Prabhakar Barwe, the Jacques Derrida of Indian modernism

The legendary painter once said, ‘The interplay between concrete and abstract is my prime preoccupation’

<em>Photo Courtesy: Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation</em>
<em>Photo Courtesy: Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation</em>

Vibha Galhotra

The legendary painter once said, ‘The interplay between concrete and abstract is my prime preoccupation. It gives me immense pleasure to work on that meeting point to that thin line of demarcation, where abstraction meets the concrete or separates from it’

In the scorching heat of Delhi, while all seemed grumpy and dull, walking into the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) changed the pace of my day. The cool breeze of the gallery along with the experience of space, colour, form and poetry, as I entered the retrospective exhibition ‘Astitva: The Essence of Prabhakar Barwe,’ brought back a different sense of fulfillment.

A forgotten hero of modernist, pre-contemporary art movement in India, Prabhakar Barwe (1936 – 1995), was much ahead of his time and was widely appreciated by his peers and seniors for his unique sense of depiction and his concern with the language of painting rather than visual images and signs.

His astonishing exhibition at NGMA, then, gives the viewer the opportunity to understand the work and process of this unique artist and thinker. Being an artist myself, living in a time different than that of Barwe, his devotion to the language of art rather than the material form it takes, resonated with me.

In the book The Blank Canvas, Barwe described his artistic process as inspired by every object in sight. Talking about the sources of inspiration, he said, “every substance, cluster of substances, why even the sky and water, have a form by which we recognise those substances and objects. This is what form means to us in everyday life. Most people don’t see the thousands of objects that are around them as forms.”

“An artist, on the other hand, is sharply aware of the universe of forms he inhabits. On occasion this awareness becomes so intense, that he sees not only the outward forms of objects but the smaller forms that they contain and the even subtler forms that those small forms contain. The number of increasingly subtler forms the artist may see is limited only by the power of his vision.”

“He looks at them all as pure forms, dissociated from their functional context. The artist sees these forms in a very special way, quite different from how most people see them in daily life. What matters to him most are their interrelationships, the configurations that arise out of their juxtaposition, their relationship to their background and even to the unexpressed pictorial references in his mind.” According to Barwe, every artist modified the conventional form of an object based on his own references and perceptions.

The exhibition feathers a collection of paintings sourced from numerous galleries, museums and public collections around the world including the artist’s own estate and most importantly from the pages of his diary.

Curator Jesal Thacker of Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation has spent years of love and labour researching, conceptualising and finding the right place for this exhibition to reintroduce the work of this great thinker. Since a very young age, Barwe sought to redefine his own language and transitioned from an academic style of painting practised by his uncle Vinayak Pandurang Karmarkar into the newly found notions of modernism and abstraction or figurative narration.

His practice did not negate the figure, instead it re-focused on the mundane objects surrounding the figure, creating an unconventional order of things. The object thus became the subject, redefining its cognitive context without deforming its formal appearance as an apparitional flight form. It was a constant struggle, between the utilitarian and the creative that compelled Barwe to balance the needs of the mundane world with his imaginative one, and in this process, the mundane became his core subject.

Given his attention to detail, it goes without saying that Barwe was quite analytical of his work and constantly seeking deep meaning through experimentation with colour and form. His style and process somehow reminds me of the concept of deconstruction introduced by philosopher Jacques Derrida who explored the interplay between language and the construction of meaning in search of learning about the intended meaning or structural unity of a particular text.

Similarly, Barwe was trying find newer realities created by abstracting an image from its real form. In one of his notes Barwe mentions, “The interplay between concrete and abstract is my prime preoccupation. It gives me immense pleasure to work on that meeting point to that thin line of demarcation, where abstraction meets the concrete or separates from it.”

While the exhibition was first organised at NGMA, Mumbai, in the beginning of this year, it has now moved to Delhi where it is open for public viewing at NGMA till July 28, 2019. The exhibition spans Barwe’s entire life - from birth to death - highlighting the nuances of the artist’s work. He wasn’t merely an artist but also a writer and a poet. It, therefore, was an absolute treat to walk through the exhibition which was well weaved with visuals, colours, poetry, movement, interactions and audio recordings, stimulating an endless imagination amongst its viewers.

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