He is a storyteller – albeit on canvas. "If you take any art form, films or novels, for example, they all tell stories of people."

He is a storyteller – albeit on canvas. “If you take any art form, films or novels, for example, they all tell stories of people. That is what I wanted to do from the very first – capture the essence of life; be an anonymous observer of society. As such I was never really interested in landscapes or abstracts. That's why you won't see me painting the landscape of Kerala,” says the soft-spoken Sudhir Patwardhan in an interview with Metro Plus. True to his words, his painting titled ‘Keralite' is not on the verdant environs of the State, but the Malayali workers to be found in the majority of rubber workshops in and around Mumbai. Likewise in his ‘Approaching Storm' (which he began painting at an artist's camp in Ponmudi in 1990), it is people clad in the traditional mundu rather than the verdant hills that captured his imagination.

Realism, his forte

This kind of realism is his forte; but it's a realism that veils layers so complex that the beholder is often caught unawares by the magnitude of its depth. Such is the artistry inherent in the paintings of Patwardhan, who was also a practising radiologist until he retired around five years ago. One of the most renowned contemporary artists in India, Mumbai-based Patwardhan, was in the city recently to give a talk at the College of Fine Arts, Kerala, as part of its visiting faculty programme.

Right from his charcoal renderings of full-bodied human figures that were drawn in his early years to arresting figurative expressions of proletarian life juxtaposed amid the expansive urban landscape, it's not hard to imagine why Patwardhan is known to be a master painter of social realism. Again and again, each of Patwardhan's works celebrates his fascination for the figurative and reaffirms what the artist keeps emphasising – that ‘art is about people.'

“Contemporary art in India has always had a strong tradition of figurative art and it was but a natural progression for me into that tradition of greats like Tyeb Mehta, M.F. Hussain, Akbar Padamsee and so on,” says the self-taught artist.

Although he was drawn to painting right from his childhood spent in Pune and Ooty, he joined the Armed Forces Medical College, Pune, for a medical degree. But the young Patwardhan never thought of giving up his artistic dreams.

“I knew that I would do whatever necessary to teach myself to be an artist. I started reading about art and visiting local artists. I would hang around railway stations and bus stops and sketch continuously. In fact, I even used to sketch the specimens in college!” recalls the artist with a laugh.

“No one is entirely self-taught. The only thing is that I didn't go to art school and by not attending art school the only thing that I feel I missed out on was learning techniques. For instance, if at some stage I had the urge to paint in watercolours or oils I could not just do it. I had to join evening classes or read up and learn from scratch. I am restricted in that sense. Nevertheless, I always had the visual hunger to learn about art, visit museums, read up on art history, try out new techniques...” muses Patwardhan.

However, it was his move from small-town Khadki near Pune to “endless Mumbai” and the anonymity that the city afforded him that drew his artistic eye to the “complex interactions” of the urban environment that characterise his paintings – finely detailed depictions of industrial landscapes, plight of the working class…common people caught up in their everyday lives.

Being social

“It's just that the whole aspect of being social intrigues me. The time I came into the art scene, Bhupen Khakkar and Gulam Sheikh and others like them encouraged us to look beyond abstract and Tantric art steeped in history. Look at the present milieu, our present-day social relationships. What is it that involves being Indian? I took it off from that,” concludes Patwardhan as his wife, Shanta, a doctor and Kathak dancer and teacher, joins him for a typical Kerala lunch.