Prabhakar Kolte’s paintings have grown out of the rich and broad traditions of abstract art, a legacy of early 20th century modernism that is still vibrant in art practice today. Though he painted once in oils and occasionally in watercolours, his medium today is unequivocally acrylic. The artist’s canvas size too tends to be much larger in scale now than before and an increasing mastery of line, colour and placement marks the work.
The evolution in Kolte’s art has been visible these past four decades of his career, extending the rationale of colour by which it becomes one with structure. Of late, the abstracting process has been refined even further, his work has in a sense become relentlessly interrogatory, as if he has stripped away the layers of even suggested appearance to arrive at the essence of formlessness. Once a sprinkling of images floated within the composition and imaginary motifs with their own references could be grasped. Now all signs and symbols have been banished. There are no fixed points in paintings over which the eye must constantly move; the boundaries of space are at once opened and closed.
The artist is neither painting real landscape, summoning memory and narrative, nor quoting social or art historical meaning. “For me, painting is not an intellectual act, it is an act of feeling”, said Kolte of works that evoke the unrepresentable and the inapprehensible. Technique for this artist appears to serve as the immediate vehicle for a rigorous esthetic self-inquiry, a reconstruction of meaning within paintings own terms - something like a meditation on the very act of painting.
Large areas of increasingly muted colours occupy monochrome canvas space, while vertical trickles of paint create loose web-like effects, revealing underlying cracks and scars that are multi-coloured and alive with the reductive fracturing of light. The occasional employment of skewed cut-outs against sources of texture, achieved through geometrical setsquares and masking tape, not only provide apertures, textures and build-ups but enable colour to be embedded in the manufacture.
His recent works, at times optically dense, at others cracked open with layered illuminated colour and immaterial light reveal him to be subtle colourist one always knew he was. And colour in the end is what its all about. One colour perhaps describe this passionate engagement with colour as an indescribable moment that is transferred in the act if painting from the inner self of the artist to the experience of pure surface and its painterly expression.
The work has virtuosity, and for the artist and his viewers an urgency as well. I think it was Clement Greenberg who once used the term “abstract juggernaut” when abstract art in the USA was riding the crest of history. The “juggernaut”, has always been about power and immanence in its original centuries old Indian inception at Jagannath Puri. In Kolte’s most elemental of abstract paintings, it still is.
Kamala Kapoor(KK): How did you choose to become a painter?
Prabhakar Kolte (PK): When I first joined the JJ School of Art, I was equally passionate about cricket, theatre and painting. But Prof. Shankar Palsikar, who was my teacher and later my guru and mentor, told me that I had to choose one of the three; that it was not possible to have three passions. I chose paintings because I realised it would afford me the possibility of a personal monologue and the kind of total freedom and range of self-expression that neither cricket nor theatre could ever.
KK: Four decades of exploration into the transcendent qualities of abstraction will be seen in this exhibition. Would you say some things have changed? If so what and how?
PK: Yes, there has been a distinct change in ideology. In the beginning, when I was a student, I was basically learning the medium by doing all kinds of painting. Though lots of artists continue expressing what they studied through their professional life, I feel the work of art begins only when one is on one’s own.
KK: How and when did this discovery happen in your case?
PK: I’d say it must have happened in ’83, with my first solo show in Chemould. I had already been questioning nature constantly for some time, keeping in mind Klee’s precept of ‘following’ nature, not imitating it. Just as everything in nature is unique and different from before, just as it never copies but keeps creating anew, subject in my work had begun following painting. Identifying with Klee and Palsikar’s thinking, I had started exercising such initiatives. So instead of seeing and painting, I was painting and seeing. This rejection of visual life around me was reflected in the work that was shown.
KK: Why have you now discarded all suggestion of an image? Earlier there were always a few geometric and biomorphic forms glimpsed. Even the few squares set in a neutral field of painting have vanished. The works are now more sober, more powerful, yet one misses the enticing uncertainties of images floating in and out of recognition, of images that always seemed on the verge of being painted back into abstraction.
PK: I stopped responding to all recognisable objects some time ago and only see elements of painting. Ultimately for me it is line, form, shape and colour that make a painting; all subjective elements collapse. At one stage, I started wiping away paintings and that itself became the painting. You see, the minute you begin to define purity, it moves away; it cannot be defined; it can only be felt or sensed. So wiping was a way of negating identifiable forms to arrive at purity. After a while I stopped the wiping as well. About ten years ago, large masses of colour appeared in the work; if any forms become apparent, they are quite inadvertent.
KK: Yet your recent more earthy and muted spectrum - with all its vibrancy and rawness, its spontaneous drips, uneven strokes and empty patches - is as if an indirect quote from nature.
PK: Whether to paint what I see or what I don’t see is not really a dilemma. For me, painting is not an intellectual act; it is an act of feeling. The way I see it, the moment one has mastery over a tool, one can use it for the desired result. The tool can be manipulated, yet it will retain its character. A painting is the relationship between the artist and his tools. Each leaves an effect on the other - like the setsquare or masking tape in my case. The decision to be taken is always between the world in which I’m living and the world that lives in me. In my case it is always the latter that wins.
