When [Sudhir] Patwardhan came to Bombay in 1973, he was shocked to see so many people on the streets, many of them living in horrific conditions. In 1974, he married his college sweetheart from Fergusson College and the AFMC, the gifted Shanta Kallianpurkar, who was studying dance. By 1975, he began to practice radiology in Thane after having worked at the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hospital and at the KEM (King Edward Memorial) Hospital in Bombay, continuing to paint in his free time. Patwardhan would walk endlessly in Bombay, familiarising himself with the city’s denizens and bylanes. He experienced the contradictory emotions that all urban dwellers face: a sense of alienation from his surroundings, but also a sense of solidarity with the teeming crowds.
Patwardhan’s Marxist conscientisation had made him acutely aware of class asymmetries. He felt the other’s pain in his own body, the acute sensation of his muscles tensing and knotting up. ‘Green Torso’ (1975) – expressionist in its rendering of toxic green skin with an underlayer of dried blood – is one such example of a psychosomatic bonding. We cannot be sure if this is a portrayal of a worker’s body or the artist’s own body changing colour to accommodate the everyday stresses and wounds of others.
The artist increasingly felt an existentialist sense of alienation from this disorienting environment, exacerbated by his reading of Sartre, Camus and that master of ethical quandaries, Dostoevsky. His paintings of the 1970s transitioned from a generic portrait like ‘Sakhubai’, painted in 1972 before he came to Bombay, to the ‘Lamenting Woman’ (1976), where the figure of the woman sitting on her haunches is distorted such that her torso is transformed into an abstract piece of Soutinesque flesh.
We see the distorted figure along a spectrum leading from perceived reality to abstraction and phantasm, from ‘Room on Forjett Street’ (1974), where it appears as a convulsive blur, to ‘Chair’ (1975), painted during the Emergency, in which a spectral leg is tripped up by a metal chair. Here, a fall could also be a release;is that a spasm crippling its hamstrings or a spark flaming up?
At the hospitals where Patwardhan worked, and on the streets which he scoured endlessly, he saw the embattled body fighting its brokenness. While he sometimes depicted the human figure in Légeresque fashion as a machine-man with his legs turning into cylinders or tubes, Patwardhan’s figures, even when they aspired towards the tubular or the monumental, were never bereft of human suffering. ‘Agonised Torso’ (1975), a drawing in which a headless man shoves a pole into his body, suggests self-inflicted torture, where the viscera of the city collides with the muscular, resilient human body rather than a stylised machinic android.
John Berger’s observations on the dissident Soviet sculptor Ernst Neizvestny’s ability to go “into the interior of the being, until, ideally, we touch not the body but the experience of the body,” seems appropriate here. While Neizvestny’s grotesquely distorted human figures, with their overblown rhetorical gestures, could not be more different from Patwardhan’s more phlegmatic imagination of the body even in its more expressionist register, Berger’s comment on the sculptor’s obsession with the human body bears relevance to the painter’s work: “[Neizvestny] is not concerned with its [the body’s] beauty but with its workings, its power, its resistance, its limits and its mysteries.”
Sudhir Patwardhan has never shied away from depicting violence. As he observes, the artist must “feel the force of evil inside him and then give it form on paper”. It is not unusual for him to make such a candid confession. Consider the way in which ‘Killing’ (2007) is choreographed, a magnificent tableau vivant straight out of an Old Master painting, but also a homage to the theatre.
The bodies of the killer and the victims are strangely entangled. It is almost as if they would fall if they did not hold on to each other tightly. This moment of ambiguity in an obviously agonistic situation shows that Patwardhan does not conceal the stigmata of reality. He puts his finger deep into the wound we call humanity. ‘Killing’ foregrounds Patwardhan’s classicising tendency, which de-familiarises the familiar, translates the quotidian disarray of events stumbling through real time into a drama unfolding outside of time.
The Spectre of History
Compare the closeup of stampeding feet in ‘Marchers’ (2019) with ‘Accident on May Day’ (1981), another tightly cropped image of workers at a railway station. Both paintings respond to the urgent political crises of their day. Painted in the run-up to this retrospective, ‘Marchers’ may well allude to the farmers’ protests demanding a waiver of pernicious loans that trap them in a vicious debt cycle. Here, the dissenting figures are rendered less as sinew – the quintessential valorised subaltern bodies in Patwardhan’s paintings – and more as outline. An ambiguous shade of green, a neon verdigris – neither fertile nor poisonous – contours the figures in uncertainty, signalling the portent of a not-yet.
Except for a poetic pause or caesura produced by the glimpse of a landscape between two train compartments, the mood in ‘Accident on May Day’ is tense. A worker whose face we cannot see is being carried away on a stretcher, held between the parentheses of a Communist flag and the policeman’s baton. It was painted a year before the massive textile strike in Bombay in 1982, which placed the lives and livelihoods of around 2.5 lakh workers at stake and which changed the city and its working class forever. As I look at the painting again, I realise that the event or ‘accident’ at the centre of the work could be read as a metaphor of the blow suffered by the Left in Maharashtra after the murder of the trade unionist and CPM (Communist Party of India, Marxist) MLA Krishna Desai in 1970 by nativist right-wing militants affiliated to the Shiv Sena formation. In a bid to destroy the trade unions, the ruling Congress Party had covertly allied itself with dangerous right-wing forces that would destroy Bombay’s inclusive character forever. Teesta Setalvad writes what most people from my generation born in the 1970s in Bombay know to be true: “The battered state of the communist party in this period [after the murder of Krishna Desai] was reflected in a splintering of its working class base. Tragically that base, through a significant shift in orientation and consciousness, became and has been since, the underbelly of the Shiv Sena.”
Excerpted with permission from Walking through Soul City: Curatorial Monograph, Nancy Adajania, National Gallery of Modern Art/The Guild.