“Spectres”: India’s Sudhir Patwardhan and the idea of home and self – artist profile

In an exhibition that displays over 80 of his works, the artist takes us through his concept and experience of personal and public space, which have often intersected with each other in his own universe.

In his latest show, Sudhir Patwardhan explores the idea of home and the self. After showing at Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai in October 2017, the exhibition is on display at the Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi until 24 November 2017.

Sudhir Patwardhan, 'Another Day in the Old City', 2017, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 108 in. Image courtesy the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.

Sudhir Patwardhan, ‘Another Day in the Old City’, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 108 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.

A keen observer of life

Sudhir Patwardhan (b.1949) belongs to the post-Independence born generation of contemporary Indian artists who entered the art world in the 1970s, amidst a rapidly changing urban environment – one that was facing the socio-political challenges of a fledgling nation that was coming to terms with its colonial past. Patwardhan’s paintings have mostly depicted the everyday life of the working class of India, against the backdrop of the country’s teeming metropolis – demonstrating the artist’s keen observation of people, places and society.

Sudhir Patwardhan, 'Self-portrait with Mirror and Camera', 2016, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 30 in. Image courtesy the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.

Sudhir Patwardhan, ‘Self-portrait with Mirror and Camera’, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 30 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.

His work has been exhibited widely in India and internationally with solo shows at the Jehangir Art Gallery (Mumbai), Gallery Chemould (Mumbai), India Habitat Centre (New Delhi) and Sakshi Galleries (Bengaluru and Mumbai). He has participated in international shows like “Aspects of Modem Indian Art”, Oxford (1982); Contemporary Indian Art at the Festival of India, London (1982); “Seven Indian Artists”, Hamburg, West Germany (1982); Contemporary Indian Art, Festival of India, New York (1985); Festival of India, Georges Pompidou Center, Paris (1986); “Coupe de Coeur”, Geneva, Switzerland (1987); “The Richness of Spirit”, Egyptian Academy, Kuwait and Rome (1988-89) and Century City, Tate Modern, London (2001). His paintings are in many public and private collections including the National Gallery of Modern Art (New Delhi), the Lalit Kala Akademi (New Delhi), Punjab University Museum (Chandigarh), Bharat Bhavan(Bhopal), Gallery of Contemporary Art (Kochi), the Peabody Essex Museum (Salem, USA), the Herwitz Family Collection (USA) and the Jehangir Nicholson Museum, NCPA (Mumbai).

 Sudhir Patwardhan, “Spectres”, 27 October – 24 November 2017, Vadehra Art Gallery. Image courtesy Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.

Sudhir Patwardhan, “Spectres”, 27 October – 24 November 2017, Vadehra Art Gallery. Image courtesy Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.

Pune-born Patwardhan is self-taught and graduated from the Armed Forces Medical College in the city, in 1972. His keen eye for detail and his knowledge of the human anatomy is testament to his years as a practicing radiologist and is evident in his realistic rendering of human figures as they pose in the almost stage-like tableaus of many of his cityscapes. Patwardhan’s art practice was launched into the public domain with his first solo exhibition in 1979. This was a time when the subject matter of his paintings were the labour class – common people that he would encounter everyday, first in the city of Mumbai and then in Thane, a neighbouring city, one of India’s most populous, where he finally settled down.

Sudhir Patwardhan, 'The High Bed', 2016, pastel on paper, 30 x 22 in. Image courtesy the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.

Sudhir Patwardhan, ‘The High Bed’, 2016, pastel on paper, 30 x 22 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.

Many of his figurative works during this period were tight close-ups with highly defined musculature, while continuing to speak for the subaltern, working class individual as an important player in a transitional society and a rapidly developing cityscape. His support of Leftist ideologies during this period also influenced his visualisation of the socio-political climate that was prevalent in the country. As he moved into the 1980s, Patwardhan started giving increasing importance to the urban spaces being occupied by the common man and he started including railways stations, construction sites, tenements, over-bridges, factories and defunct textile mills in his work. The city of Mumbai becomes a significant subject of his work and in his paintings he visually documents both his relationship with the city, as well as his urban experiences, in a manner that is relatable to every citizen of the city.

Sudhir Patwardhan, “Spectres”, 27 October – 24 November 2017, Vadehra Art Gallery. Image courtesy Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.

Sudhir Patwardhan, “Spectres”, 27 October – 24 November 2017, Vadehra Art Gallery. Image courtesy Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.

