If he was alive, Prabhakar Barwe would have been 80 this year. When he passed away in 1995, M F Husain paid a handsome tribute. “There are only two genius painters,” he wrote. “One was Barwe, and the other is Gaitonde. And that is the truth.”
Husain went on to recall how Barwe’s approach to art was highly intellectual, founded on thought, research and reflection. “Barwe was concerned with the ‘language of painting’. There was tremendous starkness in his work. And highly intellectual (content)... In just a few lines there would be a suggestion. My work is more figurative, telling stories... in the normal style of painting which is very Indian. Barwe’s style was universal. He was a very significant painter. We have lost a really good mind.”
Born into a family of artists, Barwe (1936-95) studied at Sir J J School of Art, Mumbai and received a diploma in 1959. He became a well-exhibited painter in India and outside; and several honours came his way including ‘Yomiuri Shimbun’ Award (Tokyo/ 1969); and the National Award (Lalit Kala Academy/ 1976). A book with his jottings on art and life, ‘Kora Canvas’ (Marathi/Mouj Prakashan/1989), has been translated into English by novelist and columnist Shanta Gokhale as ‘The Blank Canvas’ (Bodhana Publication/ 2013).
Often described as a symbolist and abstractionist, Barwe became known for his work which combined the real with the abstract. With an emotional touch, poetic vision and metaphysical contemplation, he was also subtly commenting on the vagaries of modern life. Critics marvelled how even ordinary objects of everyday subsistence sprang to life on his canvases, often bearing a poignant association and mystical resonance; and how a powerful interplay of presence and absence of things, time and space got intriguingly enmeshed in his work.
“Barwe was curious about the innovation and the modern mode of image manifestations,” recalls an associate. “With an affinity for contemporary practices as opposed to academic realism in his formative years, he worked with the zeal of a scientist. His inquiry for an apt medium for image-making was coupled by constant and pertinent interrogation linked to his derivative thought process.”
Barwe’s life was unmistakably centered on his art. When all the paths in all the directions are closed, he wrote in his book, “the only path left is that of painting, and by God’s grace, it is always open.”
While meditating on the mystery of a blank canvas, he could perceive its apparent emptiness as also its facility to pose questions to the artist. He wrote poetically about the expansion of emptiness; changing contours of time and space; the deepening of white space and textures. “The light shifts; subtle shadows fall on the canvas. There is a blister near the frame, a knot in the weave. An ant scurries along the frame. The white paint used to prepare the canvas and the fine threads of its warp and weft begin to assume strange shapes and meanings. Soon the surface gives way to unsuspected depths where the artist’s imagination rapidly follows.”
Barwe’s art drew its nourishment by examining and understanding the life around. He believed that it was the variety of life’s experiences — beautiful, grave, strange, mysterious, comic, joyous and sad — which teased the mind with questions and inspired artists in their work. “What is this universe all about? What and where is my place in it? Who am I and why do I experience these things? Is it mere coincidence, or is there a design somewhere? Am I really moving from one point to another, or is it an illusory journey? What is the truth of it? At the root of all these questions I feel the presence of an invisible and mysterious power. This power has many names. But let us call it inspiration.”
Man & nature
In his book, Barwe reveals how he would spend idle Sunday evenings which “stretched before me like a gigantic yawn.” The secret was to simply get out of home, catch any bus which came by and go wherever it went. He would also change buses at will and get back home only after he had had enough of riding.
“(This way) I enjoyed seeing parts of the city that I had never seen before, noting their character, general atmosphere, smells, noises or silences, shops, crowds and architecture. I also enjoyed observing my fellow passengers, their personalities and mannerisms... I rediscovered shapes, sub-shapes, colours, shades, lines and their mutual inter-connections on these rides. The rides also afforded me a first-hand experience of reality. I saw the monotony of human activity... Reality is monotonous because it is related to time. Its linearity is its limitation. The values we live by are determined by birth and death. The reality of our lives is constricted between these two points.”
At the same time, Barwe also longed to be with nature. He believed that Nature was the bedrock of artistic expression; and a limitless treasure trove of invaluable images. “Trees, water, stones, birds, grass, wind, clouds, sky, stars, reflections, shadows, shifting light, each of these manifestations touches the heart. Their inter-relationship and harmony seduce the artist. They are in constant flux. They change from second to second. But each transformation is complete in itself... The artist strives to reproduce nature’s variety, delicacy, and the harmony of its colours in his work. The more time he spends with nature, the more he understands what he must do to achieve it.”
Known to be quiet and effacing, Barwe valued his solitude. “When you are by yourself, sitting absolutely still, something begins to happen inside you. You gradually enter a state of semi-trance in which you become oblivious to everything else. Your connection with the outside world breaks. In this state, nothing in the world seems impossible... there is complete coherence and harmony within you... In such a state, not a single part of the painting you are working on seems to come from you or is meant for you. The painting exists for itself and by itself.”