Category Archives: Essays
Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone.
- September 1, 1939 by W.H. Auden
Sunil Padwal cuts a quietly studious figure in his spacious New York- style studio. If anyone told you that his well-known meditative, muscular men were selfportraits, you’d do an internal double-take. Yet, this is exactly how we start our conversation on his newest body of work.
Padwal began his career not as a painter, but as a man of the press, illustrating for The Sunday Review’s lead stories. In 1993, he first began to paint his well-known protagonist: brooding, somber, his defined musculature and shorn profile lost in reverie. Padwal explained how in these early years, he began to paint a physical ideal of the man he wanted to become: toned and healthy; an epitome of physical fitness. He achieved this part beautifully, but this perfect rendition of himself still had to wrestle with the issues that plagued him internally: the dystopic state of the surrounding urban situation that an everyday man in India grapples with.
Art critics like Ranjit Hoskote and Georgina Maddox, and, Columnist Anil Dharkar who have written on Padwal’s work from this time detected an emotional catatonia in these images. “…[his] paintings are completely still, the solitary man made completely inert by the human condition”, wrote Dharkar, “…[he] is no longer a witness: he is past seeing, feeling and hearing. And what he has seen, felt and heard has put him in a state of catatonic angst.”Hoskote identifies “his subjects [as being] those fugitives of crowded metropolitan life, whose identity is rubbed away in the glissitude of traffic and the onrush of pedestrians. It is Padwal’s purpose to seize the aura of these intriguing faces, to commemorate them in that moment between vision and erasure.”3
Padwal’s man was a self-inspired protagonist of a mundane urban story. In spite of appearing physically capable to take on the world around him, Padwal’s early protagonist was always depicted without any defining facial features and, therefore, bereft of any means of communication. Although he contemplated the urban predicament, he was not given any tools to express his concerns. This makes for a frustrating conundrum: He is eyeless but not blind; mouth-less but opinionated. He becomes a silent spectator to the goings-on around him as well as an involuntary participant.
Padwal introduced colour into his works between 2000 and 2004 as an emotional signifier. His urban man remained his main tool of communication but he started allowing for more symbolic devices. He began to draw heavily on photo references and graphic design elements and used these to make emotional statements on the realities around him. An agony and helplessness pervades these works as well as a humiliation of his continued inability to instrument any significant change. Nonetheless, this period signified an awakening for Padwal, a time when he began to reach out through his symbolic devices to express what he wanted. He began to find his voice through a multitude of other graphic languages.
‘Numb’ (2007), a show of mixed media drawings and installation, spoke about socio-political realities. Critic Georgina Maddox, in her catalogue essay for the show observed that “these works are similar to a diary and catalogue the artist’s musings over mortality, violence and form…These 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.” Padwal, as observer, implicates himself in the inert and indolent state of metropolitan India; he feels as jaded, as helpless as any other urban citizen. However, as artist and social commentator, he creates worlds and systems that heavily allude to universal narratives.
Padwal’s newest body of work continues his inquest into his personal and the collective psyche. ‘Soliloquies: notes from the drawing book’ consists of two installations and four series of small format drawings made on pages of his diary.
Padwal’s installation, ‘Digitally Twisted’ (2011) continues his preoccupation with the trauma of erasure that the individual faces in the digital era. The installation consists of a tenuously long spinal column, printed, almost infected, with numbers that call to mind DNA and Binary Codes. As it snakes along, it transforms from an organic structureto a formation that visually alludes to urban sprawl. Padwal exposes modernization to be a flawed system that is literally mutating our genetic natures and causing a degradation of our very basic natures. Fine black threads run across the front of the installation, a graphic reminder that no matter how much order and logic we impose on ourselves, the human mind and body is too far disfigured to be able to adhere to ‘Urban trauma II’ (2007-2011) addresses the trauma of hospitalization. Surgical instruments suspended within a ‘matchstick-house’ wooden framework threaten and titillate in a macabre dance. The instruments glint and clash, creating villainous music that is both melodic but discordant.
For Padwal, the medium of drawing allows for thoughts to be overlapped and complexed. His soliloquies are memories and observations of a city, yet fictional and universal simultaneously. The worlds depicted are surreal, all-encompassing traps for the urban individual. Black and white as monochromes have tremendous strength according to Padwal. They speak clearly, whereas colour distracts. These two primaries combined with a graphic language make for minimal but impactful works. Padwal has used a Rotring pen, an architectural draughtsman’s tool, to create each finely imbricated drawing. Padwal’s lines follow an interiorized, almost intuitive logic to create these surreal urbanscapes. His pen meanders tightly, almost searchingly, lost in the maze of its own creation.
Many of the drawings belie an underlying angst. Some lament a degradation of human values in the rat race for capitalistic power. Others express an urgent fear for the organic body turning mechanic: without feeling, intelligence or sensitivity. Many of the drawings depict a kind of reverse decay. Technology and urban development are symbolic of an alarming anti-climax that is fast encroaching onto Padwal’s worlds. The construction grid, and architectural forms indicate ruination, not evolution and tension, not celebration. This is a far cry from turn-of-the-century western artistic practices which celebrated urbanization, industry and technological speed. The Italian Futurists and British Vorticism both were defined by their embrace of industry and made significant stylistic progress in the way mechanical motion and industrial evolution was changing the way human beings visually experienced a changing world around them.
