Sudhir Patwardhan: At the Edge of Conception and Perception
Two monumental canvases dominate Sudhir Patwardhan’s new solo exhibition at Sakshi gallery. Ulhasnagar, a four-panel panorama, traces the path of a river as it curves past an industrial township on the outskirts of Bombay. Lower Parel, which portrays the city’s erstwhile industrial heartland, contains three structures: a bridge in the foreground, one of Bombay’s inoperational mills immediately behind it, and a high-rise building in the distance. The river in Ulhasnagar appears to traverse different times of day in the course of its journey. In contrast, Lower Parel gives the impression of one moment frozen in its tracks. These two large paintings are accompanied by a number of charcoal drawings, studies of figures later incorporated into the large works. Patwardhan spoke about his new paintings at his studio in Thane.
Panoramic painting relates to the idea of the picturesque. Were you conscious of working within, or against, this tradition while painting Ulhasnagar?
I suppose there is another kind of panorama, Altdorfer’s visions of battlefields and some paintings of Brueghel. Brueghel’s Tower of Babel was very much in my mind while painting the central section of Ulhasnagar. But the picturesque is something that attracts me very much, particularly the works of Poussin and Lorraine, their use of light.
Can you speak a little about the origin and development of the image in Ulhasnagar?
The Ambernath-Ulhasnagar belt is a very different kind of industrial landscape from what we find in the city proper. You see a lot of greenery there, but also scattered industrial structures. The experience of seeing this landscape was with me for many years but I wasn’t sure what it actually meant. When one tries to use such an experience as an anchor around which to create art, one suggests a meaning to that experience that takes it beyond just the local. And one brings in other elements, it could be the light in certain Venetian landscapes, for example. So the painting is always something different from the experience but, if it is successful, something of that original experience will be captured in it. The particulars one brings in will prevent the experience from evaporating into a generalisation. That’s the balance I wanted to maintain.
In the second panel from the left, there’s a kind of ripple painted using a bold, expressionistic red. It draws one’s attention immediately. What led you to choose this colour?
There are actual streams you see in places like Ulhasnagar where the pollutants discharged into the water give it a weird colour. In one way these polluted streams form extremely attractive sights. On the other hand we are also conscious about the fishes dying in the water as a result of the effluents. Something similar happens when one sees a layer of heavily polluted air with clear sky extending above it, that’s an amazing sight. I’ve always been interested in this contradiction, and used it in that part of the painting which, in any case, represents the darker aspect of the landscape.
Did you conceive of four panels right from the start?
No, the idea evolved after I began my sketches and studies. I considered an evenly lit panorama to begin with, but then I felt that a movement from morning to evening in the light might work well. This tied in with the different stages of industrialism, starting with the non-industrialised periphery and moving to the dense built space in the centre. A kind of historical time is present in the painting as well.
Both Ulhasnagar and Lower Parel appear to be very confident works, confident in the validity of the medium. Have you moved beyond a period of doubt about the potential of painting?
If you are referring to my trying out media apart from simply paint, that was a phase when I needed to investigate whether there were limits to what painting could say, and whether I could overcome these limits by using other materials. But I increasingly feel that the medium is just that, a medium, and what you say, you say through it. The idea of the language or the medium defining what you can or cannot say has loosened for me. What I’m saying is a half-truth. Of course it matters to some extent what the medium is. But what I am certain about now, is that my own practice as a painter, and the personal as well as larger history of that practice, offers me a density which is more important to me than the variety offered by different media.
Like Ulhasnagar, Lower Parel also shows layers of historical time appearing in one frame, as indeed they do so often in India…
With Lower Parel, again, I was going back to an experience that has been with me for years. On the one hand it was the visual experience of those bridges -- not just the one at Lower Parel -- that had made a considerable impact. My early experience of the area in the 1970s was a charged one, there was a wholeness to it, provided by Marxist ideology. One knew the people there belonged to a certain class, that was part of the experience of seeing people, which gave it density. Later, that feeling gradually dissolved and one could no longer create the same sense of that place.
And yet there were things I wanted to paint there. I wanted to try and discover what was still alive from that initial experience and to make sense of the changed circumstances. At a basic level, just the architectural complexity of the bridges remained constant, of course, providing a starting point for the painting.
You speak about that early experience with a great deal of nostalgia, but no nostalgia clouds the work. I find that quite remarkable.
When I started the painting -- I wouldn’t call it nostalgia -- but there was a kind of anger in it, about all these skyscrapers coming up and displacing what existed before. The figures, too, had a stressed-out look to them. But I felt a definite false note there. I had wanted to make the painting dramatic, with the dying mill in the centre, but none of it was working. I actually re-did the sky more than twenty times. It seems a simple, clear sky now, but I was stuck with the original idea for a long time.
Also, the figures just did not seem right. In a way this was a continuation of an old problem I’d faced for the last ten years, that the figure sometimes tended to stand for something, it came down as a sign rather than a fact. Before this crisis, however distorted my figures were, I used to feel there was a factuality about them. In painting Lower Parel, for the first time I started using photographs as a basis for the people in the painting. This created its own problems, I had to escape from the particularity of the people in the photographs, so that the figures in the painting related to each other, held together as a group.
Did your ideas about this part of Bombay change as the painting progressed?
I realise that many of the people one now sees in Lower Parel, often sons and daughters of mill-workers, are trying to make the best of the changes which have taken place in Bombay, and the new opportunities these provide. I think there is no going back on those changes, apart from a few piece-meal measures that might be possible. I don’t believe what’s happening is such a terrible thing.
Is the act of painting itself, for you, a way of coming to terms?
The act of coming to this studio, to work regularly is very important for me, I feel uneasy if there’s a gap in the habit of painting for any reason. At that level, I’d say yes. But I’m not sure whether painting allows me to discover something about myself, of which I was earlier unaware. Coming to terms occurs at different levels, some of these prior to the act of painting.
You spoke of using photography for the first time as a basis for your figuration. Many painters in India today are using photography-based and photo-related imagery, often in a hyper-realist style. How do you place yourself in this context?
I am interested in art where there is a tension between the act of painting and the image being painted. A lot of photography-related painting being done today is conceptually oriented, where the image relates mainly to other images. These paintings can work, provided the concepts underpinning them are complex and rich. But I am interested in painting things that I can see, and in painting them as I see them. In this respect Cézanne has always been a touchstone for me, particularly the relationship between the mind, eye and hand in his work. He painted at the edge of conception and perception, and that’s important for me, it’s what I aim to do.