Gayatri Sinha: You came to Bombay in the early 1970’s?
Sudhir Patwardhan: I came to Bombay in 1974 from Poona after I finished medical college.
GS: What was the encounter with the city like? Was the dominant impression one of rampant growth or was it one of the power of the city?
SP: I think definitely the power of the city, the energy, the movement and to be a part of this big machine and also being a part of the masses. I used to travel everyday to work in Thane (a suburb). There was a kind of endlessness of the city, no matter how long I would travel in a bus or a train for two hours the city would continue.
GS: Your early paintings present the street view and that implies a certain kind of objectification or a certain distance from this enormous building activity. The Kundan Shah film Jaane bhi do Yaaron is also about something similar, about Bombay in the 70s, massive construction and about the building mafia.
SP: That’s right. I was initially staying and working in a hospital in the mill areas, central Bombay. The mills were very much alive then; the building bit was at the periphery, in the suburbs of the city. In 1978 we moved to Thane.
GS: Thane must have been being built at this time?
SP: In 1978 it was like a satellite town. I think the mid-80s was the time when the housing phase started in Thane. It was around this time that I started recording the Pokhran series. I started painting an area called Pokhran where the landscape with areas like Powai, Pokhran started changing visually in the mid 80s.
GS: A lot of these works in this exhibition are about the interiors…So does that imply a certain sort of acceptance of the city, the domestic within the city?
SP: The city continued to be a source in various ways - either street level or panoramas. The interiors started around 2005 but I also continued doing cityscapes.
GS: And you were working as a radiologist with a regular job all this while?
SP: Till 2005. Till then the city remains as exterior, on the outside; though the dialogue of the exterior and the interior or inner and outer continued between those works also. There is the view of the city from inside a café or inside someone’s house with that inside-outside view. Essentially they were cityscapes.
Around 2005 there was one set of paintings I did of my studio. That was the first time I was trying to talk of the city as seen from inside a space and looking out, and how that gets transformed in the painting. And after 2008 there was a shift towards painting family interiors and the family fiction series. Our grandson was born in 2008 which was the first impulse to paint the family.
GS: Did that also bring you back to a sense of recall and to your own childhood?
SP: Our grandson was born and the idea of what it meant to be a son or a father or grandfather intrigued me. I started examining these roles and they started seeping into the paintings. The complicated feelings, about family, about guilt for instance with parents, wondering if you have done enough for them in their last days, untold stories, things which were never said but wished they would come out. So that was the period when the interior was dealt with, the family and the city sort of receded.
Again in 2013-2014 I made a work for the Mahindras which was about the city. It is a large work - 7 1/2 x 28 feet painted on seven panels. It is constructed as if they are separate panels. But there is a movement that connects all of them. There are multiple views in each panel. There is a historical narrative about the city from the colonial times to the present. So that was again engaging with the city in a major way for two years. But these present works return to the interiors all over again. Now it’s less about family and more about self, companionship, people living together, though not always in conversation. It’s about what companionship can mean, the way it allows each to be alone within that too…
GS: But there is also a sense of when you are within this space, of looking out at the city. In the early works we don’t have a sense of looking at the city from a single point of view or a single vantage figure. But here you have created this figure - your wife or yourself, looking out at being seen or coming in through the window…
SP: Yes as one is examining one’s relationship not just with the city or the home but generally to what one sees; the relationship of the viewer with what is seen and the question of representation. How we represent the world to ourselves also becomes very important.
GS: Would you agree then that in your work there is a sense of absence of dialogue? Even in the early work there is no space for dialogue it is just the overpowering city and the way it is represented. Here too, the figures are not engaging, they are spatially connected but they are not necessarily engaging with each other. In fact one or the other is being faced by the city. Time and again the city becomes the point of reference.
SP: Maybe, but I would see it as two people occupying the same space and the kind of things that a companionship allows, it allows you to be alone within that. Imagine companionship as a whole, it allows you that security and yet you can be alone within it, without any need to speak. With age that need to continuously engage in dialogue becomes much lesser.
