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?