Urbanization has reached saturation point in Padwal’s worlds and although his lines embroider delicate visual systems that are aesthetically fine, they also belie the artist’s keen frustrations with urban sprawl as much as he tries to map its complexities in a minimal graphic language.
Padwal’s figures now have mouths along with their trademark musculature. They spew circuitous lines, they drown in a riddle of constructivist sprawl but over all they express a complex set of feelings which even the artist cannot articulate into words. These works are brimming with subtext. So much so, that in some instances aesthetic expressions of these physically bypass the restrictive frame. One particular series, ‘DISCLAIMER: the views expressed here are strictly personal’ (2007-2011) features five mixed-media drawings voicing Padwal’s disdain of Western capitalistic and political systems. These works literally have elements that project beyond the frame, part of the drawing, part of Padwal’s inner swirl of thoughts literally spill, bleed, leach and run off onto the wall.
The irony of this body of works lies in the intersection of two tangential artistic principles: subjectivity and aesthetic minimalism. Padwal’s work is firmly rooted in the figurative tradition. Yet he has made it his very own. Padwal has infused his individual preoccupations with a unique graphic language developed from various influences: maps, architectural drawings, Japanese graphic design and British editorial design as well as drawing on the art of Christian Boltanski, Marlene Dumas and the Chapman Brothers. Padwal’s new works are his most intimate and simultaneously most geopolitical yet.
A drawing simply is no longer a drawing, no matter how self-sufficient its execution may be. It is a symbol. — Paul Klee
Looking for truth, respite and catharsis, artists have often turned to the very primary and graphic act of putting down lines on paper—by just drawing. Giving vent to the pent up passion inside of them, this form of art is perhaps the most direct way of speaking that an artist can lay recourse to. Arguably drawing, unlike painting and other forms of art, requires less premeditation, it is, in a way, unpretentious, raw and immediate.
In this body of work, artist Sunil Padwal, attempts to unburden some of his angst and frustration towards social tribulations and the apathy felt by many as a result of being relegated to the margins. For this, he turns to drawing that unlike his larger canvases is intimate, yet striking–almost like a stage whisper.
Padwal has approached some of his drawings as one would the act of automatic writing, wherein the lines of the artist have meandered from the austere dictates of strictly delineated forms and taken their own entangled path. These lines then to create forms that have, ‘come into being’ as opposed to them being purposefully created with premeditation. They are perhaps, fictional forms where the artist has allowed himself to come close to abstraction. The works speak in black and white, but in a role reversal where the background is black and the lines are rendered in white with an isograph pen with white ink.
In other instances, the works gain multiple-layers and appear more self-consciously worked upon, even while they strive to maintain the feeling of being spontaneous doodles. The drawings are actually quite studied in their casualness as they appear to have been torn out of a note book or sketch pad. However, the drawings have in fact been worked upon, with Pawal’s trademark meticulousness to create textures, burn-marks, sutures, blue paper burnt on the edges to appear like an x-ray and other collage-like effects and processes that enhance the ruggedness of a scientists’ working manual. These make these spontaneous drawings more complex, refined and thought out.
In other instances the graphic quality of these works are so meticulous, that they appear almost like miniature paintings, they also bare the exactitude of and likeness to a study of human anatomy that has been a hallmark of Padwal’s earlier work.
In its entirety the works emulate the intimate format of a diary, yet they have a certain audience in mind; they possess theatricality and poise, which is why the title of the solo, Soliloquies, is extremely apt. The artists’ internal monologue is externalised and the intent is to share and articulate these quiet thoughts, without grandstanding, or resorting to heavy-handed preaching tone. The works are neither loud nor do they state the obvious. This body of work draws its effectiveness from the fact that it calls you in closer.
While writers resort to prose and poetry to ponder these questions, artists speak through the medium of lines on paper. Padwal’s implements for this body of work are paper, an isographic Rotring pen and basic drawing materials, enhanced with water- colour and ink. Some of the works are titled with a font of the now almost defunct typewriter.
Largely these drawings, like most of Padwal’s earlier work, reflect upon the changing face of the metropolis of Mumbai. The constantly morphing sky-line of maximum city has played muse to many an artist, as it has for Padwal in his previous series, Numb, however the scale of the works are an important factor since their miniature size is in direct contrast with the larger-than-life experience of Bombay/ Mumbai- with its sky scrapers, earth movers, Bollywood hoardings and teaming millions. This direct contrast is perhaps an invitation to examine closely what one has often taken for granted.
The five part series sets out to examine the genesis, growth of the city and its ramifications on human life. Continuum Chaos, Interpreting,Disclaimer and Analogic are some of the chosen subheadings for this series.
