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Tuesday 2 February 1999

A doctor trains his X-ray vision on his art
By Ranjit Hoskote
MUMBAI: Sudhir Patwardhan leads what many would regard as an intriguing double life. The patients who come to his Thane clinic for a radiology analysis know him principally as a doctor, tactful in his probing and sensitive to their fears. But to the viewers who stand before his canvases--as they are doing this week at the Jehangir Art Gallery-- he is a painter who takes an unsettling, clear-eyed view of life, rejecting the placebo of false hope when he identifies suffering and endurance as the twin pivots of human experience.
And yet, there is no real contradiction between the two roles. For Patwardhan the painter operates with the same X-ray vision as does Patwardhan the radiologist, divining the inner events of a human life from the physique that is presented before him. He has brought that X-ray vision to bear on the alternately baffling and enchanting realm of social relationships for 30 years, having begun to paint while he was a student at the Armed Forces Medical College, Pune.
And for 30 years, it is the human figure as the vehicle and site of those relationships which has fascinated Patwardhan--especially the proletarian figure which is stationed at the receiving end of society's most exploitative impulses. This fascination has never led him into the banalities of social realism. Instead, he has crafted a series of stylised portraits of labourers and heroic tableaux of common people in moments of crisis, paintings in which the ordinary and the miraculous fuse in unpredictable ways--a trucker might wear the face of an Ajanta monk, and a woman who has survived a flood may have stood at the base of a Crucifixion once.
Patwardhan did not simply reproduce the body from the life in these works, but subtly cast it as a machine for survival. ``For many years, I saw myself as a spokesman for the oppressed,'' observes the artist. ``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.''
This line of questioning has now urged Patwardhan to turn away a little from the provocations of the immediate, and from the recognisable style into which his paintings had settled. Like many painters who find themselves in a similar predicament, he has elected to explore the uncharted kingdoms of fantasy that have hovered at the edge of his painted surfaces. But discontinuity is the occupational hazard of such an enterprise, and the paintings that result seem to fly off in various directions.
``It does look a little like a group show, doesn't it?'' smiles Patwardhan, turning to take in the sweep of his latest exhibition of paintings and drawings. The man tilting his head up to drink from a bottle is of a piece with the artist's earlier work, but the construction worker washing her face is a radical new departure--she displays, not an assertive torsion, but a quiet, self-fulfilled sensuousness. Her gesture suggests strength in repose, and her red headcloth, touched off with discreet highlights, is one of those elegances without which it would be an ordeal to go on living.
``My figures reflect more tender and pensive moods in this series,'' muses Patwardhan. ``And I've tried out devices that I would never have thought of using five years ago.'' These experiments include the pasting of ornamental strips of embroidery down the margins of a painting depicting a mattress-maker, and the deliberately patchy brushwork in a painting about the choices that face a painter.
``These devices have been used by artists before, and they may seem rather literal, but they have a private significance for me as tokens of freedom,'' concedes Patwardhan. He is, as he points out, no votary of experimentation for its own sake. ``I am less interested in `showing' artistic possibilities and more concerned with actually `saying' something through them.''
That `something'--which imparts an indefinable consistency to this ``celebration of multiple possibilities''--is Patwardhan's need to clarify his unstated motivations, desires and doubts through his art. ``As a person and as an artist, I may carry potential energies of various kinds,'' he observes. ``But I can't realise them unless I test them out--you can't know, so to speak, unless you act.''
This emphasis on concrete action is integral to Patwardhan's art. For him, art can never be merely a formal exercise of technique or a picnic on the grass of Cloud-Cuckoo Land. The artist, he believes, bears the responsibility of addressing the moral issues that confront every individual, and must dramatise that encounter in memorable, even perplexing images. ``We don't resolve these complex issues by addressing them,'' he notes. ``Rather, we remind ourselves of how important it is to go on addressing them instead of pretending they don't exist.''
Patwardhan is uncomfortable with the notion that his new, multi- directional approach embodies a procession of fragmentary selves, each offering its specific take on the world. It is, he argues, far more appropriate to see his new work as yet another phase of the movement towards a `transparency of soul', which he prizes as an ideal.
``By transparency of soul, I would mean a heightened sense of awareness of what is going on around you,'' he elaborates. ``Such a mental exercise would tend to open you out, hopefully transform you into a more expansive rather than a compact self, a self more in communion with its environment.''
This is the reason why Patwardhan's accomplished images, which begin as investigations into ambient reality, eventually develop into self- revelations. Whether it is the wall- painter slipping on the scaffolding, or the woman with a nose-ring who outstares the viewer, the worker looking up from the trench he has dug, or the soliloquist father sketching a landscape of temptations and cautionary tales for his absent adolescent son, each of these figures or situations evolves from an aspect of the artist's personality.
And if that figure or situation resonates for us, this is because we have diagnosed our own vulnerability there, acknowledged our participation in the theatre of humanity. ``It's a little like a recognition drama,'' smiles Sudhir Patwardhan. ``The experience of one of those tormented women in a Gothic painting is not so remote from that of a riot victim today, after all, and we can still share in the pleasure that the painters of the Mughal atelier felt as they detailed their miniatures four hundred years ago.''

copyright 1999 sudhir patwardhan