‘As above, so below’
- Hermetic axiom
‘All that is yonder is also Here.’
‘Whatever is here, that is There.
Whatever is There, that again is here.’
The paths that lead from the material to the spiritual world and vice versa are uncharted in the normal sense of the word, and therefore unpredictable. Nevertheless that geography has been traversed by many artists in different ways. They have gone back and forth across these two domains, sometimes with open eyes, fully aware of the project they were undertaking, at other times without a completely conscious awareness but with unerring instinct even so.
Sudhir Patwardhan would feel uncomfortable about the word ‘spiritual’ being applied to his painting Ulhasnagar. The commitment to Marxist ideology at the start of his career, subsequently modified by doubt and questioning, continues to be a presence today. The aspect of the ideology that possibly has strongest hold on him is confidence in the material world. The material world, Patwardhan might say, cannot be the illusion that some spiritualists would have us believe. It is the only world we have, with any certainty. To deprecate it would be folly.
Ulhasnagar has all the qualities that would merit its being categorised as a materialistic work. Its feet are strongly planted on the earth. There are no wild perspectives, no yearning distortions. But there are a large number of adjustments, each so apparently slight that at first glance the painting might appear deceptively commonplace. These adjustments act in concert to give a nudge to the painting. The materialism is not thereby derailed. The painting simply tells us that possibly there is no contradiction in its claming to belong to another domain as well.
To take the message of the three quotations at the head of these few paragraphs of comment -- if the artist were to be consistently loyal to the presents of the material world he might stumble upon the spiritual, thereby confirming the assertion of mystics who speak of the unity of experience.
The work is conceived as a monumental horizontal in four panels, each panel being four feet square. When set up on the wall a slight gap of space is intended between adjacent panels. The painting is visually continuous from one panel to the next, but the gaps in space act as a break on our presumption.
Each panel depicts sky, buildings, river and earth, reading from top to below. These form four bands moving in a continuum from left to right. It is one sweep of a landscape, but colour, tonality, mood, poetic essence varies surprisingly in the four panels.
In the leftmost panel the river starts from a pale purple, advancing to become a rich mauve. It is both refreshing water and chemically polluted drainage. The rippling of the river is as one would expect it t be. In the second panel the rippling changes to become a disturbing vortex, the colour is a churning crimson. The carcass of a dead buffalo floats on the bank. The buildings towering above the bank are cavernous, with dramatic lighted and dark windows. If you were to step into that vortex of water you might enter hell.
From the third panel on the river stages a king of recovery, the fourth giving us a steady flow in a landscape bordering the city. The reflections of built structures in the river change qualitatively from panel to panel. In the last, rightmost panel they are almost not reflections but material reality itself, stilled and inverted, one more reference to alternative worlds.
The colours in Ulhasnagar move from deep tones to what one may call pastelisation -- powder blues, pinks, pale violets, light greens. It cannot be a coincidence that painters often veer towards these shades when they are evoking specific psychic experiences, the fading etherealisation of colour in Fra Angelico for instance.
If Patwardhan were to name one painter to pay tribute to in the context of Ulhasnagar it would undoubtedly be Peter Breughel. The earthy Flemish painter is here surprised, at the location of one of our grimiest urban centres, by a whisper from the subtle world.
From the exhibition catalogue published by Sakshi Gallery (2001).