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