Farmers’ lives matter: Prabhakar Pachpute on “Shadows on Arrival” at Kolkata’s Experimenter – interview

Prabhakar Pachpute’s exhibition “Shadows on Arrival” sketches gloomy lunar landscapes at Kolkata-based gallery Experimenter.

Prabhakar Pachpute talks to Art Radar about his solo show at Experimenter, on view until 29 April 2017.

Prabhakar Pachpute, "Shadows on Arrival", 4 March - 29 April 2017, installation at Experimenter, Kolkata. Image courtesy Experimenter, Kolkata.

Prabhakar Pachpute, “Shadows on Arrival”, 4 March – 29 April 2017, installation at Experimenter, Kolkata. Image courtesy Experimenter, Kolkata.

A 2014 public survey conducted by the India’s National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) revealed that the Maharashtra State scored the highest number of suicides among the farmers community, mainly due to crop failures and bankruptcy and indebtedness for cultivation loan. According to The Times of India in an article published in March 2015,

Official say the state is facing a potent combination of three types of drought. “The poor rain points to meteorological drought, ground water depletion signals hydrological drought. And the drop in yield means we have agricultural drought as well […].

While worrisome issues of climate change draw the attention of both celebrities and common people around the globe, in Maharashtra districts of Chandrapur, Yavatmal and Nagpur there is an ever growing trend to transform farmlands into coal mines. According to prominent Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva,

If non-sustainable land and water use continue, the drought will spread even when rainfall is normal. The most vulnerable immediately are the poor who will be forced to migrate as environmental refugees. Agrarian distress and farmers` suicides will increase because farmers have spent huge amounts on costly seeds and chemicals, and crop failure will make the debt trap a death trap […].

Prabhakar Pachpute, 'The Enigma of Arrival', 2017, gypsum and epoxy. Image courtesy Experimenter, Kolkata.

Prabhakar Pachpute, ‘The Enigma of Arrival’, 2017, gypsum and epoxy. Image courtesy Experimenter, Kolkata.

Chandrapur-born artist Prabhakar Pachpute reflects on the vicious circle of temporary wealth assured by coal mining projects and permanent soil depletion caused by mineral extraction. He does so through a body of work that is deeply inspired by Greek-Italian Giorgio de Chirico’s Metaphisical Art for the matte palette he uses, the presence of lonely characters, elongated figures and shadows wandering in timeless landscapes, thus dragging visitors into a dreamlike atmosphere burdened by a feeling of desolation, displacement and abandonment. Pachpute’s research on coal miners spans over the last decade and tells the story of a luxuriant land wrecked by the greediness of men, the story of a family oppressed by the burden of black gold, and the fight for a change by uniting to those voices in the state that claim respect for India’s natural resources, habitat and people’s life.

Art Radar talks to the Pune-based artist about his research on view in “Shadows on Arrival” at Kolkata’s Experimenter until 29 April 2017.

Prabhakar Pachpute, 'Under the Crust', 2017, led light, gypsum sculpture on gypsum plinth. Image courtesy Experimenter, Kolkata.

Prabhakar Pachpute, ‘Under the Crust’, 2017, led light, gypsum sculpture on gypsum plinth and charcoal drawing. Image courtesy Experimenter, Kolkata.

I would like to start with a question about your artistic research before 2011, when you decided to address your interest to the precarious lives of miners. May I ask you what was the focus of your investigation before? And, how did this evolve to the aggressive exploitation of land?

Before my interest and focus were about my surroundings (daily life subjects), proverbs, references from the history of art and Marathi literature. I was very much interested in using proverbs, which are universal and very much contemporary. Such as some of my previous works that have references to Pieter Bruegel’s painting Neterlandish Proverbs. I have made some works with the proverbs, which have a connection to the contemporary scenario. 

I have started working and researching on the mining since 2010-11, while I was doing my post graduation at the Faculty of Fine Arts M. S. University of Baroda. There were two incidents that made me think about the miners’ life: one is the Chilean coal mining disaster (2010) and the second is one of the accidents in my hometown. There were several accidents that have not been covered by any media. Since then, I started looking back to my own background and mining history of the place.

I moved to Bombay in 2011. In 2012, I had a first solo exhibition at Clark House Initiative called “Canary in a Coal Mine”, which was about all my memories and stories that I used to hear about the mining in my hometown, and also about the displacement of the people and farming land. This exhibition brought me a lot of opportunities, and slowly I have started travelling and researching about the different kinds of mining in India and abroad. I have realised it is one of the most vast subjects to work or research. Whenever I have an opportunity to travel I propose to do a research trip to the mines.

