“A playful relationship exists between form and space. Indeed, what is form in one context becomes space in another and vice versa. The boundaries of space are the form; and the existence and feeling within form is space. Form and space are so interlinked that it is difficult to talk of them separately.” [1]

For most of his life Prabhakar Barwe would dwell on this interplay between form and space and how inextricably they were intertwined. The exhibition Astitva: The Essence of Prabhakar Barwe mounted at Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) served to shine a light on this engagement. Sensitively curated by Jesal Thacker-who as a student at the Sir J.J. School of Art was introduced to Barwe’s work-the retrospective also offered visitors a tantalising glimpse of some of the lesser known periods of the artist’s oeuvre.

Chief among them is the Tantra period, when Barwe engaged with Tantric philosophy and principles early in his career. Shortly after graduating from the Sir J.J. School of Art in Bombay he joined the Weavers Service Centre (WSC) in 1961, which was set up by cultural activist Pupul Jayakar. The aim of the WSC was to promote collaboration between traditional weavers and academically trained artists and Barwe was posted to the holy city of Varanasi, known for its rich weaving traditions. It is here that he encountered Tantra, an unorthodox form of Hindu thought, with its mystical diagrams and visualization. This must have appealed to the young artist, who seized the possibility of translating them into designs, which could be woven on the loom. Interestingly enough, the word Tantra is derived from the Sanskrit word tan, which means the warping of threads on a loom.

Thacker exhibited several pieces of these early designs on cloth, notable among them a long turmeric-hued sari, which depicts the use of simple geometric shapes to create a multitude of patterns. Like many artists before him-Paul Klee comes immediately to mind-Barwe was fascinated by basic shapes such as circles, squares and triangles, seeing in them pure and abstract forms. This conceivably alerted him to the possibility of forms having no associative utilitarian function, beyond serving as signs or symbols. He would engage with these concepts more profoundly later in his career, as evident in the works on display.

The Tantric influences of this early period were also evident in his use of bright, primary colours on his canvases, among them Once Upon a Time there was a King, which also highlights the artist’s experimentation with collage as he strove to create a new pictorial language. In the visually arresting Untitled canvas from 1971, two black conjoined forms sit at the centre of an expanse of bright red enamel, riveting the viewer’s attention. While Barwe experimented with many media, he was particularly partial to enamel paint. Where other artists might have shied away, daunted by its gloss and shine, he discovered that the medium could combine the fluidity and transparency of watercolours with the heft and thickness of oil.

One of the more intriguing exhibits in the show was a large untitled work from 1970 employing acid colour on Dupion silk. Here horizontal, striated bands are dissected by a large amorphous form in the centre, its top black half proffering a stark contrast to the brightly woven silk. As a counterpoint to this and other abstract forms-among them a circle and semi-circle-a cloud of decorative floral motifs floats in the mauvish expanse located at the top half of the work.

It is however from the mid seventies onwards, after his return to Bombay, that we see Barwe’s more formal engagement with form and space. This also coincided with the pivotal role he played in the formation of the Astitva group, consisting of twelve artists. Broadly translating as ‘existence’ or ‘purpose’, the group included, among others, Dilip Ranade, Shakuntala Kulkarni, Lalitha Lajmi, Bharati Kapadia and Madhao Imartey. More in the nature of an informal discussion group, the members of this group would meet regularly on Fridays to discuss their work and the propositions that Barwe would put forth. These meetings undoubtedly helped Barwe hone his critical thinking and provided the conceptual underpinnings for many of his works.

In his oils and watercolours at the NGMA, one can realise his acute awareness and attention to the form of objects and his attempts at decoupling them from their functional attributes. Thus quotidian objects-fruits, leaves, birds, flowers-are plucked from their environments and are embedded in fields or expanses of colour, often with no discernible relation to each other. Even within a single form, Barwe saw many forms, delving deeper to unpack them. Like any artist he was also conscious of the placement of a form, whether enshrined in the centre of the canvas or migrating to the margins. In Alphabets of Nature, the viewer is made deeply aware of the negative spaces that surround his objects as much as the objects themselves. Here space and form become interchangeable, with each playing the other’s role.

The artist’s investigation into space was just as much about the physical space that we inhabit as it was about the conceptual and metaphysical. This linkage between exteriority with interiority flowed like a silent hum through the exhibition. In his arresting Homage to the Clock, time and space seems to coalesce into a harmonious whole. The canvas depicts a horizontally placed wall clock, which possesses no hands to mark the passage of time. Instead, it is left to the gently floating ochre and brown leaves to evoke the passing of seasons, while calling attention to their wondrous forms.

Unsurprisingly, this quiet, introspective artist was particularly sensitive to colour and the moods it could evoke, “If you listen quietly, you can hear colours speak. The pale shades whisper, the stronger shades have more to say. Lustrous colours set up a continuous chatter. And when a single colour spreads across the canvas, it produces the sombre resonance of the ocean.” [2] In many of his later works, Barwe covered his canvases with muted colours, which formed a perfect foil to the objects embedded within them. In Homage to the Clock the object is placed in the centre of a sea of tranquil grey enamel paint, creating as much of an awareness of the paint’s physical presence, yet not distracting in any way from the dysfunctional clock.

Thacker’s deep engagement with Barwe’s practice and the research she has undertaken over the years were clearly evident in her curatorial interventions. Upon entering the exhibition, the visitor was enticed into a room, which plotted Barwe’s artistic trajectory on its walls, besides offering them the space to sit and leaf through catalogues and books. Large and small projections, peppering the exhibition space, beamed animated line drawings that traced the process involvedincreating many of Barwe’s forms. Thacker’s training as an artist also enabled her to make linkages between the motif of the stairs that cropped up in Barwe’s works and those existing within the NGMA space. She even went to the extent of fashioning more stairways, which helped offer spatial relief, breaking up the large exhibition room. Then there were thoughtfully photocopied notations from Barwe’s diaries placed alongside his paintings and an area of play, where visitors could imprint postcards using stamps bearing the artist’s iconic motifs. Astitva: The Essence of Prabhakar Barwe was a fitting tribute to an artist who saw in the apparent emptiness of the blank canvas the potential to engage with time and space.


[1] Prabhakar Barwe, The Blank Canvas, (trans. Shanta Gokhale; Bombay: Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation 2013), page 45

[2] Ibid, page 58

The exhibition was on view from June 13 till July 28, 2019 at the NGMA, Delhi

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