GS: Is that a relief?
SP: It is a relief. You don’t need to say so many things. You can be quiet and just speak with yourself and yet be together. To contemplate all kinds of relationships with the world becomes more possible without the intrusion of having to explain or accommodate someone else’s position. But what you are saying is true; the people are in a sense separate.
GS: I was interested in your work as a radiologist where you are looking at another kind of frame, that is looking inside the body and very often that could be the diseased body. Two things seem to suggest themselves: one is perhaps the sickness of the body and the sickness of the city - is there some sort of coherence over there? Secondly that you are outside all the time; that you are the onlooker. Did you see any kind of relationship with your medical work and your representation of the city?
SP: I can’t say that I thought of it in those terms. For me throughout my radiology practice I was most interested in the person that I was x-raying as a human, rather than his body parts. That was of paramount importance. I was good at reading x-rays because I was trained in a certain way and because I was a painter I probably was trained to see images but drawing a parallel between that kind of thing and reading of the city is not something that occurred to me.
GS: I was thinking of your position of looking out from the outward in, and if you sometimes see a pathology, with a greater degree of discernment.
SP: I havealwaysseen myself as a participant in the pathology and even in the city. I have always seen myself as a part of it, never as an outsider. This inside-outside, subjective-objective state is fluid.
GS: That seems to be the crux of the work…
SP: When travelling in the night in the city in a train for example you are looking into the houses of people and the sense of invading their space is stark. The way in which this inside-outside is continuously interacting with each other interests me.
GS: So some of these people from your practice are they imaginary figures, people you see on the street, do you work with photographs? What is the technique?
SP: I take a lot of street photographs just walking in the street and clicking. Every photograph will capture atleast 20 faces here and there. I am not focusing on clicking any particular person but I am looking at the photographs to search, so that I might extract some feature, many are sourced from that. A lot of them are remembered faces, which remain in your mind, one gets home and makes a quick sketch. That is another source. And third is imagined. Then there are also found photographs like I saw a Kashmiri youth in a press photograph in the newspaper and it struck me so I kept that. I apply thick impasto paint and try to make a face in that, so they are totally imaginary.
GS: What do you think of your relationship with these people?
SP: This is something I have thought of for many years. I have worked with pencil, pastel heads, terracotta heads, and now on wood panel, so I have done heads over the years. I am attracted to an aspect of the face whether it’s imagined or seen or remembered. I’m attracted to them in a physical sense. It’s the face that I would like to touch or hold. It is that physical attraction and as a counter impulse, I want to show that person’s life, not my attraction.
GS: Are you then asking us to read the face?
SP: Yes, I would say imagine his look, his skin colour, the redness in the eyes and there is a certain kind of gentleness on the face. So you wonder what kind of a man or woman would he or she be? Would he or she be pained or depressed? There is a story that lies hidden in every face.
GS: What is interesting is the painterly quality in the faces changes tremendously.
SP: Yes so when I see for example say a pillion rider at a signal and I see the movement, I want to trace that.
GS: What is the dialogue like with somebody who has passed on, like your father, when he populates the painting in the later phase of your career? Is it an act of resolution of things left unsaid? In the work Father Story where the mother figure lies on her bed inside and she looks like the one who must endure the trauma of separation.
SP: Yes it is difficult to say. There is something that impels you to revisit those areas. They may be very spontaneous; you just want to hold onto memories. For example, you’re in school and you are doing your homework and your mother is next to you and by mistake she drops the bottle of ink on to your homework and it gets spoilt. At that moment she is feeling very bad about it and you are angry that she has done this to your homework. You are not going to resolve it ever but you need to hold onto it and get over it. Or for instance, when one in the family is ill for a long time and you have to take care of the person or moments when you hope the person passes on but one always holds the guilt of having felt that. It’s a common thing. One needs to hold onto to these things that he/she has felt.
