In the wake of his latest solo exhibition Beneath the Palpable at Experimenter Gallery, Kolkata, Prabhakar Pachpute speaks to Nadia Nooreyezdan about his evolving practice and plans for the future.
Nadia Nooreyezdan (NN): You seem to rely on childhood memories and first-hand experiences in your hometown, as well as extensive research and travel, to understand the issues around labour, and the exploitation of people, resources, and land. Can you take us through your artistic process?
Prabhakar Pachpute (PP): Generally, when I start working on something, I don’t take references from my previous work or research. When I create forms or images, I want them to be subtle and natural, but at the same time, I will have a particular subject in mind or something that I want to talk about. I try to keep myself flexible, and when I think more conceptually or practically about how to execute the work, then I take references from my previous research, writing, feelings, or memories. I try to create connections between what I have seen and what is relevant to the time we’re living in. Sometimes, of course, there are works, which have a certain significance for me. If I think about my previous works from 2012, there are certain forms or subjects that continue to come up in my process. I’m thinking of the image of the manager, farmers, or the tools that I have been using as part of human or animal bodies. But recently, I have observed that I also combine a lot of things together. Especially after the Kochi Biennale in 2018, I’d say a lot has changed, and the way I create things now are flexible, but also concrete.
NN: What triggered that change for you?
PP: I have been doing wall drawings for a very long time, and I have been doing them as really large-scale works. But I have to question myself and the way I am growing as an artist, because I can’t make only wall drawings. I have found myself being more flexible while making those forms on the wall. Now I realise I want to see them as three-dimensional forms, and that’s why I have started making more sculptures and cutout drawings.
After that I have started thinking about the existence of the work itself. When I finish a work, after two or three months, I like to come back and see what I have done or how I have changed, but I cannot do that with wall drawings. They are temporary, ephemeral. When you make a work, sometimes you are able to capture quite unique expressions which may not be recreated again. I feel like those expressions are now lost. I’m happy with my work so far, I don’t think I regret it. But the experience of watching my work getting destroyed actually made me begin to question myself. So lately I have started turning away from it.
In 2018, I was in Milan for an exhibition, and there I saw Anselm Kiefer’s large-scale and beautiful works. I was very impressed and influenced by his scale of work. His work made me think about the importance of existence and the real experience of large-scale works.
NN: In this practice of self-evaluation, what are some of the markers you are looking at? What are the directions you are leaning towards?
PP: The first thing I look at is the repetition of forms. There are a few characters like the manager, the miners, and the farmers, that I don’t want to repeat anymore. I feel like I’ve already done a lot with them. The second thing I look at is what has changed in my work. Over the years, I have travelled to many places, spoken to people, and I have research material from all over the world about different kinds of mines. So I have been thinking about how to connect all these things with my own geography. I have talked about my hometown, Chandrapur, in the state of Maharashtra many times. Now I want to look at how we can connect these international elements, to not only talk from this point of the world but to create more dialogue between places. I also think about how to see those possibilities through the form, and through the creative process.
NN: I wonder if the medium of the form is also a criteria for you? From your charcoal wall drawings to the sculptures made using cow dung, multani mitti, etc., what is the relationship between the material you work with and the subject matter?
PP: The medium I initially worked with was always charcoal. The connection between mining concerns and my use of charcoal was actually made later, in 2012, when I had started making art on the subject. I do feel it makes the subject matter more relevant, but I was also trying to use other materials like papier-mâché, clay and plaster of Paris. I used them to make small sculptures, since I didn’t have a studio space back then. [But] I didn’t want to use materials that were toxic, and I have stopped using them in my larger works. Since studying in MSU Baroda, I always knew that I wanted to use natural materials which would be more relevant to the subject. There’s more of an earthen feel, when you look at these elements and when you see the labour put into it. At the same time, they are very fragile. When I make sculptures out of clay, using cow dung, gum Arabic, rice husk or papier-mâché, though they look really strong and robust, I can also feel their fragility. In terms of the process of creation as well, I have found that I like the way I use these materials. The process of sculpting feels more performative, and when I start working on these, I like to involve myself entirely. It is always like this kind of performance for me, when I create these works.
