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Underground connection: Prabhakar Pachpute’s thought-provoking art

Prabhakar Pachpute in his studio in Pune. Photo: Jignesh Mistry  

The Hindi word buniyadi is difficult to translate. A feeble attempt at English translation might suggest ‘foundational’. While talking to artist Prabhakar Pachpute at his studio in Pune’s Yerawada area, I was repeatedly reminded of this word. He was one of the most fêted artists in the last edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale and his solo exhibition is on now in Dubai. When I met him, he had just returned from a two-week stint there. His responses to my questions left me deeply moved: I admired his ability to unpack his nuanced art practice while eschewing the usual artworld mumbo jumbo.

One of Prabhakar Pachpute’s works at the Kochi Muziris Biennale this year. Photo: Special arrangement

One of Prabhakar Pachpute’s works at the Kochi Muziris Biennale this year. Photo: Special arrangement  

Charcoal & acrylic

Pachpute’s charcoal and acrylic paintings, wall drawings, video art, sculptural installations resonate with his concerns for the issues of the day such as the agrarian crisis, farmers’ distress, land and labour problems. For Pachpute, whose childhood was spent in Sasti village in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district, known as the State’s coal belt, these concerns are also personal. It is in the personal that Pachpute firmly locates the political.

He, however, takes umbrage at any attempt to box him in as a ‘political artist’. He says, “Categories are simplistic and I don’t want to define a particular way of looking at my work. My concerns are definitely political and they reflect in my work. Why do you need a label for that? Making art is in itself a political gesture. I started exploring my own background through visual art. I am not interested in merely showcasing issues.”

Mining matters

Pachpute was born to a family of coal miners. Almost everyone in the village either worked in the mines or were farmers. Having seen the mines from close quarters, Pachpute feels great concern about the poor working conditions of the miners. He tells me how in Poland, for example, it is a matter of pride to be a miner, and how workers are not allowed to work for more than 25 years to protect their health.

He talks of how back home, his friends and family members have spots on their skins caused by the extreme heat, which might lead to cancers. He talks of how lands are abandoned after an area is mined and no attempt made at reclamation. Why can’t the land be restored to people and used for farming, plantations or community gardens, he asks.

While studying fine arts at Indira Kala Sangeet University in Khairagarh, Pachpute says he was greatly influenced by the 16th century Dutch painter, Pieter Bruegel. The documentary nature of Bruegel’s painting impressed him.

“Many artists of that time were painting grand themes and subjects. Breugel, in contrast, focused on local themes, such as the lives of farmers, on marriage festivities etc. But his paintings transcend the merely documentary. They evoke the poetic and that made me think,” he says. Pachpute’s work is marked by anamorphic forms. Human figures don’t usually have a human face — they have ploughs and whirring blades instead. Machines look like human body parts. His use of charcoal is also exceptional — it is mixed with water, smudged and rubbed on canvas. His stop-motion animation films feature charcoal drawings of miners and their lives. At several residencies abroad, Pachpute created huge wall drawings that were eventually erased. He sees this erasure as akin to the destruction of land by mining.

Visual influences

Pachpute also traces a lot of his visual influences to the Marathi literature he devoured in college — Vijay Tendulkar, Dilip Chitre, Tukaram, Mahesh Elkunchwar, Narayan Surve, among others. A chance meeting with artist Tushar Joag, who came to teach while Pachpute was studying in Baroda, was also a turning point. “Baroda helped me ask critical questions about my own practice — why and how do we make art? We were exposed to cinema. The atmosphere of Baroda changed my perspective. Tushar sir helped contextualise my work by connecting the many divergent threads in what I was doing then. Later, when we moved to Mumbai, I assisted him for a while and some of us would regularly meet at his house for discussions on art, music, film, philosophy. I can’t believe that he is gone so soon.”

His work, ‘Sea of Fists’, on display at Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai. Photo: Special arrangement

His work, ‘Sea of Fists’, on display at Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai. Photo: Special arrangement  

Recognition & applause

The news of Pachpute’s nomination for the Artes Mundi award, the U.K.’s top prize for contemporary art, has received a lot of media attention. He will travel to Cardiff next year to showcase his works alongside other nominated artists. The announcement was a pleasant surprise. He pauses and then asks, “How did it happen, you think? I am flooded with calls even from my village. They have read it too. They finally think I have done something of purpose.”

Pachpute is also busy preparing for his big solo exhibition to be held at Experimenter in Kolkata early next year. Awards, recognition, applause have come his way but Pachpute maintains that it is difficult to be an artist in the current political climate. There is anarchy everywhere. Violence is being normalised. Is chaos a provocation for art? Perhaps.

ON SHOW: ‘Artist’s Rooms: Prabhakar Pachpute’, at Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai, till February 15, 2020.

The writer teaches literary and cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune.

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 2:52:16 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/art/underground-connection/article30213645.ece

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