Published in the Firstpost, 19 November 2017
There comes a point in every man’s life, usually after he is past a certain age, that he turns his gaze inward. Artists aren’t independent of the ageing process, they are merely in a better position than most to express and contemplate it. Sixty eight-year-old Sudhir Patwardhan - in his latest solo show “Spectres” - turns this gaze upon himself, the ideas of companionship, of the slow tilt of life around age and his reconciliation as an artist with ideas that are beautifully simple, like a hot summer day.
Patwardhan, who lives and works in Mumbai, has always been known as a chronicler of the state of the city. Here he has moved inward, as if almost having deserted the street that he must, at the age of 68 find hard to go to. “Partly yes; also a change in concerns, from the more social to the more personal, and to do with the artist's life and challenges. A more introspective approach to questions of self and problems of representation,” he says. Patwardhan’s most absorbing piece of the current selection is a giant panoramic rendering of the old city of Pune, where he lived for a long time. Titled Another Day in the Old City, this is a magnum opus of observation, a singular yet deviating rigmarole of people, situations and streets. So busy is the painting with activity, and so calm it is in texture and colour, there seems to be a loss of purpose at times - as is the case with life.
Without a doubt, the most engrossing and perhaps curiously restrained works in “Spectres” are the ones where Patwardhan paints his own life. His studio, his little space of privacy, uniquely open and laid bare, often with the painful conditioning of restrictions both on the canvas and in imagination. There is very little that happens in them. There is also very little that doesn’t happen. Is this realism or simply application of lived reality? “The autobiographical? ?is always interwoven into all one’s subject matter - be it people, streets, panaromas of cities?. The subject is always one’s own experience, and this experience is dependent on many personal aspects including age. But there is also an understanding of other people one has seen, lived with, and a projection into the future,” Patwardhan says.
A self-trained artist, Patwardhan was a radiologist until his retirement in 2005. His self-trained aesthetic spins throughout his work, as he varies in strokes, colours and subjects. His people series appears to be an experiment in progress while his other acrylic works appear to resonate with his earlier tropes of observing and recording. For his larger works, the film-like panaromas of moments and situations across divides of emotion and experience, there is his signature use of shade as light. Somehow Patwardhan’s paintings come to life in the dark.
Perhaps it serves as a point of inquiry that Spectres has taken Patwardhan on a path of internal query to the extent that he draws himself in his canvases. The near obsolete self-portrait appears time and again, and in Patwardhan’s hands, it finds an honest eye and a non-negotiable heart. “As much as a self-portrait is about the artist's self, it is about the viewer's self, as well. ? When I see great self-portraits by Rembrandt or Bonnard, I am brought face to face with myself. The intention behind the act of self-portraiture, or behind taking a selfi?e will show in the image,” he says. The image Patwardhan refers to is that of the artist the audience might have in mind. It is a dark alley, that is usually only lit with fashionable photoshoots, or portfolios that make the artist only seem distant. Patwardhan’s attempt at declassifying the mystique and perhaps hand the audience an advantage for once, works well. It is rare, and in the age of the selfie, it seems rarer. In one self-portrait Patwardhan stands holding a camera in one hand.
The shift in Patwardhan’s concerns hasn’t manifested ecstatically in Spectres. There is chilling honesty, but there is some distance still to go before he is completely inside. The city still appears in the formats of his surveys and in their binocular vision it is almost always restored. That said, this is a welcome shift, a timely one, and with Patwardhan’s elegance it promises to be a fruitful journey. “The inside can be as perilous as the outside, as my painting, Inner Room, shows. The violence in the streets ??comes from violence we carry within us.? Retreating into the home may be a temporary sanctuary only. My changed emphasis from street to home is not to escape the perils of the street, but to come to terms with the perils within,” he says.
One can only hope that Patwardhan continues in the same vein, the study of what imperils the ordinary, the everyday, the acutely personal and the territorially narrow.
Published in the Firstpost, 19 November 2017