I, You, You, Me...Again, Chithira Kusuman)

On the second floor of Vadehra Art Gallery in New Delhi - a floor that often people miss without realising the abrupt ending of a visual narrative or the frayed edges of some experimental contemporary works - under the foggy white light two drawings titled ‘Couple Resting’ and ‘Wounding and Tending’ rest silently on the far end of the facing wall. These two works done in 2016 by Sudhir Patwardhan are a part of his solo show titled ‘Spectres’ currently on in the gallery. When I look at the works from a distance, I wonder whether the explicit nudity of the protagonists in those works could be the reason of them being tucked away in a sort of attic space of the gallery. Had it been me in charge of the exhibition, wouldn’t I have exhibited them right at the beginning? For me at least these two works hold the crux of what Patwardhan wants to say through the eighty odd works done during the last three years, now put together in the exhibition. But each curator has different views about a given set of works, hence I should say, the present display is one of the ways of seeing Patwardhan’s works. However, when I stand in stark silence, absolutely mesmerized by the truth of this particular work, ‘Wouding and Tending’ I remember the lines from a poem written by a young Malayali poet, Chithira Kusuman, which I have quoted above as a preamble to this reading of Patwardhan’s works. In the game that we call married life, there is a tremendous amount of wounding and tending; perhaps, finding the best tools of torture are invented in the establishment called marriage; underground porn is just a crass actualisation. What Patwardhan does in this drawing is subtle philosophising of this game called marriage; like an existentialist poem sung on a dark night only lit up by a single forty watt bulb.

(Sudhir Patwardhan -pic courtesy Indian Express)

The word spectre is inextricably connected with the history of Marxism therefore it has become a part of the cultural consciousness of the working class as well as the thinking middle class though both the parties have forgotten the use of the word and its context. They do not remember it deliberately because the spectres of pestilence, death, illness, poverty, lack of philosophy, lack of ideological anchor and the over abundance of blind faith are omnipresent. What is apparent is always treated lightly. So are the haunting spectres. Patwardhan, however is aware of the Marxian use of the word spectre (though he explains in one of his interviews-Indian Express- the word as a suggestion by the catalogue writer, but at the same time elaborates in his interview with a fellow artist included in the catalogue, he says how he was deeply influenced by Marxian as well as existential thoughts when he was a medical student in Pune); what had been haunting Europe by the end of the 19th century was the spectre of communism and the capitalist forces were really afraid of it and were doing all what they could do to exorcise it. However, apart from that connotation of Marxism, in the present show the spectre remains as the spectre of personal experiences, relationships and introspection. Even if the artist wants to put his own past to rest, it keeps coming back. As an artist, he does not have much to forget though he is in a constant process of remembering. A minor work (Demise, but major for me), once again displayed on the second floor is a part of the artist’s remembering of the past. Patwardhan acknowledges the fact that when he was a practicing doctor (a radiologist) he never used to see people as people but as bodies with illness or with possibilities of being healthy. Years later, today, they come back, the people who were thronging in various places, in hospital rooms, corridors, operation theatres, anatomy classes, railway stations, parks, market places, streets and so on and haunt the artist as spectres. They are about to do away with the existing structures of his ‘ego’ and rule over him and flood him with memories. And there is only one way to exorcise them; to paint them. Hence, we have Patwardhan presenting a series of portraits of unknown people. Perhaps only Mumbai based artists work a lot with people as their dominant imageries; from Jitish Kallat’s early works to Bose Krishnamachari’s Ghost Trans-memoir to Shilpa Gupta’s multimedia works Valay Shinde’s dotted works to what not. And in all these Patwardhan remains the pioneer with his early depiction of people from all the walks of life.

(Couple Resting by Patwardhan)

In Spectres we have a series of self portraits, very consciously done by the artist. But these self portraits (apparently he has connected them with the way in which Rembrandt had done his self portraits) can be seen only against the series of portraits that he has done of the unknown people. The portraits of people are not hagiographic celebrations; nor does the artist want to particularise their features so that they could be identified at some point. They are like drifting apparitions caught in the dream catcher’s net. Do the portraits of the artist, seen both as deliberate efforts on self portraiture and as part of the large scale paintings that narrate the drama of the private domain where the artist and his wife live, exactly represent the ‘portrait’ of the artist himself? If someone is looking for the very similitude of the artist, he/she is going to be disappointed. What we see here in the self portraits of the artist is a crumbling self of the artist. This is not the Sudhir Patwardhan who we know as ‘the’ Sudhir Patwardhan. It is someone else, who looks like the artist only because it is titled as self portrait. Here we need not think that the artist is incapable of ‘representing’ his physical appearance as it is; on the contrary, we need to understand how much self is there in a self portrait. The introspective aspect that I have mentioned earlier comes to play an important role in these self portraits. Though the catalogue writer and the artist himself speak of the ‘impossibility’ of self representation, I would like to see it as the actual possibility of self representation because self representation is not always about portraying the shell but the Self. And the shape of the self is not always known to the people who see but is perceivable only to the one who makes that seeing possible.

