Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Citing the City - Sudhir Patwardhan

As an artist Sudhir Patwardhan has made a significant contribution to the landscape of contemporary Indian Art. Working in a distinctly individual style, his paintings have focused in different ways, over the years, on the working classes. “For 30 years, it is the human figure as the vehicle and site of those relationships which has fascinated Patwardhan--especially the proletarian figure which is stationed at the receiving end of society's most exploitative impulses.”[1] His paintings have presented a series of portraits of the heroic tableaux of the common people of the city of Mumbai. ‘Citing the City’, a recent exhibition of his works by Sakshi Gallery, at Triveni Kala Sangam, New Delhi, brings this city into focus yet again. For many years, he has presented himself as a “spokesman for the oppressed”, but in this exhibition he seems to have distanced himself from the people, focusing on the chaos of the ever-developing urban landscape instead.
Mumbai is a city of contradictions. The visual aberration of slums against the backdrop of high rise buildings and luxurious living is accompanied by its sound and smells; of “the continuous din of traffic… the stench of bombil fish drying on stilts…the inescapable humid touch of many brown bodies in the street.”[2] As Suketu Mehta, author of ‘Maximum City’ tells us, the new inheritors of the city are “badly educated, unscrupulous, lacking a metropolitan sensibility – buffoons and small time thugs, often – but, above all, representative”[3]. His research reveals that murderers are successful in Bombay through engagement in local politics, “where burning the bread seller alive” got a thug [Sunil] appointed as special executive officer, “a person in whom public trust is reposed”[4].
It is a city where justice is not executable because perpetrators of crime are often the politicians and police who are virtually impossible to prosecute for various complex reasons. Five years after the riots, when the findings of the Srikrishna Report placed the blame “on Thackeray and on the city police”[5], the Sena government officially rejected the report as being biased. Its only remaining value was that “for many of the poorer victims, it is enough that the judge has listened to them, acknowledged that some wrong was done to them. That’s how little they expect of the justice system.”[6]
This city with all its inordinate inequities and frustrations is the one that Patwardhan is citing. The scale of his canvas is awesome and impressive. The skill with which he presents the complex panorama compels the eye to look. His attention to detail in recording the landscape, his selective juxtaposition of buildings, highlighting the chaos, is intriguing. Although the imagery is compelling, as you delve deeper, close enough to read between the lines and shades, you realize that the people, who were once at the forefront of his exploration and presentation, no longer seem to engage with the viewer, as they once did.
In ‘Death on the Street’(2007) a 38 x 46 inch canvas painted with acrylic, he presents an oft visited scene where a pedestrian has been mowed down by some automobile or other and the passersby are curious but do not help. Here, Patwardhan depicts a policeman looking the other way and someone unconvincingly hollers, pointing towards, a long gone from the scene, erring vehicle and driver, while a Sardar and others inexpressively look on. Jitish Kallat, in his catalogue commentary tells us that “deaths on the streets of Mumbai, or Thane, have the potential of being treated as commonplace simply because of the frequency of such occurrences” for “when so many people set out on the street the startling statistic of 30,000 accidents in a year in Mumbai city no longer seem exceptional”[7] His statement appears to condone the apathy, which is alarming. If the sensitive become insensitive, what hope does society have to redeem itself? This poses another question: if Art is about infusing life with a sense of aesthetics, do our cities have this? If not, and surely it is not, can artists distance themselves when and where this infusion is sorely needed?
The city is impossible. It’s become worse, but is it the city that creates the problems or us? Can any one of us afford to create this distance from what goes on, even in defeat? It is not just about Mumbai, it is the same story all over the country. Life in the city can be a veritable nightmare. But the sense of its trauma and frustrations is just not explored enough in these paintings to bring forth our indignation or any sense of self-disgust, condemning ourselves for having let it become so. We need to be faced brutally with what is, to bring about any measure of change. The point then seems to be: does the artist want it to change? If not, then the burning question is why not? How can it be acceptable? Perhaps it does not yet impinge enough to demand change?
