Empathetic brush

Different strokes

Empathetic brush

For Sudhir Patwardhan (born in 1949, Pune, Maharashtra), art has always been about people. One of the most distinguished names in contemporary Indian art, Patwardhan discovered the human figure as his principal theme from the very beginning of his career.

For the Mumbai-based artist, painting the human figure became a commitment and a responsibility, and admittedly, he would not be able to justify being a painter without being a painter of people. “If you take any art form, films or novels, for example, they all tell stories of people. That is what I wanted to do from the very first – capture the essence of life; be an anonymous observer of society.”  

A self-taught artist, Patwardhan began to paint even while he was studying for a degree in medicine at the Armed Forces Medical College, Pune. He shifted to Mumbai in 1973 and even as he carried on as a professional radiologist, retained a hunger to learn about art. He did whatever it took to teach himself to be an artist: reading about art and art history; visiting local artists, exhibitions and museums; hanging around railway stations and bus stops to sketch continuously.

The streets of Mumbai became his classroom and people who came alive on his canvases were from the working class: labourers, coolies, vehicle drivers, construction workers, office goers, small eatery owners … Looking at these anonymous citizens of a burgeoning city being involved in their everyday acts of struggle and survival opened up different lives for him; the street, in his own words, became ‘a liberating place’. In projecting his protagonists, the artist was less interested in ‘showing’ artistic possibilities and more concerned with actually ‘saying’ something through them.  “The character and social background of these figures are established and they take on a sociological role but it could as well be an autobiographical one.”

Leftist ideology

Even as he sketched their daily struggles and tribulations, Patwardhan presented his protagonists as dignified and graceful inhabitants. As a relatively privileged person drawn to the underprivileged, he himself experienced guilt, sympathy and the realization of the injustice looking at the people on the street.  

For many years, Patwardhan saw himself as a spokesman for the oppressed.  “But gradually, I have been wondering whether I did not somehow appropriate their voice, turn them into pretexts for the expression of my own anxieties and dilemmas.”

In the 1970s, he was part of a group of friends in Pune which published Magooa, a political magazine with Marxist orientation. His contacts with the group remained strong even after his shifting to Bombay. Though he never participated directly in any union work himself, he made magazine illustrations and posters for their work and was fully drawn to leftist ideology. “I would have liked to be a revolutionary, or one who works directly for the improvement of society. I became an artist instead. And the guilt of this choice has not left me.” His Marxist orientation got slightly altered over the years, but
his work continued to infuse its inherent humanism.

Besides portraying people, Patwardhan adopted landscape as a creative device from the late 1980s, and integrated the human element and condition in it. In such monumental and landmark paintings as Pokharan (1989), Ulhasnagar (2001), Lower Parel (2001) and The Clearing (2007) he conveyed the hidden tensions and nervousness of life in an ever-growing city.

Critical acclaim

Patwardhan, whose first solo exhibition of paintings was held in Art Heritage, Delhi way back in 1979, went on to participate in many significant solo and group shows within the country and outside. Given the impact of his images, critical acclaim was not difficult to come by.

“I have admired Mr. Patwardhan's work since I first saw it in a group exhibition at the Grey Art Gallery in 1985, and have eagerly sought it out since,” wrote art critic Holland Cotter (Art in Review / The New York Times, February 24, 2006).  “His painting might be considered a form of Socialist Realism, minus ideological hard-sell or an agony-or-ecstasy tone. Instead, he paints everyday, unprivileged urban lives with a solidity of form and a deliberateness of pacing that imbue even crowd scenes with a ceremonial, moral weight.
This is true even in a beautiful new picture of an artist sitting in front of a drawing in his studio. He looks grave and sunk in thought, perhaps about work done, or not done.

Meanwhile, the shapes of pastel-colored buildings outside his window are reflected in the glass doors of a cabinet, and form a marvelous abstract composition there. It is an unasked-for gift from the street, a reward for being attentively alive.”

While valuing the feedback from artist-friends and critics, Patwardhan has always tried to reach his work to the ‘subjects’ he portrayed. He brought them to art galleries where his works were displayed; he also showed his paintings outside the gallery in places which were more accessible to common people.  

About two years ago – in November 2008 - Patwardhan turned curator with a unique exhibition titled Expanding Horizons, with a view to introduce common people to the best in contemporary Indian art. Besides Mumbai, the exhibition toured seven smaller cities of Maharashtra viz. Amravati, Nagpur, Aurangabad, Sholapur, Kolhapur, Pune, and Nasik.
 “I conceived Expanding Horizons as a way of increasing awareness - about the history of Indian art, its leading lights, the variety of styles in operation,” explained Patwardhan. “This was the first time audiences from different centres in Maharashtra were going to see such art and so, they had to see the best practitioners.”

The show had the works of thirty prominent contemporary Indian artists including Francis Newton Souza, Tyeb Mehta, Bhupen Khakkar,  Arpita Singh, Gieve Patel, N S Harsha, Atul Dodiya, Anju Dodiya, besides Patwardhan himself.

Patwardhan also features prominently in Saacha (The Loom), an acclaimed documentary by Anjali Monteiro and K P Jayasankar.  The 49-minute film released in 2001 is an evocative treatise built around a poet (Narayan Surve), a painter (Patwardhan) and a city (Mumbai a.k.a Bombay).

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