There is a lot of darkness and exploitation deep in the mines,” says artist Prabhakar Pachpute, who has just returned from Art Basel, the annual art fair held in Switzerland. At one of the most prestigious art showcases and to the artistic elite, he introduced the calamity of the coal mines. The stark landscapes populated by miners, cotton mill workers and landless labourers turned several heads at the fair. Two of his charcoal works found buyers on the first day.
“Several people came to me and said this is the right time to bring up these issues,” says the artist, who has already moved to his forthcoming projects — an exhibition in Bangkok next week, another one in Mumbai, and a project in Gwangju (South Korea) in October that is based on his research trip to The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations in Marseille. “They have a beautiful collection of farming tools and I am trying to relate those objects to Asian or Indian methods of farming,” he adds.
Pachpute is unassuming but confident, a trait that perhaps also helped him chart the journey from Sasti, a village in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district, to the most distinguished art spaces. In a world where your palette distinctly demonstrates personal investigations, his oeuvre is most personal.
The darkness of the coal mines are familiar to him since birth. In 1984, two years before he was born, Pachpute’s grandfather was asked by the government to sell his land for mining coal. After receiving a meagre monetary compensation, his grandfather joined a mining company, a job that was taken by Pachpute’s brother after his grandfather’s demise. While most in his family are still employed in mines — his brother drives a jeep to ferry mining officials and his brother-in-law works in an open pit mine — Pachpute has managed a different fate. He has brought to the White Cube gallery the darkness that enveloped his childhood with his humongous murals, videos and sculptures.
A career in art, though, was not in the horizon till he participated in a drawing competition after his Class X examinations. “I drew a scenic landscape and won the first prize,” he recalls. To hone his talent, the family introduced him to an artist in the neighbourhood — Manoj Bobade. Pachpute still embraces the lessons in art, poetry, proverbs and literature that followed. And though his family would have preferred that he join a vocational course, Pachpute managed to gain admission into Indira Kala Sangeet Vishwavidyalaya in Khairagarh, followed by the esteemed MS University in Baroda, where he pursued his post-graduation. It was here that he met his wife, fellow artist Rupali Patil.
At Baroda, he also discovered the theme that was to dominate his art. Pachpute still remembers the day when visiting faculty member, artist Tushar Joag brought a newspaper clipping about the 2010 Copiapo mining accident in Chile to the classroom. The Chilean government had rescued 33 miners in 69 days, after a copper-gold mine caved in. That led Pachpute to think of similar instances in India. After months of pondering, his final showcase at the university comprised two works — Frozen Moment and Tribute to a Coalminer, both illustrating his experiences and observations of the coal mines and those who work in its darkness.
Last year, at the age of 30, he became one of the youngest artists to have his solo at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai. The metropolis was his home for five years after he moved there in 2011 upon Joag’s invitation. An introduction to Zasha Colah and Sumesh Sharma, founders of the Clark House Initiative, led to his first solo at the space in 2012. Titled “Canary in the Coalmine”, the exhibition had walls covered in soot and visitors were welcomed by the sound of dripping water before entering a pitch dark space with a torch that was handed at the entrance. The response was outstanding. Pachpute had made his mark.
In the following years, the artist has travelled the world over, exploring different kinds of mines — from lignite mining in Castelnuovo dei Sabbioni, Italy, to iron mining and gold mining in Brazil. In 2015, he was at the salt mines in Çankiri, Turkey, and last year, he was at the salt and coal mines in Upper Seilesia, Poland.
“The situation is different in all places. The conditions are better in Europe. My attempt is to collect stories from the numerous regions and project elements in my work,” says Pachpute. Recalling his visit to Germany, he adds, “Many abandoned mines in Germany have been converted into tourism sites and amphitheatres.”
Back home, in Chandrapur, Pachpute wants to create a museum as a tribute to the miners. Apart from his archival images and research work on mining in Chandrapur, this would also exhibit everyday objects of miners such as their talismans, torches and photographs. Meanwhile, he would also continue to take their stories world over through his own work.
At his studio in Pune are works with motifs that have become his trademark — faceless farmers who remain unknown, miners with headlamps, elephants embodying the strength of mining villages and owls that see in the dark. These, he notes, are his constant companions.