That’s how I could visit different kinds of mines such as: Lignite mining in Castelnuovo dei Sabbioni, Italy, 2013; Marble mining in Carrara, Italy, 2013; Iron mining in Pará state, Brazil, 2014; Gold mining in Ouro Preto and Serra Pelada, Brazil, 2014; Salt mining in Çankiri, Turkey, 2015; Coal mining in Wales and Ruhr valley, Germany, 2015; Western coalfields Limited (WCL) Chandrapur, Balharshah area, Maharashtra, 2010, 2013 and 2014; Pathakhera coal mines, Madhya Pradesh, India, 2015; Gold mining in Marmato, Colombia, 2016; Salt Mining and Coal mining (musems of the minings), Upper Seilesia, Poland, 2016 (in collaboration with Rupali Patil).

Prabhakar Pachpute, 'Under the Crust' (detail), 2017, led light, gypsum sculpture on gypsum plinth. Image courtesy Experimenter, Kolkata.

Prabhakar Pachpute, ‘Under the Crust’ (detail), 2017, led light, gypsum sculpture on gypsum plinth. Image courtesy Experimenter, Kolkata.

Could you tell us what are these ‘shadows on arrival’ in the exhibition title referring to?

“Shadows on Arrival” refers to the landscape or an environment of the post-industrial culture also as a comment, “what are we have left with?” It’s about the darkness, emptiness, dehumanisation, ownership, a fear especially about this desert or the ‘Lunar landscape’. I also refer this title to Giorgio De Chirico’s paintings, in which you can see the emptiness, traumatic depth, deep colours, elongated shadows and mysterious feel. After visiting many different kinds of mining I have realised that there are always dark forms or stories behind it. Even if we make it a museum of mining or beautification of such areas, there are always shadows on our arrival.

Prabhakar Pachpute, 'An Unending Grave', 2017, gypsum, plywood, clay, robotic insect. Image courtesy Experimenter, Kolkata.

Prabhakar Pachpute, ‘An Unending Grave’, 2017, gypsum, plywood, clay, robotic insect. Image courtesy Experimenter, Kolkata.

Let us consider the work you presented in the group show “Immateriality in Residue” in 2015, or in the exhibitions “No, It Wasn’t The Locust Cloud” in 2016 and “The Land Eaters” in 2013. Are these chapters of a story you are telling? How do these three exhibitions connect to each other?

Yes, these are like the chapters that I am creating. There is a story line or the link between these three exhibitions. “Land Eaters” (2013) is the first chapter, which was more focusing on the exploitation of the farming land, change of landscape and displacement as well as about the farmers who are thinking about going back to the farm and collectivity. For “Immateriality in Residue” I had created a work with charcoal and pastel on plywood cut out, which was about the man with torch light and magnifying glass, who is looking for the hope in the desert landscape. “No, It Wasn’t The Locust Cloud” is a storyline of the transformation of farming land into industrial landscape, as well as the transformation of farmers into miners, the collective of the poets, farmers and miners, and at the end, the possible transformation of abandoned mining.

There is a common thought between all of these works. On the one hand, there is always destruction or exploitation and on the other hand, there is a hope for better life. In this way, these exhibitions are connected to each other. It’s also related to the similar stories that I heard during my research in different places around the world.

Prabhakar Pachpute, 'Counter Table of the Blackyard', 2017, charcoal and acrylic on canvas, 6.5 ft x 15 ft. Image courtesy Experimenter, Kolkata.

Prabhakar Pachpute, ‘Counter Table of the Blackyard’, 2017, charcoal and acrylic on canvas, 6.5 ft x 15 ft. Image courtesy Experimenter, Kolkata.

Have you ever read Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road? The cold, dark and grim atmosphere of relentless global environmental catastrophe as described by the author can also be seen in the exhibition “Shadows on Arrival”. Here, the wall drawing, installations and sculptures become props of a movie about death, alienation and desolation. Would you like to comment on this?

Unfortunately, I haven’t read Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, but I will definitely read it. Yes, there is similar darkness and grim atmosphere of relentless global environmental [disaster]. And “Shadows on Arrival” can be seen as props of a story/movie/chapter about emptiness, dehumanisation, death, alienation, desolation and a fear of an unending grave.

Prabhakar Pachpute, 'Sorry for the Incovenience', 2017, mixed media objects and wall drawing. Image courtesy Experimenter, Kolkata.

Prabhakar Pachpute, ‘Sorry for the Incovenience’, 2017, mixed media objects and wall drawing. Image courtesy Experimenter, Kolkata.