KK: Do you agree that there is a cohesive, evolving progression in your singular pursuit of non-objective expression?
PK: Absolutely, I wouldn’t even call it expression. I just paint for myself nowadays; there’s no planning. In 2002, when Rajeev Sethi asked me to paint Shiva-Parvati for his project at the Grand Hyatt, I refused to paint anything with a subject.Mypaintinghas no subject. For me it is a process, a study. I work with the manifesto that the human mind is a mini cosmos that it can hold many universes within. So this is where I begin my search and once again it is about painting and seeing, not seeing and painting, about the final rejection of the tangible, the recognizable. Eventually Sethi came around to my point of view and let me do whatever I wanted.
KK: There is much to experience while looking at your art: evocative areas of veiled colours as well as large matt ones, the paint’s intuitive applications versus constructed one. There are fluid washes, as sudden spillage, a subdued organic palette, warm and cool tonalities, the effects of dualities such as those of solid and void, even the sense of a rationale and of impassioned belief.
PK: For me painting is nothing but colour. Basically painting is a transportation of seeing with feeling and then feeling in colour. This is where the painting begins, the process begins. I do not think in words when I paint; my inner being takes over everything. It’s like there are two beings in one person. One is the common man, just like anybody else and the other is the artist. So in the process of painting, the artist takes command - things just happen.
KK: At the same time colour as pure substance, functions structurally and autonomously in your paintings; the rigor of your abstraction is now a given. As such, how would you react to the suggestion of an Indian sensibility being present in the evocative way you use colour? Is there a possibility - however unconscious - of a symbolic use of colour as well?
PK: Gaitonde once said that the colour has structure that it takes on the identity of the object it paints. This is the power of colour. I would however like to extend Gaitonde’s statement: it is not the object that has colour but the act of seeing that transmits the experience of colour that transforms colour into structure. As for sensibility, just like man and his experience, I consider it is universal. Like everything else, colour too is three dimensional; if it were not, we would not be able to receive it. In my case, I reduce it to its minimal existence by faltering it. As this has existed in Jain and other miniature painting traditions, you could say mine is an Indian way of using global sensibility.
KK: And the symbolic use of colour?
PK: Colour actually comes from your own perception; the pigment is just a vehicle. There are immense stores of colour within oneself, particularly the colours of abstraction. It is this intangible quality that gives colour a structure. As for the symbolic use of colour in my work - I don’t think it happens. In my case it would be at best a symbol for feeling or emotion.
KK: Among the several things that happen when viewing your painting is the way you can make colour alone enact remarkable spatial effect. There is this sense of spatial architecture and of abstraction, of light and geometry revealing themselves through colour in your work. Would you like to talk about its sources and evocations?
PK: Just as the artist matures, so does the work. Change will always be there even as we will always remain the residues of generations of mankind. As a student, one responds to colour in a certain way, but as one ages, the layers of human existence accrue. When colour goes through this experience, it gets transformed. One can’t really describe this. Let me just put it this way, that colour has innumerable manifestations, and like Krishna’s cosmic form gets coalesced in a sublime moment.
KK: In your case, if there is a single mindedness at work, it must be aimed more at liberating aesthetic qualities than at subverting pictorial conventions, which is often the case when there is too much rigor in abstract art. When your colour modulates your spaces and establishes tensions and in itself generates light and atmosphere, would you say you are consciously investigating the deepest roots of colour?
PK: Let me put it this way: the after image that you see when you close your eyes radiates light. That is the way I travel towards something that is close to the soul or inner being. It is so unrecognizable, so subtle, that only part of it can be realizes on my canvas. Colour enables this to happen to an extent; colour is both process and result.
KK: In this sense do you ever wonder whether your work is accessible. If what you paint is so personal, so subtle, then how will it engage with the viewer in a more intimate and transformative way?
PK: I strongly believe that one paints for oneself, not for others. I admit to being an introvert in this regard and to feeling that my work is solely for myself. Besides, painting has immense depth, a depth that cannot be measured. What we see on the surface is only the upper layer; the journey from the depths is mysterious and unknown. How does one share something like this, something that stands for the present moment, for the ‘now’, something that is never still, never static but is in continuous movement?
KK: What, if any, new directions do you see in your work in the future?
PK: Though at one time I used to believe in consistency, I am now increasingly apprehensive of repeating myself. Like I said before, I follow nature. Even if nature repeats itself, it is never the same as before, but always different, always fresh. I feel that in my work a time has come for things to take a turn. You cannot bring back time and the past; you have to keep travelling further and everything that will happen will be new. This comes from my abiding belief in Hindu philosophy.
KK: Could you explain this a little further?
PK: So far as the modern age of Hinduism is concerned, there is always scope for new interpretations. For instance, it is possible that a rejection of the Gods took place from time to time in the past, thus accounting for a need for new Gods. Perhaps there actually were 33 and a half crore generations, each creating a new God. Similarly art too has been changing as per the need of each new generation. After all, over the ages everything has emerged from nothingness, from a great void that is potent. Also one cannot go into this void. One can only be curious about what comes out of it. But if you keep waiting for a new thing to happen, it never will. You have to create it yourself.