NN: Can you tell us a bit about the autobiographical element in your work? How have your experiences in Chandrapur, growing up around the mining community determined the content of your work?
PP: I spent my early childhood in Sasti, in the Chandrapur District of Maharashtra, where I was born. My family had ancestral farming land from our maternal grandfather and he was the first person to have the coal-mining job in our family. My mother told me that we had to give up some of our farming lands for his job. After that in 1984, my brother got a coal mining job with Western Coalfields Ltd., on the basis of acquiring our farming land. By the time I was born, there was no farming land in our family.
Usually, only one family member would get a mining job as compensation for their farming land, leaving the rest of the family dependent on him/her. This is been going on for generations. Like other families living in Sasti colliery, there are many families in different villages and towns, in and around Chandrapur district, who are in similar situations. There are also entire villages which have been displaced.
Land acquisition is still happening in the name of development and job opportunities, but things have not changed for families there. People have to still face health and security issues, andfarmershavetofacethe impact of pollution on their crops. Now, Western Coalfields Ltd. is planning to acquire farming land near Sakhari, which is 9 kilometers from Sasti. But WCL is not promising jobs for family members, and are proposing to give 8 lakh rupees as compensation instead.
This social environment and these situations are so intense that one cannot stay uninfluenced. As I grew as an artist, I use art to express and explore all these influences.
NN: Studying in Baroda seems to have been a turning point for you, in terms of questioning and refining your practice. What were the influences there and how did it change the way you work as an artist?
PP: For me, it was very difficult initially because I wasn’t able to explain myself and my work the way I can now. But the experience really inspired me to think deeply and with clarity about what I was trying to create and who it was for. I would observe how my seniors Mrugen Rathore and Sandip Pisalkar created their work. I explored the history and literature departments, and my teachers were able to help me a lot. K.P. Soman, our visiting faculty in the sculpture department, as well as Indrapramit Roy and B. V. Suresh from the painting department, really helped me to articulate my practice and follow my interest.
It was important for me to have that opportunity as a student. During my final year I started to really question myself as an artist, and I actually destroyed a lot of the work I had created in first year. As teachers, Tushar Joag and Deepak Kannal really helped me in conceptualising and giving my work direction. When Tushar told me about the 2010 mining accident in Chile, it really triggered something in me. Before that, I had never thought that I could turn to my own experiences and my hometown as a subject for my work. I was also learning how to think conceptually, and this is when I started using stop-motion animation, shadow projection, and breaking forms. I used human figures without heads or with heads that served as metaphors. All of this started there, and I’m so thankful to have had that atmosphere at Baroda.
NN: You studied sculpture, but your talent at wall drawings is undeniable. Did you have tutelage in drawing, especially wall drawing?
PP: I used to practice drawing even before I went to IKSVV Khairagarh University. In Khairagharh, at the Fine Art department, it was compulsory to make 100 or 200 sketches every day besides other studies and sometimes we used to make large-scale sketches. Our seniors or teachers would follow those sketches and would tell us how to make it better. I have learnt a lot from these practices. My perspective of looking at things was completely changed after a few months of practice. I continued that practice for four years, and it was helpful for making sculptures as well.
I never received any tutelage for wall drawing, but I always wanted to do large-scale drawings. The skill for making wall drawings was quite natural to me and I believe it happened through practice. When I do wall drawings, I am very confident about my judgment, scale and proportion. For me, wall drawings are very performative, especially the large-scale works.
Most of the time I have used charcoal as my main medium, this medium is very quick and has a deep graphic quality and a certain sense of temporality that intrigues me. The method of carving is almost like responding to mine working as well. Both visually and conceptually, it is most appropriate for wall drawings and the stop motion animation.
NN: The forms that populate your work are striking. You seem to be interested in the human body as a site of labour, and tools and technology as extensions of the body. Can you talk a bit about how that relationship plays out in your work?
PP: As a visual artist, I think you need to have both a vision and also powerful imagery. I always ask myself: how can I make this simpler, but more powerful as well? When I think about images, I think about the meaning and metaphors. I actually hunt for metaphors. For example, if I use a plough, I don’t have to create the faces of farmers because the plough represents the entire community. There are also owls as metaphors for coal miners’ lamps. I use these kinds of elements, as well as poetry and literature, especially Marathi literature, to help me create layers of meaning in my work.