GS: What is the impulse behind it? Is it guilt?
SP: It definitely is yes! It’s the hope of becoming a better person. That this will help make amends next time. It’s not so much about resolution as it is about accepting in a way and being able to bring that to the work.
GS: You have here the recurring figure on the bed, and a man who is lying and thinking, is he partially a subject of exhaustion but also of contemplation, of dredging up memory etc.?
SP: Yes. Nostalgia is often seen as a negative thing but I think it’s extremely important to go back to the past and just to live that past, not in terms of trying to solve the problems, but to keep it alive.
GS: Perhaps it’s your own predilection that you are more preoccupied with the past than with the present or with the future.
SP: The present is always something that you need to handle and deal with. The past is like two minutes that close. What I’ve just said now or done in two minutes is the past and what I said fifty years back is also the past.
GS: And at times it’s so vivid and at times it becomes the determining reason for being who we are today…
SP: Yes there’s this beautiful line in the Dharmapada which says something to the effect that what I am today comes from my thoughts of yesterday and my present thoughts will shape my tomorrow.
GS: In the paintings there are some kinds of phantom elements. Then there are these kinds of translucent bars and they all create a certain dissonance with the way the images are received realistically. And thirdly the figures that betray a sense of either exhaustion or acceptance of sorrow.
SP: Structurally, I think it’s most important for me to be able to read space. Firstly to be able to talk of my experience and to evolve a language wherein I talk about the context in which this experience is taking place. So the context comes within the space in which I live, to evolve certain strategies, to open up the space to the viewer or myself and to allow enough movement. So it’s not only about the space that one can see from the outside but a space where one has multiple points of entry and also that one can move from one place to another in that space. So that structural thing is something that I’m always looking at.
GS: To make the site accessible for your own self? That you can create a structure of movement within so that when we look at it we understand?
SP: I am thinking about the unreal.
GS: Yes because this spectre was not common to your earlier work.
SP: The real can feel fully real only if it is in context of that unreality. For ordinary figures to be absolutely real, there has to be something extra in them something that takes them beyond that action as such. For example, you are walking on the road and you see someone catch a bus, everything that he/she did can be explained by intention of catching the bus. In that action as you have followed it there is something else, something about being human or vibrant. What one is looking for is something extra in everyday life. Something that takes it beyond the everyday, so the spectre probably comes from this kind of impulse.
GS: And the treatment of light in this show is much defused so it’s not just the hard edges of the city walls or anything like that…You present some figures in the paintings as ifthey arelooking into mirrors, and the viewer becomes the mirror substitute.
SP: Yes that’s absolutely right. It’s the experience that one has if you look at a self-portrait of Rembrandt. The first impression is that you are seeing this person looking at himself in a mirror. Then you feel that the stare actually is in seeing you, that Rembrandt is looking at you. And then what that does to you is that you start looking at yourself through him in a sense. This reversal takes place through the mirror whenever you are confronted with a look or a reflection.
GS: As we are speaking I realize that I started by saying that in the work there is no dialogue but in all the work there is presence…you are inviting us to the streets of Bombay, to the house, into some sort of exchange. The invitation or the presence of the viewer is very profound. Would you agree with that?
SP: Yes. I think the viewer is very much a part of this whole process.
At one level, it’s like a puzzle. You can never stop wondering about how this is done. Everytime you look at it, perspective changes.
GS: This figure is represented with the impossible triangle?
SP: Yes so if the object can’t exist can the person exist? Very interestingly a person who saw this painting wrote to me his response: at first he saw the man deep in thought handling this impossible object. It is always like this he thought. What happens in life is that you are trying to understand life and you are almost getting there, it slips away. You can never get to the truth of something… It looks convincing but it slips again…
GS: So you would be seeking meaning in a sense in ordinary life or ordinary existence? You have never allowed yourself to look at something more because art can allow release from the everyday…but you imprint yourself in the everyday, even as you try to seek some release from it.
