The artist discusses his retrospective ‘Walking Through Soul City,’ at the NGMA. Mumbai.
Walking Through Soul City, Sudhir Patwardhan: A Retrospective spans five decades of the artist’s expansive oeuvre across 200 works, from his early socialist reflections to representations of the city and the self. The show will be on view till February 12, 2020.
Nadia Nooreyezdan: I’m interested in the title of the exhibition: Walking Through Soul City. or in Hindi / Urdu - Ek Sair Ruh ke Sheher Main . It evokes a sense of ghostliness and spectres of your previous show, but also of time and loss. In her curatorial note, Nancy Adajania refers to the idea of the soul as a ‘homeless phantom.’ What was the idea behind this name and how do you think it relates to the work?
Sudhir Patwardhan: The name is a contribution of Nancy Adajania the curator I liked it because both the city and the idea of walking have been primary influences for my practice. As Nancy explains, if you consider the ‘soul’ as aatma, you wonder if it is right for a materialistic kind of painter, but because of the Urdu roots of Ruh, it allows for an un-religious meaning as well. I'm not averse to thinking in terms of the sublime or the transcendental, so this captures a wider dimension, rather than being simply documentation or reportage of city life.
NN: I like this idea of walking as well. The figures you portray are often in motion, walking on the streets, but the works imply that you, the artist, are also moving in those environments. You’ve talked before about one of the draws of Bombay being the ability to wander and the accessibility of space. With the privatisation and commercialisation of land in Bombay, how has your ability - or inability - to wander the city affected your work?
SP: I think what has changed is the way in which people think of spaces as accessible or inaccessible. The areas that are not accessible have increased in the last 20 years. Of course, earlier people would still feel like they cannot enter certain places, but those were usually indoor spaces. The roads, the grounds, the outside was accessible to the public. But now we see these large area where wanderers are not wanted. . Unless you’re someone with a job to do there, those spaces are not accessible to you. That is what fragments the city or the experience of the city. It goes against the grain of what one identifies as the openness of Bombay.
NN: Your more recent works seem to reflect this sense of fragmentation, both of the city and of the self. There’s a distortion, not just of landscapes but of the figures within those spaces as well, like in Nagrik (2019). It seems as if you’ve grown alienated from the city, that there’s a withdrawal inward.
SP: Well, there were alienating periods even in the ‘70s. But at the time, I was able to overcome this by identifying with people in a certain way - identifying with the working class and making images that stood for a certain kind of solidarity. Even now, I would not say that my aim in Nagrik is to show fragmentation. I would say that I try to make an image out of what I am experiencing at the time. Some of my work during the ‘90s, like Riot (1996), showed a kind of falling apart of community, and they definitely do show those kinds of tensions within community, which are represented through the beggar or the mad woman. But that’s not all what I intended. I'm not thinking only about the fragmentation, I'm thinking of the opposite - how to hold it all together. Similarly, in my later work, my aim is not to show you the city is a certain negative way. My aim is still to hold on to what may be of value.
NN: You’ve also played with the light and darkness of the city, in the porous divide between the private and the public. Especially in a city like Bombay, we are familiar with the intimacy of looking into people’s domestic lives, and being looked at in turn. Windows then function as entrances into other worlds, sometimes allowing positive/negative forces into the interior space. Can you talk a bit about this inside/outside equation, and perhaps specifically how windows function in your work?
SP: I’ve always been very excited by this binary: when you travel in the local train or bus during the day, for instance, you see all these buildings from the outside. But suddenly at night, the insides light up. Even with spaces like restaurants, when you go inside during the day, you enter a dark place. At night though, the interior is lit and you come inside from the dark. This experience of light and darkness, and what it reveals of people’s lives, is very important to me. All artists are essentially voyeurs because we are hungry for other people’s lives. Inside/outside also becomes a metaphor for one’s own life. You feel a certain way for a place or about people , and although you have an ‘outside’ relationship with them, you start projecting your feelings onto them to understand them better and get closer to them. That then starts to become your ‘inside’, your life. The space / self metaphor can be found in Compass (2017). You may be sitting inside your home and looking out onto the landscape, but when you turn around on the balcony, you are looking into your home. These become metaphors for switching between selves, adopting different viewpoints
NN: So where does the figure of the artist locate itself in this inside/outside relationship? Is it in this limbo space?
SP: Yes, absolutely. That happens in self-portraits also, where you’re looking into the mirror or photographing yourself, but the self is actually hung somewhere in between and you may never be able to put your finger on its exact location. In that sense, all representation is an approximation of the real thing. The real thing and the representation never completely overlap because language always intervenes. There is always this gap. But it is a pregnant gap. All the significant things that get said in art, get said in that gap between language and what is real.
NN: You seem to be tackling this relation of language and representation head-on in your Enigma (2017) paintings.
SP: Right. They’re a kind of intellectual statement about the limitations of representation in a certain language. The truth afforded by a particular language is always limited. Using different languages, you might get at different aspects of things, but you never know whether you have actually represented something real or whether it’s a complete illusion.
