NEAR AND FAR
When I started on the road to becoming an artist, there was no doubt in my mind as to what Art was about. It was about people. This simple belief was strengthened by the unbroken tradition of figurative painting in contemporary Indian art. So the human figure has, inevitably, been my subject from the beginning.
Throughout the fifty years or so of contemporary Indian painting, figuration has been a dominant mode And since the early seventies, a group of painters has given a new direction and impetus to this tradition. What is new in their work is the depiction of our every day environment in a matter-of-fact but quietly intense manner. When I first saw the work of these painters, especially of Bhupen Khakkar and Gieve Patel, I was immediately drawn to it and felt a close kinship with their aims.
My love for the early expressionist figuration of Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee and M.F. Husain was never lost though. I continued to harbour within myself an expressionist bias. Painterly options were posed for me within the figurative idiom, and I never felt the need to move outside it.
Painting the human figure is a commitment and a responsibility. I would not be able to justify being a painter without being a painter of people. This may sound unnecessarily self righteous, but the remoteness of artistic aims from the immediate and pressing needs of ordinary people bothers me. 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.
Painting figures by itself does not, of course, justify anything. I could look at people and paint people for various reasons .good and bad. A fuller understanding of another person's life is dependent upon my involvement. Involvement brings with it identification and projection of impulses. Unchecked, this projection leads to interference and distortion of the other's image. Finally he is completely displaced and lost to me.
Then again, a fuller understanding of another's life is also dependent upon distance. It depends on the acceptance of the other's autonomy. I must resist the impulse to project my emotions on to him. But this will lead to retraction and seperateness from the other.
Both approaches end, paradoxically, in the opposite of understanding. A simple knot for the psychoanalyst to untie ! And, no doubt, there are those who can sustain a balance between the two extremes, or combine the strengths of both positions. One ideal of Art too, lies in a successful marriage of the two, in what Adrian Stokes has called a -sanity allied to love---. For me, however, there is a need to keep alive within myself the vigour of both extremes, and to objectify each separately when necessary, and together when possible. Below the surface, both impulses are active simultaneously and pull in opposite directions. In my work they become embodied in figures near and far.
A figure seen at a distance. It is observed and depicted carefully, either by a practised mode of drawing directly, or through the use of photographs. It is small, yet clear and sharp in outline .a three-inch shape on a six-foot canvas. The colours of the clothes catch the eye and the posture creates intimacy. An arching neck or a bent back have a way of getting under one's skin from any distance. The figure will not come too close though. It is not rny emotional projection. It will stand easily apart from me, inhabiting its own world.
The canvas has many such figures; also houses, streets, hills and sky. The predominant sense is of distance, and this gives me breathing space. All things are equidistant from me, united in texture, out there on the surface of the canvas. That is their world. This separateness is softened to some extent by multiple levels and perspectives which fracture the unity of the surface and allow for an outsider's view, a shifting participation in the scene.
However, a long period of work on such a canvas makes me restless. I begin to feel left out and deprived. I want to go beyond mere looking-on. I long for proximity.
So I do faces seen with a certain intimacy. Each of these, finished within an hour, gives me a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. From the innumerable persons encountered, a detail of an eye or a nose, or a tilt of the head has struck a cord. The note is then rapidly and vigorously expanded. During this process the emerging face has to fight against my impulse to engulf and dissolve it. The stereotype head and the remembered look of distrust are allies of otherness. With their help the face will attain a certain autonomy. But it will not shake off my attachment.
The feeling of being an intruder now catches up with me, and pulls me away from the image. I am probably fated to ossilate thus between proximity and distance.
There are periods when I am neither here nor there. It is in this in-between space that figures closest to my heart take shape. Figures neither near nor far ..like the distance between me and the stranger in the street or in the cafe. In such figures, close enough to be sensuously full-bodied and disquieting, but distanced through the act of observation and depiction, are compounded the pleasures and problems of both extremes. 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.
Their lime will, unfortunately, pass and till it returns, I expect I will do small figures and faces again. Polarities may be reversed though. The figure in the distance has been allowed its autonomous, independant life. Such autonomy could now be worked into a face seen from very close. And the small figure could become a projection of my private impulses. Demons of my mind may some day pursue and possess small figures in a landscape.
copyright 1999 sudhir patwardhan