Prabhakar Kolte is one of the few most innovative painters in western India. At 40, he can look back on rich achievements and project an obvious promise of greater things to come.
Kolte took his diploma in painting from Sir J.J School of Art in 1968. When he was a student, the senior artist Shankar Palshikar (eventually Dean of the School) was a big influence on him, not just as a painter but as an independent-minded thinker who introduced Kolte to such epoch-making books as Fritzhof Capra’s The Tao of Physics. Kolte has tried to commemorate the sadly interrupted career of his master in a number of ways, least of all by organising a show of portraits, a genre in which Palshikar excelled.
It was while he was in school that Kolte also came under the influence of Paul Klee. This has been a curious tradition in the School dating back to such distinguished student-artists as Gaitonde, it was not just Klee’s painting that influenced Kolte’s early work, but also his writings. Ever since those early school days, Kolte has been deeply interested in teaching art itself and has sacrificed lucrative jobs in order to remain a teacher.
In these early paintings, many of them in water colour, Kolte essays the floating forms so dear to Klee. (Strangely he never came under the influence of Miro, a brother spirit) The colours are applied in a very pleasing but sketchy manner; the forms are catapulted by thin lines and look like intelligent children’s drawings.
The year he passed out form the School, Kolte also received a silver medal. Three years later he won the gold medal of the Bombay Art Society. During 1970 and 1971 he won Maharashtra State awards. In 1978 he won the coveted Prof. Langhammer award of the Indo-German Cultural Society. Between 1982 and 1984 he had a fellowship of the Government of India. The floating forms distantly reminiscent of Klee’s work also continued in oils. But very soon Kolte liberated himself and reached out for a purer abstractionist manner. His best paintings, as they date from 1968, are a subtle combination of both these approaches. Paintings of 1978, for example, project such images as windows, human faces, architectural structures, geometrical symbols, sun and moon orbs and other symbols in a tightly integrated manner. The colours are vivid but controlled. The water colour application is in no way sentimental or redolent of the usual genres of landscape, etc. It is a stepping out for Kolte in a bold, intrepid manner.
The hints of total abstraction are apparent in an earlier work like Skyscape (1973). In this work in oils, the forms are the forms are irregular. The painter takes immense risks so as not to project any aberrations of the mind but assonance with dissonance. And finally Kolte begins a phase which has been with him till the day. This is clear in Eternal Trapezoid, embodying an idea which is as philosophical as it is geometrical. Kolte is used to employing vivid reds and greens, especially in his oils. And the canvases of this period are no exception to this exuberance. But this feeling is never encouraged by conventional patterns. The forms are as austere as the general approach of the artist.
The Lalit Kala Akademi has in its collections a beautiful painting of Kolte’s called Fragility (1983). Here the forms are lyrical as they are in two untitled paintings. There is a fine organic relationship between these forms which are petal-like or otherwise merely irregular. Among other canvases whose titles convey only a square (1983) and in the two bought by Ratnatraya Heat Exchangers we see a unique lucidity of colouring.
Kolte approaches a big canvas in a truly free spirit. Unlike most painters he moves the canvas round on all sides and paints. He creates textures in a simple manner, never, trying for flashy, three-dimensional effects. In his most recent works one sees large areas of paint without any attempt at over-symbolism through the use of separate motifs.
In 1969, Kolte participated in the artists camp organised by the Lalit Kala Akademi at the Banasthali Vidyapith in Rajasthan. He has designed many murals, and among the most distinctive are his murals for the Indo-Suez Bank in Bombay and the Maharashtra pavilion at the Fifth National Agricultural Fair held in Bombay in 1969. One can see here the progress from the figurative feel of the latter to the stylised Leger-like constructions of the former. Unfortunately, this latter work was destroyed in a fire.
Two important activities of the artist need to be noted. One is the innovative “happening” he organised in the School (as also at IIT, Powai) in 1983. This gave full expression to the student’s creativity. The other activity is more personal; Kolte writes poetry both in Marathi and in English. Indeed, he is a fine writer and should devote more time to this aspect of his talent.
All these years Kolte has struggled hard in order the integrity of his work. The difficulties include the odd ways of government bureaucracy. But his is a spirit which never says “die” and he has maintained his position among worthwhile younger artists who have made a name for themselves outside Maharashtra.
Published in the Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1987