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Over the years, Sunil Padwal’s signature man has become instantly recognisable. If R K Laxman’s Common Man is a bewildered witness to the idiocy of daily life, Padwal’s Desolate Man (as I call him) is no longer a witness: he is past seeing, feeling and hearing. And what he has seen and felt and heard has put him into a state of catatonic angst. He is a thinking man’s Common Man, perpetually in a state of Wordsworthian despair:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours….
The Desolate Man’s profound feeling of anxiety and dread was something we could identify with. Padwal’s muscular figures and monumental heads were shorn of decoration and embellishment, apparel and costume; anything, in fact, that could place them in time or place. Their faces had power and strength yet they were faceless; they had vision which seemed to bore through stone, yet we couldn’t see their eyes. They were heroic figures brought down to their knees; shorn Samsons drained of their strength. In their universality, they could be anyone, anywhere and anytime, and in their universality, they could be us.
In his current exhibition Myopia, Sunil Padwal contemporarises this timeless sense of frustration and despair, of helplessness and pent up anger. In his most ambitious body of work yet, we have moved into battlefields of every description and in every part of the world. His women―the first time the artist has brought in the other sex―are presented with the starkness of photography. These startling images have come from variegated sources: a photograph in Time for a United Nations World Food Programme in aid of Kashmiri earthquake victims, a prize winning World Press photograph of a girl displaced by a Pakistani earthquake, a picture from Mexico, one from India… What is striking is that the origin of these images seem immaterial: in all of them, the women wear the same look, haunted and haunting, defensive yet defiant. By changing the frames of these pictures and giving them a seismic shift in context, Padwal seems to bring them together into one universal woman, neither country nor religion specific, identified only by her gender, which makes her a second class citizen of whichever country she happens to be rooted in.
By using another set of photographs, this time of the British coloniser’s attempts to do a “scientific” study of caste physiognomy, Padwal seems to say that in another context, it is not just gender that defines your status: the empire builder, whatever his era and whatever his politics, will find his own unique way to pin down a butterfly. Hitler’s systematic propagation of the Aryan supremacy theory comes to mind; its consequences are too well known and too brutal to need retelling.
The installations―a departure for the artist―carry on this theme and makes it almost palpable. The playfully named Toys R Us turns the house-boat, the very symbol of an idyllic, romantic tryst with Nature, into a comment on how the world has turned completely topsy–turvy: from a distance, it does look like a shikara; from close-up you see that the boat is constructed entirely of toy guns. The shikara now gets a new meaning: it’s now the hunted, a quivering object in the gun–sight of the shikari. The use of toy guns also suggests a loss of innocence, real guns being used as toys, while boys with roses still in tact on their cheeks become pre–pubescent soldiers.
The heroic figures of the US Marines fighting in Iraq are on the dog–tags which dominate the installation Of course. A tag is worn for identification, and soldiers are said to wear it with pride. But ironically, the tag is useful only when the wearer is dead, his face and body too mangled for recognition. When its wearer is alive, the tag serves the opposite purpose of suppressing the soldier’s individuality; in his uniform and the tag’s uniformness, every crease of personality is sought to be erased. The wearer doesn’t realise it but, all in all, he’s just another brick in the wall.
Urban Trauma comes from the artist’s very intense personal experience. We, of course, need not know this: the surgical instruments dangling from invisible strings move in their own macabre dance of death. When we need them, they save our lives, yet what is terrifying is that seen in an operation theatre or even in the clear light of day, they eerily resemble instruments of torture. Is there, then, so little that separates good and evil? Are they two sides of one coin? Are they each on both sides of the same coin?
Sunil Padwal’s world has always been bleak. With Myopia, that bleak world has turned even bleaker. The artist has applied black tones on black, and yet we will see this as not necessarily too dark a commentary on the world we live in. What can be more tragic that that?
If Sunil Padwal were to be a cake, Harsh Goenka would get a large piece of him. And so would Sunday Review. In 1993, when this publication was looking for someone to illustrate its lead stories, in came this bright young man who looked less like a painter, more of an ad man. As it happens, he was an ad man with a flair for painting. He was soon a regular Sunday Review contributor, his illustrations, often in sombre colours, often featuring a faceless, haunted (and haunting) male figure, becoming an intrinsic part of the look of this paper.
Padwal still looks like an advertising man, perhaps more so. He has a fashionably short hair style, with a bright tint sprinkled across the spiked hair. His clothes would get him instant admission into any discotheque. But he’s quit advertising and become that rarity: someone who makes a living out of painting alone.
