Drawing from Life

Within the art school studio, the human body is put under intense scrutiny in a typical figure drawing class. The model strikes a pose against a blank backdrop, usually for a stipulated period of time. Professional studio models hardly move, they keep their eyes fixed in one direction offering a blank stare without batting the eyelid. Time stands still. With every passing minute this performance detaches the model from the context of it’s being with the backdrop offering no distractions for the young art student to carefully record the tonalities of skin, volume and an accurate study of shade and light.

This is the general training that most art schools offer in the figure study class, a complete understanding of bodily proportions and its foreshortening being integral to the rendition of the human figure. In this pursuit of perfect documentation, the model who moves the least becomes the ideal subject and the student who succeeds in most faithfully recording the model’s physical likeness becomes the most accomplished student.

Sudhir Patwardhan didn’t attend the conventional art class in an art institute. His study of the human body however comes from another kind of orientation. He began his training in medicine at the Armed Forces Medical College, Pune in the late sixties. Out of a newly developed interest in art he would carry his sketchpad to the rail and bus stations, capturing on paper the commuters and coolies, vagrants and vendors as they went about their daily activity. His subjects were never reduced to objects by the placement of a neutralizing backdrop or by the immobility of a frozen pose. He would vigorously capture the human figure in its active habitat while navigating the interlacing warp and weft of a strife-ridden urban fabric.

Drawn towards the tenets of Existentialism and Marxism, Patwardhan in his early twenties, was forming his world-view, trying to locate himself in the complex cartography of social class and examining the purpose and consequence of one’s actions in the world. His measurements of the human figure were not about the mere examination of light, shade and skin tones but the illusive chiaroscuro of class-hierarchies and human struggles, an artistic preoccupation that continues to this day.

The Fight of the Feet

Present day Mumbai (formerly Bombay) was an archipelago of seven islands; a city of hope created by levelling land and reclaiming sea. In the late seventies Mumbai witnessed a construction boom and a massive population explosion due to the daily arrival of scores of migrants. This was also the time when Sudhir Patwardhan, newly married, was setting up home in Mumbai. After living in various parts of Mumbai his wife and he decided to settle in Thane, a satellite township on the outskirts of Mumbai in 1977. Incidentally, the first railway train in India ran from Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus Station to Thane in 1853 and ever since the township has remained umbilically linked to Mumbai, bordering the North Eastern periphery of its sprawling suburbia.

Mumbai has a population of 17 million and Thane of over a million making them amongst the most congested urban agglomerations anywhere on this planet. This is indeed a testing place where commuters struggle to elbow their way onto the overcrowded railway line, that alone claims about 4000 lives annually by way of numerous gory accidents. It is said that at peak hours, 5000 commuters cling onto trains designed for a mere 1700 people.

Mumbai and Thane are minefields of contradictions; at once dynamic and dysfunctional, they form a heady hodgepodge of languages, castes, religions and class difference. Life in the gargantuan metropolis goes on, precariously balancing commerce and corruption, affluence and abject poverty, swelling real estate prices and rampant homelessness. Yet this highly polluted conurbation becomes an incubator of national culture and progressive thought, producing films, fashion statements, popular music and an array of colourful street vernaculars that blend words from all parts of India into the national Language Hindi to form the unique Bambaiya (or Mumbaiya) Hindi. The city also dangles between two names with the population divided on whether they are actually Mumbaikars or Bombayites.

The Paintings

The four large paintings in Patwardhan’s current exhibition carry forward the artistic enquiries he has conducted for decades. He renders the city in his own unique manner: perspectives dodge us; horizon-lines touch the sky that merges with water-bodies; rooftops fuse with flyovers; and roads lead in conflicting directions as if we were looking at the same scene from five vantage points and getting a God’s eye-view of the city. It is further disorienting when we realise that the colliding patches that fit so perfectly and deceive our retinas are actually not scenes from one location. An engaged process of accumulating photographic references from different parts of the city precedes the act of laying images on the canvas. These areas in the city would dissolve and merge with localities lying kilometres apart, as if the grinding nine-to-five pursuit and the shared aspirations of their residents makes distance obsolete, inscribing the idea of a shared universe.

For instance, let us consider the diptych ‘Untitled-2’ (Page No. 35). The collapsing overbridge in the top-half of the painting comes from around Masjid station while right at the bottom is the suburb of Bhandup. The blue building on the right is from Byculla. Of the two flyovers seen in the painting, one is the J.J. flyover while the other is the flyover at Parel. They probably run into each other around the central dividing line of the diptych somewhere behind the green mosque that holds the complex pictorial construction together. The pictorial space, disintegrating and yet holding up, becomes a metaphor for this riot-prone, disaster-prone megapolis that still continues to harbour optimism. What is interesting is that this super-structure of a distorted crumbling city holds up no spectacular activity as a pretext for its making. Small vendors go about their daily chores even as people cross bridges, chat, take a breather in between a day of hectic activity.

By contrast ‘Death on the Street’ (Page No. 33) presents within a single frame a tense moment. A man lies fallen on a footpath while a crowd has gathered around him to offer help or view the spectacle; the picture holds emotions of concern and detachment in equal measure. Deaths on the streets of Mumbai, or Thane, have the potential of being treated as commonplace simply because of the frequency of such occurrences. A case study of Ward A in South Mumbai shows a daytime population of 4,500,000 persons with the population density being a whopping 394,390 persons per square kilometre. When so many people set out on the street thestartlingstatisticof30,000accidentsoccurringin a year in Mumbai city no longer seem exceptional.

