In a small room inside Clark House, 26-year-old artist Prabhakar Pachpute is giving the finishing touches to his sketches. With a wide smile pasted on his face, he offers a hesitant handshake — his hands are smeared with charcoal, as are his blue jeans. He’s been working inside this room every day for the last two weeks, painting directly on the plywood walls.
His choice of medium — charcoal — is apt for his subject, and at the same time, ironical, given his proximity to it. Prabhakar hails from a village called Sasti in the coal-rich district of Chandrapur in Maharashtra. And his new show, Canary in a Coal Mine, takes you inside a mine, with some metaphorical elements that are direct and striking.
There are depictions of mine pits dug directly under inhabited villages, along with mine carts transporting coal on rails. Assembly lines of workers have wire plugs where heads should be, while the manager has a plug point for a head. “In every coal mine, the manager is the power figure who has control over all the workers,” explains Prabhakar.
A large elephant in harness stands for raw physical strength (a requisite for a mine worker), while his sinking feet represent the frequent accidents when roofs cave in. For the show, the lights will be turned off and a torch handed to each viewer, to make them feel like they are actually inside a dark, claustrophobic coal mine.
Depth of focus
“In 2010, I went inside a mine for the first time. It took two-and-half hours to reach the pit that is 6,000 metres underground,” the artist says. Prabhakar’s 45-year-old elder brother works in a mine, and his family wanted him to follow suit. “When I said I preferred to be an artist, the first question was, ‘Isse kya fayda hoga (What’s the use)?”
Prabhakar, who studied sculpture at MS University, Baroda, has done group exhibitions in the past, with coal mines as his subject. It’s a coincidence that his first solo show comes now, with the release of the second installment of Anurag Kashyap’s film on the coal mafia, Gangs of Wasseypur II. That one’s about the drama on top. This is about the drearier life below.
Canary in a Coal Mine is on till the end of the month at Clark House, Colaba.