It is this common thread of closely examining the concept of public space with his characteristic, gritty realism that continues to appear in his latest exhibition “Spectres” at Vadehra Art Gallery. He also incorporates into some of the works, a unique idea of ‘home’, a traditionally private space, which for Patwardhan has a historical context and holds personal significance. Soon after retiring from his medical practice, the artist and his wife moved into a new apartment in an idyllic environment that was spacious enough to also be used as a studio space. This invasion of his private, everyday life into the physical space of his creative self, suddenly alienated Patwardhan from his work process. The artist was left feeling anchorless and adrift with the blurring of the boundaries that he had set up between his work, creative and private lives.  

Sudhir Patwardhan, 'Erase', 2017, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 80 in. Image courtesy the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.

Sudhir Patwardhan, ‘Erase’, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 80 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.

A visual story-teller of people and places

Patwardhan draws on these unsettling, confusing feelings to create a series of works that include self-portraits that return the viewer’s gaze as we navigate through the various rooms of his home. In the panoramic Erase (2017) he uses the picture plane to double up as a virtual canvas as he raises his hand which is holding a paint-stained rag at eye-level, to erase what he paints. The detached and almost disenchanted expression on his face and the presence of his wife sitting on a bed in the background, with her back turned toward us, are a clear indication of the artist’s feeling of alienation in his current environment.

Sudhir Patwardhan, 'Compass', 2017, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 80 in. Image courtesy the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.

Sudhir Patwardhan, ‘Compass’, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 80 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.

In Compass (2017) the roles are reversed and we see his wife busy reading in the background. The artist looks seemingly indifferent towards an incomplete artwork leaning against the wall of his living room, while gazing out at a changing urban skyline with concrete buildings taking precedence over greenery and nature. His attention to detail in the rendering of his apartment heightens the realism that he is trying to portray – both in the architectural detail and interior design of his home, as well as in the true expression of his inner feelings of displacement. The spectator connects with this honesty and self-reflection and is drawn into this visual depiction of the story of his present.

Sudhir Patwardhan, 'Empty Bookshelf', 2017, acrylic and coloured charcoal on paper, 48 x 33 in. Image courtesy the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.

Sudhir Patwardhan, ‘Empty Bookshelf’, 2017, acrylic and coloured charcoal on paper, 48 x 33 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.

Also on display are dozens of portraits of seemingly ordinary men and women – in different angles and in different styles – some being simple line drawings, some realistic renderings while others have dark, almost comic book-type undertones. These appear to be a visual commentary on human life and are indicative of Patwardhan’s keen insight, his extraordinary skill at capturing emotion and expressions, and his genuine interest in people and their circumstances. An interesting pair of paintings are Empty Bookshelf (2017) and Scatter (2017). In the former the artist depicts what looks like an older version of himself, sitting resignedly in a chair with an empty bookshelf behind him, as though his quest for learning and knowledge is now a thing of the past, perhaps metaphorically signifying an empty life. In the other we see him on the floor with arms and legs outstretched trying to reach out and desperately gather books that have fallen from a bookshelf – a desperate attempt at clutching onto some remnants of a past that was anchored in wisdom, understanding and connection.

Sudhir Patwardhan, 'Scatter', 2017, acrylic and coloured charcoal on paper, 48 x 36 in. Image courtesy the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.

Sudhir Patwardhan, ‘Scatter’, 2017, acrylic and coloured charcoal on paper, 48 x 36 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.

His mastery as a visual story-teller of the narratives hidden in public spaces is evident in Another Day in the Old City (2017) where Patwardhan goes back to his hometown of Pune to display the altered architecture of a changing city. The modernisation of a traditional Indian city is evident in the meticulous details that he incorporates in this work – into depicting the private lives of people living in the city’s old lanes as they peer out of their homes to gaze along with the viewer, into the distance, at the dark, brooding, grey, concrete skyline of urban development.        

Sudhir Patwardhan, 'Rock', 2017, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 24 in. Image courtesy the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.

Sudhir Patwardhan, ‘Rock’, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 24 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.

The paintings in “Spectres” are highly personal and have the gravitas of history, memory and experience – which is most obvious in the numerous self-portraits that Patwardhanhas included in the show. While some appear alone and lost, like Rock (2017), others like Self-Portrait (2017) appear deeply contemplative and self-questioning – laying himself bare to give the viewer a glimpse into his inner soul. In an interview with Mid-Day Patwardhan says:

A self-portrait has always been the ultimate statement that an artist can make. Thanks to the virtual world, we are used to the idea of multiple selves today. . . I suppose that the true self exists somewhere between these multiple layers. As an artist, I am trying to go beyond these representations and get to the truth.

And in “Spectres”, truth is what we see.

Amita Kini-Singh

1954

“Spectres” by Sudhir Patwardhan is on view from 27 October to 24 November 2017 at Vadehra Art Gallery, D 53 Defence Colony, New Delhi, 110024.

Related topics: Indian artists, painting, identity art, gallery shows, events in New Delhi

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