Mumbai is a city bulldozing itself into newness, dropping parts of its old self and signing up for a new skyline and membership amongst the big cities of the world. Never mind its crumbling infrastructure and the fact that half of the city’s population lives in informal, poor quality housing, often illegal and lacking in basic amenities.

Sudhir’s imagery sensitively captures these changes; his unique colour pallete registers the urban microclimate emanating from the concrete and asphalt, returning the sun’s heat into the ambient air.

In the epic, kaleidoscopic painting ‘The Clearing’ (Page no. 11) a slum settlement is cleared to make way for a swanky high-rise leaving a vast emptiness in the belly of the painting. The cleared land has white chalk marks to indicate the footprint of the high-rise. As one looks at the surrounding slums at the back, it appears as if we’re looking at the horizon, their rooftops rubbing against a pink evening sky. The sky morphs into a polluted water-body as if a rising dream had been gunned down and utopian hopes shook hands with the dystopian reality. In the waters an unoccupied or abandoned building is reflected. Occupied residential blocks in the city would normally have an array of colourful clothes drying in the balconies. A disturbing link is formed between the high-rise at the back, the reflection and the hollow footprint of the yet to be constructed high-rise. Right at the back a settlement of small tenements a few industrial sheds pile up on an ill-fated hill soon to be levelled by the powerful real estate mafia. The horizon rubs against another pink sky. One wonders if there is yet another mezzanine world with a lake and hill beyond this pale pink sky.

The top half of the painting titled ‘Bylanes Saga’ (Page No. 13) is from the place called Rabodi in Thane and the images below are from Govandi in Mumbai, with Patwardhan’s rich imagination fusing them together. Rendered as a diptych there are at least four different moments captured, with sunlight and architecture used as devices to amalgamate and separate the varying worlds. While people go about their daily chores navigating an ordinary by-lane, the rooftops do not open to the sky above but to another street where a man seems to have collapsed and three men seem to help him back on his feet. Or are they indeed the perpetrators and he the victim? Is this a moment of communal conflagration and is the burqa-clad woman delivering the hard news of a breaking riot? One isn’t certain how to approach such a picture and Patwardhan offers no easy assistance in the matter. The way one chooses to read the picture determines the pace of the painting and leads to a dramatic alteration of its content.

In the painting ‘Untitled-1’ (Page No. 47), a slum is seen as a combination of residential and small businesses, parts of which bear resemblance with one of Asia’s largest slum Dharavi. Within the painting, the two loading trucks indicate the presence of industrial activity. In a city such as Mumbai even slums are well-integrated contributors to the city’s trade. Dharavi for instance is a hyper-active commercialised slum with its cottage industries, including garments and handicrafts, earning millions of dollars in annual exports alone. The rooftops open, once again, not to the blue skies but to grey waters. The sky is pushed further away like every citizen’s shifting goalpost along the city’s potholed manuscript of dreams.

The Drawings

It is with the many drawings on paper and few sketches on small-format canvas, that Patwardhan explores a vast array of unrelated images, disentangling the city’s stockpile of labyrinth and layered stories. The drawings roughly fit into three groups: the human figure captured during moments of violence and aggression, a contemplative private moment registered as pictorial document, while a third group portrays fragments of mundane everyday activity. Drawing becomes a means to excavate and unearth in rapid artistic gestures, the genetic fibre of the street. Several of the drawings capture the moment of assault in mindless street conflicts. These get further charged when one sees them alongside images such as a person exiting an auto-rickshaw, making a phone-call at a public telephone or an elderly woman returning home with a handful of daily provisions.

When one looks at the constellation of drawings within this current exhibition as a whole, they become parallel commentaries on the lives of not only the blue and white-collared workers but also the shady constituency of black-collared personnel who run the thriving criminal economy of the city. In this rough and unruly city, violence is used not only for thefts and other crimes but also as a peculiar method of dispensing justice. The underworld runs a corresponding, result-oriented judiciary that somehow bestows instant justice in a scenario where the courts don’t move. Then, amongst several others, we have a variety of violence coming from the self-nominated guardians of cultural hygiene who reserve the right to decide when religious / national sentiments are hurt and how to ruffle up the trespassers.

Following the large scale sectarian violence and riots of 1992-93, the city’s secular fabric was shredded to pieces, leading to an incalculable loss of life, property and sense of belonging amongst the religious faiths, classes and languages. This was followed by several instances of riots and bombings including the more recent blasts of 2006 on railway trains claiming more than 200 lives. Patwardhan, has long been engaged with the question of how to artistically confront or even render violence without stereotyping or exaggerating it; how does one conduct an examination of victim-hood when one hasn’t ever been trapped during the many brutal riots that have plagues the city or been ensnared in mob hysteria during such times. Patwardhan has spoken about the “fear of physical confrontation in the street as a lurking presence in the mind”, something he draws on to enter such situations artistically.

The format of drawing allowed Patwardhan to keep pace with the rapid pulse-rate of the city and also address complex questions without too much pre-meditation, which wasn’t possible in the more deliberate format of painting. The drawings operate as autonomous art-works; they are rendered across an array of formats and surfaces, switching technique and medium each time as if to discourage their being viewed as linked, linear narratives.

Sudhir Patwardhan pieces hand-picked samplings of life from Mumbai and Thane, re-assembling and collapsing the metropolis to audit its inherent deficiencies and excesses. His art works become the site for the recital of a thousand caustic and comic chronicles, catching the many dark stories floating in bright sunlight.

From the exhibition catalogue published by Sakshi Gallery (2008).
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