Padwal embarked on a similar trajectory of introspection about the city and its growth when he contributed his works for a group exhibition titledForty years of Freedom, and once more when he revisited the idea of urban growth for a similar exhibition titled Sixty years of Freedom. Like in his earlier works Padwal has continued to use the familiar symbol of a male protagonist, whose tonsured head and taut body became the symbol for urban man. However the body comes unravelled in meandering lines and strong anatomy drawings that candidly bare the bones of the protagonist.
This body of work is a culmination of his thoughts and feelings about the city, beginning from childhood and going up to his present lifetime. He has used the platform of the drawing book or diary as a chronicler of disquiet, when his immediate surroundings create within him a sense of dystopia. Here there is evidence of ‘progress’ but there is something not quite right with the manner in which this progress and modernisation has taken root in the city.
While one craves to be modern and to progress towards a ‘better’ future, stock taking of this so-called betterment is important. Padwal’s work constantly poses the question; must progress come at the expense of the degradation of society and the loss of human values? In the post-industrial age of machine –versus-man, Padwal does not quote directly from the debate or rhetoric of displacement of migrant mill workers to make way for the glitzy mall; however it alludes to it obliquely where man and machine clash and twist in a dizzying dance of destruction.
In another series titled As far as I can see, he has embarked upon skeletal studies of animals and the human anatomy to evoke a metaphor of the quintessential symbol of dispossession. Is man a mute beast that can neither find a voice to protests the gross inequalities that often jump up to hit one in the face in a metropolitan like Mumbai?
Within this angst ridden landscape is room for humour and Padwal has dedicated a series to an application on his phone, titled A100 Words that make you Sound Smart. He has used these words, from his phone App, lettered in a font of the now almost defunct typewriter, which survives only in government institutions. The intent is to make the words ironic and tongue-in-cheek. For instance he has used words like Tirade and simply juxtaposed it with an image of a twisted spine. It is a comment on the digital era where words and images can be twisted by powerful members of society to confuse people by the smoke and mirrors of clever wordplay.
Finally, Padwal departs from the small format to amplify his comment with an installation titled Digitally Twisted. This installation consists of a huge paper roll, about 36 x 8 feet large, folded over in a manner of an accordion book or a sheet of corrugated paper. While it emulates the human spine it alludes largely to the spine of the city that has come under threat with the degradation of the very fabric of society and its basic human values. The work could also be seen as the spine of a book that in a way ties up the work with the notebook format followed by the artist throughout the show. The works are backlit with a spotlight lending them, once again, the air of theatricality that is so much a part of Padwal’s lexicon in this series.
The editor of a publication faces many challenges on a day to day basis. Top of the list has to be the putting together of an interesting mix of articles for the reader. But that’s a challenge most good editors relish. The one that gives him the most headaches, though, is what visuals to use. Take a terrific article, but illustrate it with boring pictures, and chances are that the reader will skip the page. Photographs — good, strong photographs — are not always available, which is when you want good, strong illustrations.
As editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India, I was lucky enough to have a quiet, studious artist on the staff. His name was Baiju Parthan. But The Sunday Times of India’s Review had no such luxury, so I embarked upon the difficult, but ultimately rewarding part of an editor’s job, which I call the Treasure Hunt. That’s when I found Sunil Padwal. I was immediately struck by how young he was : seeing the maturity of his work, I had expected someone much older. But he was a serious young man, and he always kept to the deadline. But more than that, he was able to capture the essence of the story and do so with illustrations which jumped out vividly from the page. No surprise, then, that we used him more and more; he soon became a Review</B> regular and people began to notice him.
I have followed Sunil’s progress over a decade and a half since then. One of his large paintings hangs over my writing table : it’s the brooding, intense, yet unseeing face of one of his monolithic men; men of such epic proportions that they seem cast in stone. Yet, in spite of their stern impassivity, you sense a hidden vulnerability at their core. This, and many of Sunil’s other haunted looking men capture our urban angst, the alienation we feel in our big cities, and try to escape from again and again.
His current exhibition, I think, is his best work yet. Part of it carries forward the themes and motifs we are familiar with, but even there, in the detailing, there are departures. But what excites me more are the new avenues he has begun to explore. At one level, this shows itself in the experimentation with form, where the frame isn’t just an appendage put on the work after it’s done, but is an integral part of it. You will see that in the boxed frames, and you will particularly notice it in the multi-layered glass boxes, so that you get sometimes a three-dimensional shadow effect and sometimes different imagery at various levels adding up to a complex layering of ideas.
I also like the dry humour in the small series which juxtaposes modern imagery with the old. Like the fighter plane, displayed like a criminal in a gibbet. Or the bug with a carburettor for its innards, which obviously isn’t a good substitute because its legs are all askew. Or the crow pecking at the orrery, suggesting a complex mechanism put into the wrong hands. Or the bee’s search for honey, but since it’s an American bee (its hindquarters are the Stars and Stripes!), the honey it is searching for is not in a garden, but in a landscape filled with oil derricks.
Artists arrive with such departures. Because that’s when other journeys begin.