Feeling the Presence in Absence! Remembering Prabhakar Barwe
by Pankaja JK
“When all the paths in all the directions are closed, the only path left is that of painting and by God's grace it is always open”.- Prabhakar Barwe
The above quotation is from his book 'Kora Canvas', written in Marathi. True to his words, he lived and died as a painter. For him painting was the source of life. Indian Contemporary Art is incomplete without the mention of Prabhakar Barwe. He was an heir of artistic fervor. His granduncle V.P.Karmarkar was a famous sculptor and his father was an artist in Bombay studio. He carried forward the family tradition. To enhance his torrid artistic zeal he joined J.J.School of Art in Mumbai. During his formative years as a student, along with the formal education he got an opportunity to work in Weavers Service Centre where fine artists worked for the development of modern Indian textile design. Here he worked along with fine artists like Ambadas, Gautam Waghela and Subramanyan.
After his graduation in 1959, he experimented on canvas by placing every kind of material that could be held on canvas to vent his feelings. It was a search for individual identity as a painter. This search for self was important to discover that untrodden path which he wanted to explore in visual art.
From 1961 to 1965 he stayed and worked in Varanasi, the city rich with Hindu tradition and culture. Here he came across the tantric symbolism which grabbed his attention and inspired him. He painted skulls, bones, stones, graphs the basic objects associated with it. He thus developed Tantric style of painting. Though a firm believer in present and not worried about past or future, reading horoscope became his hobby. The pieces of writing containing astrologer's calculations and predictions, the shapes of horoscopes, the restricted lines, the scattered numbers in blocks along with sun, moon and planets, the luck and ill luck that they brought along, their transition from one block to another and beliefs of human beings in alteration of their lives depending on positioning of these elements found place on Barwe's canvas.
He belonged to the twentieth century, an era when the world was moving at the speed of light towards modernism and technological developments and where natural was replaced by material. Every vice and virtue was calculated in commercial value. He amalgamated concrete and the abstract and made us realize the co-relation of the two. He tried to give emotional touch to the impassive surrounding and developed a metaphysical dimension in his art. Barwe's experiment with glossy enamel paint diluted in turpentine enhanced the metaphysical dimension of his art. His poetic sensibility vibrated in his works. His work clearly represents ordinary objects having emotional, mystical associations. Their dictionary meaning looses its hold. The conventional definition of mundane thing gets lost. The painting becomes subjective rather than objective. To illustrate, 'the leaf', that he painted in its fresh and dried forms in various paintings, does not have limitation of being a part of plant or a tree, but represents life, the living and the dead. The 'Blue Cloud', which gained him National prize at Lalit Kala Academy's exhibition at Delhi, had a lonely cloud floating across the sky on a cloudy rainy day. This cloud can be symbolically interpreted as a cloud in William Wordsworth's famous poem Daffodis, where poet says '... I wandered lonely as a cloud…' and discovers the crowd of golden daffodils. Similarly, this lonely cloud on a cloudy day seems to be in search of something or maybe it moves around without any goal. The sentiments can be associated to the movements of a lonely person. It can be funny or sad at the same time. The perception of cloud thus is the imagination, the vision of the beholder rather than any fastidious meaning by Barwe. His proficiency in painting was with viewer's vision. He had subtle relation of concrete form with abstraction. It gave the space to the observer to perceive his paintings subjectively. He employed the conceptual devices of Surrealism, placed simple objects and ephemeral shapes presenting an unusual piece of art.
Sure of the development that would take place in art, he was open to new technologies; but always favoured guarding individuality and freedom as an artist and never falling prey to mechanization. This is evident from the fact that in 1991 the first ever Computer- based Art was to be held in India, and the nine well- known artists M.F.Hussain, Navjot Altaf, Akbar Padamsee, Manjit Bawa, Prabhakar Barwe, Laxman Shreshtha, Manu Parekh and S.H. Raza were invited for thirty days training course on computer to develop their artwork for a show. When the show traveled to Delhi in February 1993 and held at NGMA, there was an informal discussion with critic Kamla Kapoor. The conversation reflected the views and experiences of Barwe on use of computer technology in art. He welcomed the advancement in art which gave larger scope to artists to express themselves. Reckoning its pros and cons, he alerted artists that it should not be used at the cost of their creative freedom. Barwe expressed his apprehension of being dragged and lost in the vast world of colors, texture and image manipulation that computer offered. So talking about himself he said that he was apprehensive of losing his creative freedom so he decided to restrict himself to two dimensional and graphic possibilities. Due to these technological liberties and scope the Pop Art Movement launched the banal objects of our everyday lives into the realm of fine art. Prabakhar Barwe showed his skill in creating intimacy between these objects and life.
Evidently, his interest in astrological calculation and speculations reflected in his last creations. The possibilities are strong as we take into consideration his last exhibition when he was hospitalized. The exhibition was held at Chemould Art Gallery in the year 1995. It was a group show called 'A Broder Spectrum-II', which had Barwe's five water color paintings painted a few months before he was hospitalized. The images were that of garland of dried leaves, a wrist watch, human skull, envelopes, and a scale were suggestive of his nearing death and projected his sentience of death.
As a painter he won an award instituted by the Japanese newspaper Yoshihari Shimbun. In 1976 he won an award at the annual exhibition of the Lalit Kala Akademi. Towards the end of his life he wrote a book in Marathi called 'Kora (Blank) Canvas', which is the documentation of his feelings, expressions, struggles and satisfaction as an artist.
Truly, a great artist who taught us to be sensitive, to perceive beyond physical appearance, put breath in inanimate things and made us think beyond set meanings.