SP: Yes I wouldn’t say release. There is no release. Once you are born you have to live and seek meaning. It will always evade you. Even science does not give you concrete proof of anything and as they say you will always wonder where truth lies…does it lie in the world or does it lie in language?
GS: What about metaphysics?
SP: Even metaphysics. Within language you construct a certain meaning which is supposed to be what the world is like. But you’ll never know what the world is really like and this is true of science as well as metaphysics. Was Newton more correct than Galileo? Was Einstein more correct than Newton? In a way yes. But has that brought us closer to the truth of what the world is like? Philosophers of science will not commit to that. They will say the newer theories serve our present day purposes better. It may not be same for another species in the universe. We will not know what the ultimate truth about the world is but we will keep seeking it and along the way our purposes will evolve and so will our means of fulfilling those purposes.
GS: So in these domestic interiors do the figures seek relative truth? Is that the pursuit or is it just the acceptance of existence because that seems to be the overwhelming thematic of the show - acceptance of once you are here you have to go through it - that kind of thing.
SP: Acceptance is not resignation. You’ll always seek and you don’t seek it as relative. It needs to be true for you. You need to believe in it.
GS: And when you do the physicality of these structures becomes less pressing, less material, less relevant in a sense. They don’t contain you in quite the same way. You transform your truth in a sense or your own truth within these interiors.
Would you agree that very substantial changes came about in the way that you were composing your work? And the relationship with your subjects post your medical professional days to post 2005? This shift from the exterior into interior? This shift from very palpable material reality to the present.
SP: I would say it’s a shift in emphasis not really a change in orientation. Even in the very early single figures of the working class like in Irani Restaurant or others I have been interested in how the figure occupies space…
GS: He is quite overwhelming in that space whereas these figures are somewhat shrunk. He occupies space with a much more positive physicality.
SP: Absolutely but I would say that this is a change of emphasis with age .Your experience of your own body changes, thoughts change, feelings change and with all this the perception of space changes. But I don’t see it necessarily as a drastic change of orientation.
GS: From that huge panorama of the city you land up in your living space. It’s quite a journey. What are the challenges for you as an artist? What is it that preoccupies you formally or technically which would be a part of this journey?
SP: There are many actually. Painterliness is one thing, what is it being painterly? I look at various works of art, various periods, I look at different ways paint can be put on canvas so there is no one particular way to be painterly.
One way of being painterly is to emphasize the material of paint, to make the brush mark with the impasto of the thickness of paint visible, which is done in some of these heads. Another way that I saw was Breugel's way, no brush mark, quite flat but one wants to see every small detail like in the miniatures with a magnifying glass. What is it that you are looking for? Not because they are done so well or for their correctness but they are done with so much love and care. One can immediately see what is done mechanically and what is done with care. That is painterly too!
GS: So that is a major preoccupation for you?
SP: To make each thing that you put on canvas, each mark that you make whichever way you do it, it should be done in a painterly way…
The other very important element for me is structure. Ultimately a painting works on the basis of its structure. Structure is something that speaks to an inner need for restructuring one’s sensibility. You approach the world with needs and a certain rhythm exploring the world that you come to and then restructure that world in the image of those needs. These two things have to come together. There is this abstract kind of flow, rhythm, break, movement, much like in music.
GS: This is an architectonic kind of build up of the work.
SP: This has to do with the abstract structure of silence, movements and rhythms. Visually that has to come and meet the external form and transform it in that way.
GS: What is the role of memory in painting?
SP: In the painting Another Day in the Old City, it comes from revisiting these areas of childhood in Poona. Both adulthood and youth are layered one over the other. A lot of it has changed; a lot of it has not changed. I structure these impressions with the help of other memories; memories of other paintings.
GS: In yourpaintings doyou think of sound at all? For all its easiness it’s very silent work as were your big panoramas there is also a sense of a very overwhelming silence.
SP: Yes. I think silence and sound are both important. They are like figure and ground, movement and pause. In constructing space the relation between sound and silence becomes important.