‘Art does three things: it hurts, wounds and heals.” So says Sudhir Patwardhan, whose own paintings can often be read as visual allegories of everyday pain, the common wound of collective humanity, portrayed by the healing hand of the artist. But here, Patwardhan isn’t expounding on his own work. He has on his mind that other great painter of the unhappy human condition, Vincent van Gogh.
He resumes, “Wounding comes first in a sense that it makes us aware of the things inside us we were not conscious of, then follows the pain which often successfully breaks the comfort level. Finally, the healing gives you the strength to bear the very pain. Look at the self-portraits by Van Gogh. The primary effect is of pain. But all that he did with colours and compositions gives you the strength to bear the pain. And, the very art heals you.”
The pain and the healing process aren’t just empty metaphors for Patwardhan. They aren’t merely philosophical ideas mined for sentimental value. Rather, they hold for the artist a real significance, more so than they would for most of us. Having worked as a radiologist for 30-odd years, Patwardhan is acutely sensitive to what it means to feel the hurt, and what it means to recuperate.
He firmly believes that his career as a doctor has had a central role to play in his art practice. “I cherish my time in the hospital,” he says. “There were a few moments when I wanted to give more time to painting. But I would also like to say that had it not been for my profession, I would have missed out on interacting with a number of people. And more than I being a healer to my patients, they, by presenting their own narration of life to me, have also filled me in so many ways.”
For his ongoing show, titled Spectres, currently on at Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery, the artist has had 80 of his latest paintings put on display. Many of these portray a setting most dear to the artist: the interior space of a bedroom. A series of portraits, including a couple of self-portraits, is also part of the show. Then, there are is the marginalia, the sketches and the drawings. Since his childhood, Patwardhan, now 68, has taken a keen interest in drawing. “But, I never thought of becoming an artist,” he continues, in a confessional mode. “There was a certain moment during my medical practice when I thought to myself that I needed to seriously pursue art.”
For him, the process of finding himself as an artist yielded one step at a time. Patwardhan recalls, “You see, in the ’60s and ’70s, Pune was not a vibrant city for art. There were very few exhibitions and not many people were talking about art.” This was the time when Patwardhan, then a young man, had got himself enrolled at the Abhinav Kala Mahavidyala College of Art in Pune. His objective was to learn as much as possible through available sources around him. He says, “I was discovering many things. I was reading existentialist writers like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. I was interacting with friends who subscribed to Marxist ideology. After work, I would go to Shankar Palshikar, who back then was the dean of the Sir J.J. School of Art, to show my work to him. I would look at paintings by Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh among other artists. All these interactions opened a doorway for me to look within myself.”
At the present exhibition, Spectres, the two self-portraits stand out. In each of these, the artist is seen looking at himself in the mirror. His idea of the self and the way he regards himself in the mirror make him appear as a man who is an inveterate observer. Another unique aspect of these portraits is the prominent and somewhat odd presence of the camera—held in the artist’s hand or placed somewhere else in the frame. In Self-portrait with Brush and Camera, the artist is portrayed as his own mirror image. You get the sense that he is trying to listen to himself, and urging the viewers to do the same.
Apart from the self, Patwardhan’s other pet theme is the dwelling site of the self: the city. Having shifted from Pune to Mumbai in 1973, the artist has always shown an affinity for the big city and its inhabitants. “I have been looking at Mumbai, which was then Bombay, for over four decades now. The city has come a long way. A number of structures have been built since then. There are skyscrapers almost everywhere. The energy present in the city is transferred to you.”
Patwardhan has painted a number of images of city-dwellers. His The People series, for instance, which is also part of the ongoing exhibition, includes portraits of those people the artist has come across during his time in the city. “Each person is different from another and this very variety in people’s life gives me a sense of curiosity,” he says.
“I was discovering many things. I was reading existentialist writers like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. I was interacting with friends who subscribed to Marxist ideology. I would look at paintings by Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh among other artists. All these interactions opened a doorway for me to look within myself.”
For Patwardhan, the city contains in itself many contrasts. He says, “Metros always exert a certain pressure on people. But look at the urban population; it’s growing at a great speed. Despite the challenges and roadblocks, a city gives to people; no one is actually leaving. The concept of development has centred itself on the city.”
In the city, the contemporary artist’s most faithful companion is the camera. “My camera is my note-taking device. It has become more and more important with time. Previously, I used to paint something from memory or just directly. Much of that is replaced by the camera as the medium, and now the job is easier. From the photographs, I do the sketches. This sort of data collection is the new way.”
Patwardhan uses his camera to capture portraits of people he meets, as well images of buildings that catch his fancy. He has painted the urban landscape extensively in his work, and many of his landscapes do bring to mind the optical panorama of a wide-angle shot.
He says, “Using the images I have clicked, I sometimes make a collage, use Photoshop and create an entirely new image. These evolved collages help me to paint certain structures I have in mind.” Many of his canvases, particularly the self-portraits, depict the artist in the act of painting. When he started out as an artist, his home served as his studio. The same remains true today.
“It is convenient for me to have my studio in the same space of my Mumbai home, due to my age. It shakes off the hassle of going back home or arranging things to have a smooth life in a studio.”
A home studio has also enabled Patwardhan to engage in domestic themes. He has explored the many dimensions of companionship in his work. In many paintings, we see the artist and his wife together in the same frame, and yet separate in their own identity. While the woman reads the book, the artist has finished his bath. Patwardhan says, “The couples grow together here. There is frustration, anger but also intimacy, all of which together point towards being human.”
After the present show, Patwardhan wishes to move out from the confines of his home and explore the cityscape more seriously. He says, “I would like to go back to painting the city where constant class structures are changing, and the lifestyle is changing, where we are willing to take a cab rather than an autorickshaw…”
In parting, I asked Patwardhan how he gets to know when exactly some work-in-progress is complete. “You definitely know when it is not complete,” he says. “At that time, you keep on working; keep on making mistakes. And after a certain time you know you can’t do anything more. And then you get this visual feeling where you put the brush down.”
Spectres is on view till 24 November at D-53 Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi