Art

Life on the slag heap

SUBLIME TRAUMA: It’s a risky life.

SUBLIME TRAUMA: It’s a risky life.   | Photo Credit: de20 periscope

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Charcoal images unfold as the installation ‘Canary in a Coal Mine’ blurs boundaries and looks at the harsh reality faced by the coal miners of Chandrapur

What if you could enter the room where Van Gogh’s potato eaters sit having their evening fare of baked potatoes? You would not be merely looking at them from a location and space that is different from yours. Young artist Prabhakar Pachpute in his work ‘Canary in a Coal Mine’ blurs the boundaries between spaces occupied by the viewer and his artistic subject – the coal miners of Maharashtra’s remote district of Chandrapur. This mining land and its people come alive in Mr. Pachpute’s installation currently on exhibit at Mumbai’s Clark House.

Equipped with a torch you enter a dingy room overpowered by darkness that represents a coal mine. Every dimension inside the room, the four walls, ceiling and the floor, is part of the installation. The work is done in charcoal and depicts the hardship suffered by poor miners. In the dim torchlight, a series of charcoal images unfold (à la the scene in The English Patient). The remote district, known as the ‘city of black gold’ for its reserves of coal, creates no images in the minds of city-dwellers in Maharashtra. Governments treat it as the backyard of development and whose tigers attract more attention than people living in adversity.

“Many in Mumbai don’t even know where Chandrapur is, let alone aware about its coal mines,” remarks Mr. Pachpute. A drawing evokes the theme of displacement, where an entire village which stands on a coal mine and its economy now risks being moved. A mining job is the lot of the villages in Chandrapur. Mr. Pachpute, who grew up in a family of miners, however, could carve out a different destiny for himself. Luckily for him, he could draw. But the suffering of the miners remains close to his heart finding ways in his other works as well.

The installation comprises five main drawings. In one, miners are struggling to bolster an elephant without a leg, ear and truck. “The elephant,” says Mr. Pachpute “symbolises strength which the miners are trying to resurrect.” “I chose the elephant because it is a combination of simplicity and strength.” Mr. Pachpute incorporates all the features of the room into his installation – the switchboard, a pipe running through the ceiling, the windows and so on. For instance, he draws splashes of water around the duct to convey leakages that frequently occur in mines. There is a clever motif of gumboots signifying the watery terrain the miners work in. In an interesting twist, Mr. Pachpute has drawn one boot on the wall whereas an actual boot, filled to the brim with water is strategically placed close to it, thus completing the pair. Says the artist who has used compressed charcoal and vine sticks to create the installation there are “no boundaries for drawings. You can use modern media, light, stop motions etc.” The blackened ceiling of the mine is created using soot from a candle flame. ‘Canary in a Coal Mine’ is also accompanied by a short animated video in the beginning.

Sumesh Sharma, curator at Clark House had not imagined the end result when he invited Mr. Pachpute to create it. “The room was compact, small, dingy and white. Now suddenly it has taken up a huge space. The narrative that has emerged is so amazing. An artist creating an artwork from a personal narrative. He is the raconteur of history. This is a graphic journey - a cinematic experience within itself,” Mr. Sharma says. “They are acute observations of the lives of miners, and convey the sublime trauma of the mine's psychological impact on those who work in and those who live above the mines.” For fellow curator Zasha Colah, Mr. Pachpute’s work is “not just expressive of what it’s like to be in a mine, but it offers an analysis of the lived reality [in mining areas] with so much attention to detail.

There is some wisdom in it,” she says. Mr. Pachpute has himself travelled 6,000 metres underground, a journey of 21-22 hours one way and seen miners up close. “Being a miner is very risky, as much as a military job. The ceiling can collapse anytime,” he says. Many observations have left an indelible mark on his consciousness. For instance, there is a drawing of a miner sitting and gazing at a piece of coal in his hand. “I have actually seen a miner sitting dejectedly like that when he lost his fellow miners,” points out Mr. Pachpute. The commission of the installation was inspired from The Beethoven Frieze at the Vienna Secession by Gustav Klimt. The solo exhibition ‘Canary in a Coal Mine’ opened last week at the Clark House in Mumbai and would stay till the end of the month. “Even if it is dismantled, it will not be destroyed,” says Mr. Sharma.

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Printable version | Dec 15, 2019 12:53:27 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/art/life-on-the-slag-heap/article3798225.ece

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