(Self portrait with Mirror by Patwardhan)

Here Patwardhan is the one who makes the seeing possible and he wants the people to see him the way he has represented himself. The more one looks at the self portraits of the artist the more one comes to know that the representation has something similar but many things unfamiliar. This familiarising the unfamiliar in the artist’s self is what a real self portrait does. Patwardhan is ruthlessly clinical here. He shortens his body, almost giving it a hunch and the face is distorted or swollen with some amount of cluelessness. The eyes in these portraits reflect the moment and their lack of knowledge about the future. His self portraits are the ghosts of the present times; they linger on and do not show the possibility of a tomorrow. The artist is destined to live with his own ghost in his homely interiors which doubles itself as his studio. In the catalogue I come across a mention about how the artist has become anchorless when he lost his personal space (as he shifted from a personal studio to a residence which is spacious enough to accommodate his studio needs). What has he lost his personal space to? He has lost it to the ever presence of his spouse. Or is it advisable to make such a drastic comment? But I believe that there are several authorised clues in the catalogue to make this view legitimate. The presence of the spouse if intrinsically represented in the suite of the five paintings that delineate the interiors of his home-studio. The presence is spectre like and it is never exorcised. The home, in Patwardhan’s view becomes a self revealing interface liable to open itself like an accordion or an origami structure and reveal everything including the bathroom, bedroom, drawing room and studio. There is something uncanny about seeing the Patwardhan couple in disparate positions (one clear and upfront and the other distant and ghostly) especially when we know that in real life they remain inseparable. While that inseparability is a physical proximity, the mental spaces have created their own islands and in those islands they remain solitary, looking for a ship to appear at the horizon.

(Another Day in the Old City by Patwardhan)

This existential mooring is palpable in two works namely ‘The Empty Book Shelf’ and ‘Scatter’. In the former work we see a lonely and silent man sitting in front of an empty book shelf. It is not only a shelf but also a self; it is an empty self. There is nothing more to read and understand. Or rather, whatever has been read and understood so far is gone forever. What remains is the sheer emptiness. The other work shows us a man falling before/from a book shelf scattering the books and toys all over. Even knowledge fails to hold (as centre fails to hold) and the outcome is a downfall and falling into a sort of infancy (in Shakespearean terms, sans tooth, sans eyes, sans taste and sans everything). Even the most mundane of the acts become Sisyphus like; like pouring milk or climbing into a high bed. Here the spectres become playful.

(Empty Book Shelf by Patwardhan)

There is something very pertinent about Patwardhan’s self portraits which I should have spoken of earlier. As one of the titles show, it is a sort of erasing of the presences and making everything into spirit like. What does he erase? Often this word is taken for self annihilation; but here Patwardhan does not make any erasure of himself though he re-invents himself as a much older person with no sense of competition and almost a willingness to accept defeat. He in fact erases the spectators. His brush is always placed on the skin that separates the painted image and the viewing space. Patwardhan gives a glassy feel about that surface; it is a transparent skin where the viewers have pressed their selves against. Patwardhan over paints them and erases the viewers’ presence. Come what may and whatever may be the critical views, the artist wants to portray what he wants. This is a counter expressionistic ploy; in Krichner we see the artist standing with brush as if the stiffness of the brush was his phallic strength. In those terms, Patwardhan’s brush is flaccid though it is pressed against the glassy surface. May be in a Freudian sense it is a tactic to eke out eros from the viewers themselves; a Yayati act, as elaborately put by A.Ramachandran and symbolically by Bhupen Khakkar. The expressionistic feel once again comes when we look at the interiors (which is almost cut open and displayed on a dissection table); it looks like the set of the Cabinet of Caligiri toned down for the present times though the scenes are not as murkier as in Caligiri.

(Scatter by Patwardhan)

Once a narrative painter, always a narrative painter? Could be. In the case of Patwardhan, his love for narrative painting comes to the forefront when he paints ‘Another Day in the Old City’. In this large painting, the city of Pune where the artist had spent his younger days is caught in its old glory. Perhaps, this is an artistic vision of the city, as in the case of a poet transforming a mundane place into a magical realist place. The city of Pune as it was known to him no longer remains the same; things have changed and have changed forever. Patwardhan does a portrait of the city as if he were trying to make a legible portrait of an old man posthumously from a dim photograph mostly vandalized by time and climate. While the spectre of the city gives him the right armatures to build upon, his love and memories for/of the city proves the attempt to be a successful one. And what we see in this painting is Patwardhan transforming into a narrative painter, who brings simultaneous actions at different locations on to the same pictorial plane as if the terraces, lattices, windows and balconies where separate frames of a narrative. Like in the Mughal miniatures, the actions are in vertical dynamics and are supposed to end in the horizon line which is either fading in to a jumble of buildings or into a river, though in fact the painting is done in horizontal format. The spectres of this show are going to haunt the viewer for a long time provided they see it repeatedly, the way they read a poem. 

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