Sudhir Patwardhan’s exclusive artwork Departure depicts the frailty of Mumbai as home
The migrant is not a new figure in Sudhir Patwardhan’s works. They are there in his 2014 triptych, Building a Home, Exploring the World, made for that year’s edition of the Kochi biennale. In it, the migrant is the first human to have the walked the earth driven as much by the impulse to migrate as by the need to settle; the migrant is also the astronaut in space, seeking to cross new frontiers. In Bhaiyya, Patwardhan’s 1999 painting of a poor migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh cut a dignified figure. In 2009, the migrant is a woman in a shapeless black shift looking upwards with a bleak expression.
But there is a crucial difference between this work and Patwardhan’s previous depictions. “I have been painting people who lived in the city, but this is the first time I’m painting them as migrants; the migrant in a condition of absolute precarity. Whether they can return to being residents of a city is an open question,” he said, describing the 18x12” pastel on paper that he made (at HT’s request) during the lockdown imposed in Mumbai to curb the spread of Covid-19 disease that has infected millions across the world.
Patwardhan’s preoccupation with Mumbai and its dwellers is well known. A retrospective of his works spanning four decades, held recently at the National Gallery of Modern Art, offered a view of everything that we have come to identify as quintessentially of the city — the trains, the office-goers, the sky-scrapers, the construction, the communities, the bylanes, the violence, the crush of a metropolis pulsating with life.
But the lockdown and the ramifications that it had on the large migrant working population — who began to leave Mumbai in droves — has effected a fundamental shift in the view of Mumbai, Patwardhan said. “The city was home to everyone, despite all contrasts and differences in economic positions. The romantic notion that Bombay is a cosmopolitan city that welcomes everyone and after a crisis everyone gets back to work is the core of what Bombayites identify with. But this crisis brought home the frailty of that view. For so many thousands of people, Bombay could not be home. They were forced to leave.”
In the drawing, two workers carry shapeless bags, one worker carries a child. All the windows in the homes that surround them are shut. The taller buildings don’t even have windows drawn into them. This is unlike so many other Patwardhan paintings, where windows are a staple, always offering a view of the outside; indeed, the outside itself teems with people and activity. “The image of people walking away without any belongings, while we were sitting in our homes, mute witnesses, cut off from this reality — that was behind the drawing,” he said.
Sudhir Patwardhan is a contemporary Indian artist who has been painting Mumbai for well over four decades. His paintings have been exhibited across the globe, and form part of several prestigious private and institutional collections. He is also a practising radiologist.