NN: A lot has been said about your Marxist leanings and how it informs your early work. Can you talk a bit about how your political consciousness has evolved over the years and how your work has reflected that?
SP: Pre 1976, therewaskindof an existentialist bias in my early work. Since then my work became very strongly Marxist in the sense that I was painting what I believed were statements that I was making on behalf of the working class. But by the ‘80s there was a questioning of the reality of political life. My grounding was in Marxist thought so I had no doubts in my mind about the ideology as such. But how it works in practice and in the real people who embody it, each with their own axe to grind, does change things. Through the ‘80s, I became conscious of what was happening in Russia, and at that point I think I woke up to the fact that the dream was falling apart. My basic humanist ideology didn’t change, but I started realising that power will always lead to certain kinds of issues. Democracy, then, becomes very important, despite its ills. So a social democratic position becomes the one to hold onto, but with a continued grounding in Marxist philosophy as reflected in the works of the ‘80s. Over the years, though, there’s the realisation that violence and hatred will always be a constant. There was also a turn inwards, and I started thinking about what my work has meant to myself. Those questions become more pressing with a growing sense of mortality.
NN: Did the move from a larger political impetus to a more inward assessment change the way you approached your practice? Did it indicate, for instance, a corresponding shift from a depiction of strangers to the domestic sphere?
SP: I wouldn’t say that I have moved to just painting the family. For example, I did a set of fifty portraits over the last three to four years. Many of them were taken from street photographs, which I would look at later and find faces that I wanted to portray. The idea was to get as close as possible to these people. There was a need to relate, a need to be almost intimate with that person. While painting images like Nullah in 1985, which are distanced images where the figures are small and architecture and nature are predominant, I would also do (paintings of) small heads, which would be very intimate. Between 2014 and 2017, I was also working on cityscapes which involved a lot of detailed work, taking six months to complete, so on the side I would do these quick heads. They were a kind of release, fulfilling a certain kind of immediate need, while the larger paintings I had to work at over time. They draw on different aspects of one’s abilities. At one level, one wants to be precise, structured and balanced. But at the same time, one wants to be very spontaneous and drawings allow that.
NN: The intimacy of strangers is compelling in terms of projecting feelings or thoughts onto a person who is not necessarily able to counter them. But I wonder how that equation changes when representing your family and yourself.
SP: It’s much more difficult because with strangers you’re taking more liberties. Of course, even with people I don’t know, I would never want to depict them in a way where they wouldn’t recognise themselves. I’d want them to be able to see themselves in what I’ve created, despite what I have projected on to them. That then becomes a meeting ground, a building of a relationship. But with family, it needs a lot of forgiveness because you want to say something that’s important to you, but that may not be what the other person wants to hear, because it might evoke memories that are not pleasant for them. Yet it feels important for you to say it. So how do you find a middle ground there? With family, although it’s more challenging, I think it’s also more satisfying if you can get it right, because you are taking the relationship to another level. With friends, it’s easier because you are talking about areas of common interest, like with Tim’s World (2018).
NN: Memory also plays a role in how these paintings are structured. We’re looking at Nostalgia (2010) right now, and the landscape is an amalgamation of memories of home. Does that projection of memories extend to the figures in the frame, to your mother, father and wife?
SP: It does, yes. A small photograph I had taken of my wife and mother was the starting point. For many years I felt that the photograph held some meaning for me. [Nostalgia] was painted in 2010 and it’s nostalgia for the period around ’85, when I had painted Town (1984). After painting Town, I had a great sense of satisfaction because it was a release of sorts. It wasn’t necessarily perfect at the time, but there’s a wish that it were so. So it’s nostalgia for that moment but the work also lends a completeness to it that probably didn’t exist in reality, which offers a sense of closure.
NN: In some ways, this retrospective reflects a kind of history of Bombay - of the working class, the riots, and rapid urbanisation. Looking back on the works now, how do you think they function in relation to our present? Are they memories, critiques, warnings?
SP: When I started these works, I didn’t set out to make a statement about the city, it just happened to be my experience at the time. Many architect friends can read this as a narrative of the way in which Bombay has evolved. But I see it as coming to terms with my experiences in those particular periods. My ultimate aim is to make a good painting, which means that your feelings of anger or disappointment or attraction or pleasure should be contained within the structure of the work, without spill over.
NN: In an article you mentioned that the function of the retrospective for the artist, is to be able to “put things together and trace your own development. See what you've done right, what you've done wrong.” Have you started this exercise with this show and are there any reflections or thoughts you could share?
SP: I am still in the process of ‘taking in’ the works in his show. Of understanding the path or paths I have taken. In your youth there’s something that drives you. This drive that tells you ‘You have to do it like this’ , no questions are asked. But somewhere along the line, the questioning starts to become more persistent. Is what you are doing right? Do you have a right to do this, in this way? These questions might become inhibitive, which is of course a bad thing to happen. But they can also start to give your work a maturity that you don’t see earlier. Some loss, some gain. And your experience changes with age, some things are inevitable, some a result of the choices you have made. I think there are many things about myself for me to learn from this exhibition, but it will take time. I’ll let it take its time.