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How an artist viewed the lockdown

Confinement, memory and migrants — artist Sudhir Patwardhan on an ongoing body of work emerging from the pandemic

Lockdown Couple (Photo courtesy: Sudhir Patwardhan)

Like lovers or foes, the home and the street have coexisted in artist Sudhir Patwardhan’s illustrious career. Thane-based Patwardhan, 72, is renowned for his interior works and urbanscapes, such that his art has been evoked in the same vein as New York’s Edward Hopper in 2020, as a way of talking about the pandemic lockdowns.

The artist has been busy responding to the pandemic in his own ways, too. In an ongoing series, from which selections have been presented online by Mumbai’s The Guild and Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery, Patwardhan contemplates an unpredictable year. Like lockdowns, 2020 came in phases, and his art has responded to each — starting with the relief of being homebound to the unease of the migrant exodus to the nation’s inconclusive political crises, until returning home. Excerpts:

The year 2020 has possibly been one of the most dramatic years in our lives. What has the experience been like for you?

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At the beginning of the year, my retrospective was on at (Mumbai’s) National Gallery of Modern Art, which went on till February. I had been extremely busy, coming into town every day and meeting people. When the pandemic happened, it wasn’t too bad because it was a break from the running around. It was good to be confined and not give any excuses for not going anywhere.

That feeling changed over the months. In April and May, the migrant crisis slowly seeped into one’s consciousness. One started to feel uncomfortable and restless. That has mostly been the sense through the last six months. Slowly, in the last two months, one started to ease and settle down into a new mode of everyday life.

Bread Crumbs (Photo courtesy: Sudhir Patwardhan)

Did being indoors for days transform the way you approach your studio work?

Yes, absolutely. As an artist, it has been essential for me to be out, looking at the world around. So this was a different feeling, though I have been painting home, interiors and studio for many years now.

My initial response to the pandemic was actually Morning Rush, done early on. When you are not allowed to go out, you imagine what it was, what it would be like.

When you are confined to home, your imagination turns inwards. There is a layered experience of the past, where one home mutates into another, one room mutates into another room. I was reliving many kinds of thoughts and feelings from the past, and sometimes celebrating the very minor things that you do at home, like in Breadcrumbs or Music Lesson. So it’s also a celebration of everyday minor things, which are not important socially, but make small statements.

Morning Rush (Photo courtesy: Sudhir Patwardhan)

In 2020, people found the time to think about the past, to reflect. Did the year change the way you approach nostalgia and memory?

I don’t know if it’s changed. Nostalgia has been important for me. I’ve not seen it in a negative way. I’ve seen it as daydreaming, reliving moments about the past. I have done paintings about that feeling.I think this period has allowed that much more. Earlier, even if you spent time in the studio alone, in the evening you had to go for someone’s opening or something and that impinged on your thinking. Both of them got mixed somewhat. Here, it is allowed to live with a certain kind of mood and space for an extended period without a break as such.

Lockdown Couple is a telling painting about the situation at home, in India. Could you lead us through the work?

How does one respond to news about love jihad laws? One is always thinking about it but one is basically painting people inside the house. So how does one bring that in?

The figure of the woman was an old sketch. I have tried to work that sketch into a painting but never completely done it. But the figure has been important to me for many years.

When I was looking at my sketchbooks again, the figure came up. Then the bookshelf and the other things started to fall in place. The partner, the man. This situation was created — someone reading, a bookshelf and a person who is just sitting and looking blankly. They are sharing the room but there is a disconnect between them.

Patwardhan (Courtesy: The Guild)

I painted the carpet next to refer to Kashmir. We went into lockdown but Kashmir has been in lockdown for a much longer period. Then, the colours of what they are wearing took shape. For a moment, I thought it was too upfront — the green and the orange and the white. But once I put it down, I couldn’t get away from it. It made complete sense to me. That these two people who are together for a life but in some senses they have been torn apart. Is he Muslim? Is she Hindu? What are they thinking of the love jihad laws?

Next came this strange object lying on the carpet. It helps create some discord in that somewhat pretty carpet. The last thing I put was the reproduction of the Amrita Sher-Gil painting in the corner. That was where the nation started, what kind of promises and aspirations it started with. Sher-Gil wasn’t a political painter but, in many senses, for painters, she represents the beginning of modern Indian art.

Leaving the City (Photo courtesy: Sudhir Patwardhan)

You have often evoked India’s working classes in your art. Likewise, the image of the migrants’ exodus in the pandemic has come up in this present body of work. Could you tell us more about them?

The images of migrants were disturbing, so I did some works around April. I was sitting in front of the television, drawing these figures, making multiple sketches. It was difficult to decide to do them because ultimately you are nowhere near experiencing what they are experiencing. You fear that it might just exploit the feeling but you also have a particular need to say something about it.

It is inevitable that if you make an image, you want to make it beautiful. There is no sense in trying to make art if you don’t want to make it beautiful…that’s my belief. Even the most disturbing thing ultimately has to be contained in a container that does not allow for overspill. If I am going to shout, ‘My God, look at these people and look at their condition’, that is overspill. That can be good journalism, that can move people to donate, but that is not what art is about. Art is about looking at something and feeling that feeling within you and not being pushed towards anything else. It’s self-contained.

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