Published in ‘Family Fiction’ exhibition catalogue, Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai and Lalit kala Akademi, New Delhi, 2011

The work presented in this exhibition marks a change in course for me. Stories about people continue to be the main focus, but the source of these stories has changed. My last exhibition was dominated by large cityscapes and by images of street violence and killings. These themes were in continuation of my long preoccupation with the life of the city and the idea of community. I was also concerned about the threat to that idea of community in recent times. The current body of work is a turning away from these overtly social concerns. The space of the family has acquired greater importance in my work in the past two years. Many of the works in this show are interiors and images of people at home. They are family narratives. There are some questions I normally ask myself about my work. Questions to do with the justification for the work, and to do with how authentically my relationship with people is reflected in it. These questions have not changed. But they have a different feel now, when asked in the context of family experience, rather than in a wider social context.

The immediate trigger for this change in course of my work may have been the birth of our grandson. As a grandparent, one begins to think differently about one’s own complex experiences of having been a father and a son. This thinking, directly or indirectly, has influenced the current body of work. The challenge in some of these paintings was to allow competing views of the self as son, father and grandfather to be articulated. Apart from the father and son relation, or speaking more generally, the parent and offspring relation, the other primary narrative unfolding in a home space, and in many ways constituting it, is of course the relation between husband and wife, between man and woman. Thoughts about the husband-wife relation inform many of the works too, becoming the main focus of some drawings.

The space of the home is essentially an interior with possibly a view of the outside through a window. It is within this restricted space that these family narratives unfold. The paintings are mostly about familiar situations, familiar thoughts and feelings. Sometimes they look below the surface to explore impulses that we would like to keep hidden. But mostly they seek to embody daily experience. There is no attempt here to question or subvert any traditional familial identities. Only to remind ourselves of things we already know.

In the painting ‘Family’, cross currents of happiness, expectations and disappointments hold the figures together. Handing over responsibilities and moving off-center, the older couple face-up to a feeling of redundancy, as the younger couple begin to build their universe around a new center. It is a familiar and inevitable situation, the difficulties of which families manage with varying degrees with love and patience. This work was in a sense the starting point of the current series of works. In a different register, the enclosed space of the home is opened out, exploded even, in the painting ‘Family Fiction’. Images from cinema and art intrude into the home space, causing multiple figures from different worlds to collide. Fantasies are relived. Time scales collapse. Composite personages of father and son emerge through overlaps. The landscape in the background sets the tone for a retrospective reconfiguration of life through art.

Passing through middle age and growing old together with your partner is for most couples a tragic-comic journey. Many of the brush drawings are about the ups and downs in this journey. Apart from the daily household demands made on it, the husband-wife relation is subject to the high voltage of sexual impulses, making it a testing ground on which all the expectations and frustrations of a man-woman relation are played out. It can breed violence, as well as patient understanding.

Sickness and death are an integral part of every family story. Some of the drawings look at the sick bed as a place of waiting, anticipation. In the painting ‘Full Circle’ each member of the family is waiting for sickness to be over, either through death or through a return to normalcy. The waiting wears away pretence and seems to expose the true wishes of these members. Death of a family member can be devastating, or it can be a relief. Most times our feelings in this regard are ambivalent. The finality of death usually helps to protect us from this ambivalence after the event. But the imagined - feared or hoped for - death of people still living exposes our deepest confusions. This ambivalence leads the mind into dark alleys where every death could be a killing.

The need to deal with the image of ‘death through killing’ is wide spread and recurrent in every art form. The need is deep. I have been drawn to images of piles of dead bodies. The 20th century has been amply generous in providing such images. Feelings of anger, guilt and fascination are so entwined in seeking and looking at these images that it is difficult to know why one seeks them. And, I have been fascinated, equally, by Gustav Klimt’s erotic image of a pile of naked female bodies; the source image of the ceiling in my painting ‘Gray Chamber’, in which, below, dead bodies are piled on a table. Suppressed violence, fed by sexual impulses probably brought these two images together in my mind. It took me many months to make a start on this work. The conjoined image was clearly formed in my mind but I did not know what justified it. Was it self-flagellatory, or indulgent? I could not be sure. In the end I took the plunge, deciding to trust in the insistent presence of the image itself, and hoping to validate it through the act of painting.

In ‘Visitation’, another kind of coming together takes place. Memory of a puzzling and shocking experience and attraction of a particular view from a window, come together, evoking a dream. Thoughts of health and ill health, debility and transcendence are woven into the narrative. The outside and the inside are equally balanced in this image, but the complexities and conflicts inherent in the conjunction of outside and inside spaces somehow become explicit for me in this work.

There are many paintings in this exhibition in which the window plays an important role. The window opens the space of the home to the outside - mostly to the city. The frame of the window is a threshold. The view of the city through the window can be alluring. This may be due to the way the space of the room from which the city is seen, excludes the city. The sense of being in one space, looking out on another, of being receptive to the outside, yet safe inside, is explored in the small ‘Window’ works. But the inside is not always experienced as safe, and the allure of the outsidemaybethat of possible release from too tight an enclosure. Either way, the window allows a conjunction between the spaces of the inside and the outside, keeping the distance between them intact. This helps me express my need for both.

There was a time in the mid eighties when the outside - the landscape, the town, felt like an inside suffused by light. The painting ‘Nostalgia’ is about that time. Nostalgia for an imagined harmony. I say imagined, because the harmony was of course only partly real. Both the city and the home in which this imagination was active were sites of discord as well. They were sites of longing for harmony. And so the painting is also about nostalgia for that longing.

There are some images of single figures in this exhibition like the ‘Migrant’, ‘Back’, ‘Injured’, ‘Jogger’ and some others, that connect most closely to my previous work. With these I retain my sense of continuity with previous preoccupations, the human figure itself being the prime preoccupation. No matter how many times and how many ways the human figure has been done before, it is always waiting to be redone, to be remade. I suppose we will always continue to seek the human in plausible and believable reincarnations.

After painting the street at eye level, as a participant in its life for many years, I think about my present retraction into the home space, and what this move may mean. Has street life lost its attraction or compulsion for me? Has it become more difficult to endure? Or is this homeward turn a turn towards something that seems more important and challenging now, or just more to the point? Over time, my work has moved between opposite poles, oscillating like a pendulum. It has moved from the clinically objective to the very subjective, from intimacy to distance and back. The current retraction indoors too is probably a phase and will pass. But before it does, one must explore whole heartedly the place one finds oneself in, and give to one’s present need its due.

Sudhir Patwardhan,

November 2010

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