by Vatsala SethiJan 18, 2023
The need of the hour in politically unsettling contemporary times like today demands artists to push limits and connect with audience sans any geographical borders, nationalities or defined categorisation. Very selective artists manage to transpire into a visual language that is ‘universal’ in its complete sense. One of our local artists managed to leave the world on a rather introspective note! Hailing from a family of coal miners in the Chandrapur district of Pune, Maharashtra, Prabhakar Pachpute pays a poetic tribute to his familial history and the principal subject of his critique. As a child, I grew up to a simple but impactful quote - ‘The world is your canvas!’. Well! Artist Pachpute has indeed transformed the world into his canvas; he paints brutal reality suffused with pensive, poetic undertones. His visual art is alluring but unsettling!
The versatile artist was part of Cecilia Alemani’s curation at the recent Venice Biennale, titled ‘The Milk of Dreams’. Pachpute’s endeavour doesn’t stop here! For his latest show, the artist transformed the Rotunda and stairwell at the Tate St. Ives with wall drawings and paintings, banners, sculpture and animation. The visual artist brought the history of coal mining in his home state of Maharashtra to Cornwall, a country known for its coal mining heritage.
“Conversations started in 2018 when Anne Barlow invited me to exhibit here.”, the artist recalls. “I managed a site visit in 2020, prior to the pandemic. This is the first time Rotunda is being used as an exhibition space.” The structure is dynamic with an abundance of natural light from circular windows and smaller outlets. “I was aware of the challenges of exhibiting here. Viewers would be walking around within the same area while I created my wall murals.” But I personally think, what a better way to create art for people, with people and, most importantly, weave stories of people (coal miners).
Pushing the limit of art beyond the canvas, Pachpute started off with some preparatory sketches and brainstorming sessions over zoom. “But there were many spontaneous modifications keeping in mind the architectural elements”, he adds. “I think I worked on the entire composition for over 15 days. I also proposed to make a sculpture on site.” The piece was sculpted in clay and will be wiped out along with the wall murals once the art exhibition culminates.
Impermanence is indeed an important characteristic of why this exhibition sets itself apart from the others. “Many times, I have worked with mud as a medium, which is very fragile. This sculpture was made only for that space!” This very act of destroying the clay sculpture indeed adds to the exhibition’s identity in its truest sense – from conception to destruction. Apart from clay, charcoal played a crucial role in Prabhakar’s practice. Prabhakar shares, “Charcoal is a very basic medium that I used since my university days. It's accessible, cheaper and can be used in extensive ways.” Trying to portray the life of coal miners, the material is indeed very relevant. “When I started working on this subject matter of coal mining, it became a trigger point to see the connection very evident. Later, I started exploring many different mining heritages and gradually colour started to appear in my practice.” His composition includes watercolours, natural colours, clay, acrylic paints, paper pulp and organic materials.
Across different media, distorted characters represent generations of Pachpute’s coal mining family. Sometimes shown as part human and machinery, they inhabit desolate or ruined landscapes that are often overlaid with symbols of protest and folklore. The walls of the space are washed with charcoal. For the artist, this dusty material refers to industrial wastelands created by the mass extraction of coal and a ‘post-industrial smoke of failure that is floating in the sky’. The artist shares, ”For this particular exhibition, I thought about my visits to different mining areas around the world. Somehow, I wanted to connect all concerns and stories and weave them together.” On a broader note, the wall murals reflect on stories of labour, willpower and suppression, exposing the human costs of commercialising natural resources and inequalities in who profits from the environment.
I have noticed that Pachpute often depersonalises his subject’s identity. The human/ animal face is often substituted with light switches, industrial chimneys or mining tools. The idea is to keep the subjects ‘faceless’, thus making every element a surreal abstract form within the broader landscape. Prabhakar comments: “I grew up listening to Indian mythological stories such as Panchatantra. This eventually started reflecting in my art when I started understanding the visual language.”
Prabhakar started out with these surreal beings in stop-motion animation as a tool to bring this imagination into reality. Going down memory lane, he says, “I developed a character called manager, which appears as a house instead of a head or an air conditioner duct as a head or a car wiper as hands.” This gave a new dimension to his imagination. Over time during his visits to the mining museum, Prabhakar started seeing similar characters. These characters have now evolved and are very evident in his signature practice.
Pachpute’s current show leaves back an air of introspection with the viewers. Reflecting on the lives of coal miners, their suppression, hardships, exploitation and willpower, Pachpute pays homage to the global community of coal miners and their significant contribution to the world economy. The artist signs off the call by saying, “This exhibition has been a true impression of the survival of the mining ecology!” Post this show, the Indian artist will be unveiling a body of works on wall drawings and cut-outs in San Sebastian, Spain.