Could you tell us more about the series of wall installations Sorry for the Inconvenience (2017)?

Actually, this work is a reflection of my recent visit to the mines from Poland and previous other researches. Where I have visited museums of the mining, I was interested in looking at the objects, the machines that have been kept as memories from the mining history and the engagement of the human bodies with them.

I was questioning about the use of these machines and electric objects, how they look different when they are not in use or when they are no more in function. For me, it is like a metaphor that links to the abandoned mining landscapes, which are inoperative.

In this work, I have used some electric found objects, which are not in use, and juxtaposed them with my drawings, characters and site-specific elements.

Prabhakar Pachpute, 'Dead Monument', 2017, gypsum, ceramic, metal, found objects. Image courtesy Exeperimenter, Kolkata.

Prabhakar Pachpute, ‘Dead Monument’, 2017, gypsum, ceramic, metal, found objects. Image courtesy Experimenter, Kolkata.

Since you mainly work with site-specific installations, could you explain to us the relationship between creative process and space?

I began to use the site-specific spaces since 2011-12. For the first time, I used my drawings with site-specific elements as my sculptures at Clark House Initiative, Bombay for the exhibition “Canary in a Coal Mine” (PDF download) in 2012. The creative process starts according to the space that you have and the space always gives the opportunity to explore the possibilities beyond our imagination. Sometimes it can be planned or sometimes it is very spontaneous. Both are related matters. A lot more of my works are site-specific. Many times I don’t prefer to design or prepare the sketches for the work. Sometimes it happens within the time period or the process.

Prabhakar Pachpute, 'Do You See Me', 2017, metal, found object. Image courtesy Experimenter, Kolkata.

Prabhakar Pachpute, ‘Do You See Me’, 2017, metal, found object. Image courtesy Experimenter, Kolkata.

In your exhibition “No, It Wasn’t The Locust Cloud”, the circular canvas conveyed the positive idea of men being able to re-transform themselves. From the rise of farmer suicides in Maharashtra in 2015 to the NGOs’ activity supporting agriculture in 2016, the beginning of change can be identified by reading the news. Do you feel positive about this?

I guess it is a time that local people should get aware or engage with these issues. As I know, some NGOs and collective/group of people who are engaging with the local issues. I feel positive about it, that at least people would get aware about what is happening in their region. In fact, people know it but they don’t know how to deal with it.

What do you mean by “people know it but they don’t know how to deal with it”?

I mean to say that people are aware about what is happening around them, especially about land exploitation or land acquisition, and also about the health issues. I got to know about it when I made some interviews or just talked with local people in my hometown to know about their views about the mining and its effects on their day to day life. Some of them are really aware about it but they have no options as they are doing mining for a living.

Prabhakar Pachpute, "Shadows on Arrival", 4 March - 29 April 2017, installation at Experimenter, Kolkata. Image courtesy Experimenter, Kolkata.

Prabhakar Pachpute, “Shadows on Arrival”, 4 March – 29 April 2017, installation at Experimenter, Kolkata. Image courtesy Experimenter, Kolkata.

Do you work as an activist in the region?

I don’t think that I work as an activist in the region. Instead, I feel like a ‘spokesman’ or observer and there is a need to speak about these issues. There are some poets in my hometown who are bringing their voices through their poetry and literature with similar concern.

What is the response of the population to such actions?

These people are doing their activities at a very small level in the district of Chandrapur. Publishing their books, through poet conferences or taking some workshops/activities with local people. I have noticed that the people with a very positive way are noticing it and they have really great responses from them. Sometimes people send their response through letters. I feel it is a beginning for change.

Prabhakar Pachpute, "Shadows on Arrival", 4 March - 29 April 2017, installation at Experimenter, Kolkata. Image courtesy Experimenter, Kolkata.

Prabhakar Pachpute, “Shadows on Arrival”, 4 March – 29 April 2017, installation at Experimenter, Kolkata. Image courtesy Experimenter, Kolkata.

What would you like the audience to take from your body of work?

Most of my work is all about anxiety. I express the stories of the mines as I heard them, and my observation of the relations that exist between the miners or landscape in a style of invented proverbs and metaphorically. The message which I am trying to convey through my art is that I would like the audience to notice that it’s not only about the mine, but it is also related to our daily life, surroundings or future that we will have to face someday. We shall get aware about what is happening around us.

Carmen Stolfi

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Related topics: Indian artists, interviews, art and the community, political, social, charcoal, drawing, installation, gallery shows, events inKolkata

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