A blank canvas to the empty box: infinite Barwe retrospective of Prabhakar Barwe at NGMA, Mumbai

कधी चुकून व्यासपिठावर थरथरताना मी शब्द होऊन श्रोत्यांमध्ये हरवतो. माझ्या चित्रासमोर गॅलरीत मी नागडा होतो. मित्रांचा घोळक्यात मी वादविवाद होतो. स्मशानात मी काळा पांढरा धूर होतो. रुग्णालयात मी निव्वळ औषधांचा वास होऊन उरतो. पुस्तकात मी किडा होत नाही. मुंग्यांसारख्या अक्षरांच्या जंगलात मी हरवतो. टीकेचा दंश सहन करताना मी स्वतः विष होत जातो. स्तुती वाचताना मी शहारतो, पायरी चढताना घसारल्या सारखे मी ठेचाळतो. दिवा स्वप्न पाहताना मी झोपतो आणि स्वप्नात मात्र 'जागा' होतो.

प्रभाकर बर्वे, निमित्त 'स्वत्त्वाच्या अनेक ओळखी', २८ मार्च १९९५

Sometimes moved on the stage, I become a lost word in audience. I get naked in front of my artwork in gallery. I become an argument in discussion with friends. I become black and white smoke in the graveyard. I am left as the distant smell of medicine in the hospital. I don’t become a worm in the books. I get lost in the jungle of antlike alphabets. I become poison taking in the venomous bites of criticism. I blush with praise, I stumble when climbing the stairs. I sleep during day dreams, but I am wide ‘awake’ in by dreams.

Prabhakar Barwe, referring to ‘Many identities of self’, 28 March 1995


This is a part of one of the text but up in the mind-revoking retrospective of modern Indian master Prabhakar Barwe, Inside the Empty Box, curated by Jesal Thakar. It’s been a matter of decades since Barwe’s works have been seen together like this, in an extremely well put up exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Mumbai in collaboration with Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation. The show is a treat to eye, to see the large body of works (almost 100) of the great modern Indian master artist, Prabhakar Barwe in one go. The show takes the works to a further metaphysical realm with well researched and very well place texts from his meticulously written diaries besides the works. As one walks inside the beautiful three storied gallery with an exquisite dome, it gives an experience of walking inside the mind of the 'thinking' artist and gives an understanding of his works like never before. A lot has been written and read about Barwe over the years. Barwe’s own thought provoking work ‘Kora Canvas’ has been giving insights to his thinking and intriguing artists and art lovers alike. Kora Canvas though, is as mystic as his works, which are more of a thought that he endeavors to complete with visuals. A singular work of his thus leaves the spectator intrigued yet pondering over the visual experience. The given exhibition, well curated by Jesal and equally well put up by her team, helps move ahead in understanding of his experiments and helps read the works along with his diary texts. The exhibition covers the works from all decades of his practice, begins with this sketches and paintings from college days in Sir J.J. School of Art and moves further to the change in the paintings after Barwe joined the Weavers Centre at Benares. These works have a flavor of textile designs and also an inclination towards a new understanding of traditional Indian painting styles. This section has some interesting drawings marked with notations and colour codes, reminiscent to his affiliation to the folk traditions that he must have newly explored at Weavers Centre. A very well placed section here are the blocks of prints created during this decade of 60’s to 70’s, simple geometric designs to complex patterns compiled from tantric imagery and folk art. These blocks are almost like stepping stones to climb the further stage of artist’s thought that comes in immediate paintings between 1970-75. This was also the period when Barwe was intrigued by Tantric images devoid of their totem meanings and began his explorations, with objects, colours and textures. The works here are embedded with an ‘eye’, a horseshoe and playing cards too!

 The upper floor has Barwe’s elemental works, in soft shades with enamel and his characteristic simplification. These works show his moving away from tantra and more into the spiritual realm of understanding form in a metaphysical approach. The work Chaitra Mood, 1982 has a beautiful text placed next to it, as Barwe observes the crows and the difference in the mood of the female crow during her motherhood. Such texts in the show are very insightful and give a deeper sense to looking at Barwe’s works. Here one can see his intrigue towards space and form, with architectural elements like the brick clad structures coming in. The series with lakes and reflection from this period, with silent blues and greys placed together creates a serene mood and gives a good reflection to the artist’s thinking of the decades of 1970’s and 80’s. Some works from this period like Orphan and the Kite, 1988 and The Last Call, 1984 make a special mark.  A special mention requires to be done of the tangrams/magnets created by Hansodnya Tambe from the elements from Alphabets of Nature, 1988. These have been placed in a frame and can be moved to create one’s own work.

The last part of the exhibition in the dome of NGMA has Barwe’s works from the last decade, and move towards further simplification of forms, and more of dried leaves. In the centre of this space the covers of all his written diaries have been placed, with dates; these exhibit the wide scope of his thinking as also the seminal work that the curator would have had to go through to put this exhibition. A few of the diaries have been kept here for viewing, with beautiful drawing and meticulously written down thoughts of the artist.

This retrospective, after a long time, has brought forth a large body of works of a modern Indian master in his own right. Works that are universal, defying the boundaries of nationality and culture and are pure self-explorations, thus truly intuitive and uninfluenced. Exhibitions like such give a wide spectrum to understand the artist, and gives new insights to the history. As Jesal has rightly said, 'Inside the Empty Box excavates the archives of Barwe whilst simultaneously unravelling his visual language-a process that requires each viewer to enter the recess of an empty mind.’

(Do visit this exhibition, it is open till 8th March 2019. The whole exhibition has been beautifully summed up in the publication Chitra Vastuvichar, which is a keep for all Barwe lovers)

Reviews (2 comments)

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  • Keshav Kasar On

    A very well and elaborately written article on the retrospective exhibition of Late Prabhakar Barwe’s body of works . It make readers to see the exhibition. Well done.

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