When I was in college my early influences were the plays by Mahesh Elkunchwar such as Yatanaghar (The Chamber of Anguish), Wada Chirebandi (Old Stone Mansion), and Party (there is also a film based on this play directed by Govind Nihalani). Later, I was introduced to other Marathi writers and poets by Manoj Bobade (poet and writer) and Shrikant Puranik (artist, writer, and poet). They introduced me to Vijay Tendulkar, Dilip Chitre, Narayan Surve, Shanta Shelake, Vishu Sakharam Khandekar, and Manik Sitaram Godghate, among others.
The Poem "Ti Geli Tevha Rimzhim", which is also a song composed by Hridayanath Mangeshkar, was influential for me. This poem keeps inspiring me, with its forms of expression and metaphors. The owl, the landscape and darkness, which have multiple meanings, referring to the darkness of the underground or the darkness inside humans. Other novels helped me understand [ideas of] politics, human behaviour, unity, love and divergence in our society.
As I was travelling in 2014, I started to document things as well. I would take photographs of machines and tools, and later I would think about how to use these in my work. So you’ll see the newspaper, the mining map, the headlamp, the pesticide pump -- I used these to create a different kind of language which felt more relevant but also had multiple layers within them.
NN: You have said that ‘most of my work is all about anxiety.’ What kind of anxiety is this?
PP: When I say anxiety, it was from those experiences in my earlier works when I was recalling my childhood. It’s the anxieties of people's displacement and the labour conditions. When I visited these mines, I saw the anxieties of people in their eyes. When someone from your family goes to work, you don’t know if they are going to come back or not. Coal mining is that dangerous a job. There is also the anxiety of farmers, which I connected to mining, and my black-and-white drawings express those fears.
NN: Your recent work seems to be intertwined with the farmers’ marches that we’ve been seeing in the country, where they are quite literally using their bodies as tools of protest. How do your experiences documenting these marches translate into your work?
PP: Yes, I have been talking about farmer suicides, cotton farmers, and other issues like this since about 2013, and I have also made works where I talk about farmers’ collectives from my hometown and otherplaces. Butit wasin2017, when I readNatasha Ginwala’s essay about my show Shadows on Arrival, where she mentions a farmer protest in Rajasthan where they buried themselves, that I started thinking about how farmers are using their bodies. In 2018, I came across the farmers’ long march from Nasik to Bombay. That was really intense, the 200 kilometer walk. I started to think about the performative aspect of this resistance and how things are changing and farmers are trying to protest in different ways. So I used the significance of the march, the significance of performance and how bodies have been used, in my work. At the Kochi Biennale I wanted to show these people, to show their faces and not to use tools instead, because they were expressions that said ‘we exist.’ That was what I wanted to capture. I see myself as a spokesperson, I am talking for them and I am concerned about these communities.
NN: Can you talk a little about your upcoming work? What has been occupying your mind recently?
PP: I have been working on a continuation of these forms that have been on my mind, from the march, for a project with Art Dubai. I’m also trying to think on a more international scale, after seeing farmers’ protests in Spain and Scotland, and connecting those ideas to larger ones about resistance and survival. With COVID-19, I think we’ll see a lot more suffering, with food and survival being more difficult in the future. So I have been thinking about these situations.
I’m also working on a project involving miners’ banners in England. This is for a project in October of this year, in Cardiff. I have been studying the banners made by the miners for their strikes and rallies. In Durham, UK, there were professionals who used to paint these huge banners. They’re so beautiful. I’m interested in those images because they have several kinds of symbols, images, and metaphors. There is one image of a black person shaking hands with a white man. That was something that interested me because it talks about a certain time period when black people were involved in the mining sector in England. There’s a history of migration through mining itself. I’m thinking about creating my own banner for this exhibition, using different visuals.
NN: The gallery note for your latest show says: “Beneath the Palpable proposes as much a state of disarray as it indicates a chance of optimism.” Would you agree with that? Are you optimistic?
PP: Yes, of course. I am hopeful because without having hope, things will never get better. I think there is always a utopia/dystopia in my work. There is always light coming in from somewhere, maybe a lamp or a torch. So, there is grief, but there is also hope.