It began with Harsh Goenka, the art collecting head of RPG Enterprises, noticing the Sunday Review illustrations. “Are you a painter,” he asked Padwal. “No,” said Padwal. “Well, you should be,” said Goenka and commissioned him to do a painting. Padwal did 15. He was soon on his way to his first exhibition. Goenka remains his patron-in-chief (a recent exhibition was sponsored by RPG), but Parmeshwar Godrej, Kumarmangalam Birla and Tina Ambani have also become avid collectors.
If that suggests a “society painter” tag, it’s misleading. Padwal’s signature solitary man, face blanked out often to blackness, has a mesmerising quality about it, made more so by our inability to locate the figure in time or place. He could be a man “awaiting a train at a deserted station. In Paris maybe,” suggests Padwal. He could be in a chawl in Mumbai. Or a prison in Sarajevo. That universal quality also draws foreigners to his work as it did at his recent show at Mumbai’s Jehangir Art Gallery. “They wanted to know if I had studied abroad. They didn’t believe I am J. J. School of Art product,” says Padwal.
Sunil Padwal, at 31, shows the restless energy of the young. Yet his paintings are completely still, the solitary man made completely inert by the human condition. Where does the artist’s energy go? In exploration. In finding new media, new ways and new materials. Not one of his works is a conventional canvas in a conventional frame. He will paint on the remnants of a packing crate on tarpaulin sheets, on colour xeroxes or on old degree certificates found in Mumbai’s Chor Bazaar. The frames come from everywhere: Chor Bazaar, of course, but also Kurla Old Market or Bharat Market or wherever. And they are ‘frames’ only in a manner of speaking. You might find gear parts, pulleys, or part of petrol can be incorporated into the work. The recent exhibition also included books; not real books but pieces of wood made to look like them with the solitary man glaring from the cover. A collection of them would make a wonderful library, the lack of words and the book’s literal hollowness a telling comment on our times. Not that Sunil Padwal wants you to see any large meanings in what he does. “I paint because I enjoy painting. And do you know what? People say the solitary man is melancholy. But he gives me immense happiness.”
September 24, 2000
Broad brush strokes give way to fine graphic lines; the large scope of the canvas is abandoned for the smooth surface of paper and glass. Sunil Padwal’s recent body of work marks a moment of transition for the artist, where he discards the comfort of the known for the challenge of the unknown. The journey of self discovery bears its own rewards.
Numb is departure as much as it is homecoming for the artist as he revisits his collegiate flair for finely rendered graphic drawings coupled with his trademark monochromatic rendition of the male protagonist.
Here Sunil opens is vocabulary up to new metaphors, where the singular, lone figure of the male protagonist who was the sole carrier of the artist’s emotions and thoughts gives way to other objects and elements. Machines and grids, insects and animals populate the space that was once reserved for the solo figure.
Surprisingly despite the arrival of all these new elements in his works, Sunil’s approach to space remains uncluttered and minimal, his construction of the visual experience is as precise and pristine as the earlier works, if not more so.
Executed over a year the works comprise of three sections that encompass separate concerns of the artist that of course culminate into one viewing experience since they are presented together in one show.
One section, titled Fragile consists of works are faux light boxes in black and white with a section of anatomical drawings and grids traced onto the top of glass, under which an echo of the image is presented on paper; a finely drawn form that acts as both shadow and alter ego of the image on the surface.
These works are similar to a diary and catalogue the artist musings over mortality, violence and form. Here the male figure is still predominant though other forms like the dog, a cage and grids appear to provide a sense of movement to the form.
The other set of works are loaded with commentary on the current political scenario and are a set of finely drawn images on paper mounted in a box frame.
In works like Black Gold we see a fat bumble bee attired in the stars and stripes of the American flag, buzzing among oil drilling machines. The reference to the oil wars and the US invasion of Iraq are implicit in this work, while the title acts as a cue.
In the same section there are other renditions of obsolete machines ticking within the anatomy of insects, once again referring to the hidden agenda of globalization.
These works deserve a good long look since they are the first instance where the artist has abandoned the human form all together. The works are non narrative in nature and yet they have a story to tell, all they require is a keen eye to spot the reference to larger issues.
The last set of works, chronologically the first works that led to this series, is titled Frailty. Here one can trace the beginning of the artist’s initial explorations, where the form of the male protagonist is very much present and harkens back to his early works but there are already sings of the new series as the artists constructs a series of grids and lines around and over the figure. These works signify an emotional state rather than a realm of reason. Journey into the mind of the artist to experience his highs and lows in this large format works that lead you into his latest series, which jump off the precipice and into the unknown.
Art correspondent for the Indian Express