In ‘The Clearing’ (2007, acrylic on canvas 54 x 72 inches) we see lots of shanties, cement houses and tall buildings which in part, have been painted evoking a Cezanne-like depiction. Elsewhere, Patwardhan presents with considered detail, almost every shadow and curve of the landscape. People are reduced to matchstick figures or virtually absent from this huge panoramic view of the city which veers on romanticizing rather than condemning the apparent chaos. The artist thus, disconcertingly evokes the ‘Stockholm syndrome’ effect, where it is assumed that the condition is now perceived as inescapable therefore conformed to.
All around us media cites the ‘Incredible India” growth story, its super power potential et al. The euphoria is unbelievable and nothing short of self-delusional. Patwardhan has been telling us how unbalanced and disorganized life in this country is, but the problem is that he no longer says it powerfully enough. What he says, we already know and do seemingly nothing about, for the situation has got worse, not better. Maybe somewhere, through this we should acknowledge that passive presentation or protest via art is just not good enough. Now, each one of us has to engage with the city and its problems, become ardent activists in our individual capacities, becoming involved with the moral dilemmas of our personal worlds, within the city, to even begin to heal the situation. Is this what the artist intends? Or is he telling us that this is the way it will now always be and therefore in his acceptance, romanticizing it?
In the drawings too, this thread prevails. Kallat informs of the challenge of painting/drawing on the street, where unlike studio models, the people being drawn do not oblige by “eyes fixed in one direction offering a blank stare without batting the eyelid”, reminding us that Patwardhan, “didn’t attend the conventional art class in an art institute.”[8] He seems to ask us to make allowances for the simplified figures Sudhir Patwardhan presents. Simple lines have their own way of conveying ideas as strongly as the intensely detailed observational life drawing of an art class, if not more so. Artists such as Cezanne and Van Gogh and many others have amply demonstrated this, paving the way for our appreciation of the emotional stance simplicity affords, which is often far more expressive than the stultified school of still-life studies they broke away from. This argument therefore is quite unnecessary. However, the drawings do lack punch. The figures appear more wooden than alive. The charcoal on paper drawing entitled ‘Threat’, does not threaten, nor does the ‘Slap’ intimidate, with only an occasional sense of emotion in ‘Punch’ (acrylic on paper, 2007- 30 x 22 inches). The drawings do not in themselves inform of what actually was observed, perhaps because of the fleeting nature of street life and this has not been augmented with the artists own emotional data bank to draw from similar experiences, imagined or real.
In an interview, given almost a decade ago, Patwardhan said the artist, “bears the responsibility of addressing the moral issues that confront every individual, and must dramatize that encounter in memorable, even perplexing images elaborating with the idea”[9] and further that: “We don't resolve these complex issues by addressing them,” but “Rather, we remind ourselves of how important it is to go on addressing them instead of pretending that they don’t exist.”[10] At some point he has also expressed that in presenting himself as the “spokesman for the oppressed”, he wondered whether he “did not somehow appropriate their voice, turn them into pretexts for the expression of my own anxieties and dilemmas.”[11]
Looking at the recent paintings and comparing this with the imagery cited in ‘Maximum City’, what struck me was the way in which Mehta began the dialogue, with his own personal experiences. Ironically, it is this “personal geography” that Patwardhan seems to aver from. In his concern to not impose upon the common man, his own “anxieties and dilemmas”, he becomes an observer; without an intellectual and/ or emotional view-point. Thus he does not allow himself to get involved with the situation beyond his role of commentator which now lacks the indignation, the frustration and anger, because in removing his own personal dialogue of his “anxieties and dilemmas”, the situations do not affect him as perhaps he once he allowed them to. Although he lends insight into the predicament that generated the emotional distance, one is left wondering what really changed and why. This question lingers persistently, invoking greater interest than the painted views.
Gopika Nath
13th March 2008
[1] Ranjit Hoskote, Times of India, 2 February 1999- ‘A doctor trains his X-ray vision on his art’
[2] Suketu Mehta, Maximum City- Bombay lost and found, Pg. 15
[3] Suketu Mehta, Maximum City – Bombay lost and found, Pg. 81
[4] Suketu Mehta, Maximum City – Bombay lost and found, Pg. 81
[5] Suketu Mehta, Maximum City – Bombay lost and found, Pg. 87
[6] Suketu Mehta, “ “ Pg. 88
[7] Citing the City, Sudhir Patwardhan, Sakshi Galery, catalogue essay,2008, Jitish Kallat, Pg, 7
[8] “ “ “ “ ,2008 Jitish Kallat, Pg. 5
[9] Ranjit Hoskote, Times of India, 2 February 1999- ‘A doctor trains his X-ray vision on his art’
[10] Ranjit Hoskote, Times of India, 2 February 1999- ‘A doctor trains his X-ray vision on his art’
[11] Ranjit Hoskote, Times of India, 2 February 1999- ‘A doctor trains his X-ray vision on his art’

1 comment:

gopika nath said...

Published in Art & Deal - June 2008
Vol.5 No4. Issue No 26