This Mumbai exhibition looks into the life and works of Prabhakar Barwe
The late Prabhakar Barwe was an artist known for extensively exploring the relationship between objects and space. Almost 25 years after his death, a massive retrospective, spread across five floors at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai, opens on Friday.
The show is titled Inside the Empty Box, after a painting of the same name, and features over 100 of his paintings, as well as assorted paraphernalia — 52 diaries, his collection of leaves, letters and postcards that he sent and received on his travels.
Presented by the Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation, this show has been 10 years in the making. “I grew interested in Barwe when I was a student at the JJ School of Art, where he had studied decades earlier,” says Jesal Thacker, founder of Bodhana and curator of the exhibition. “Ever since, I have been tracking his work, much of which is in private collections and museums around the world. His family gave us access to his estate, from where we got a lot of the diaries too.”
Barwe was born in Nagaon, near Alibaug, in 1936. His mother was a homemaker and his father a sculptor. (The famous sculptor Vinayak Pandurang Karmarkar was his grand-uncle.) The family moved to Bombay when Barwe was about 11. After graduating from JJ, he worked with the Weavers’ Service Centre (WSC) for over 20 years, designing textiles. He’d spend his evenings painting in his studio apartment, where he began experimenting with objects, form and space.
In 1969, he won an award at the Tokyo biennale, taking his work international and giving him his big break.
At the NGMA, each storey is structured to represent different time periods in the artist’s oeuvre. Step in at ground level and you enter a replica of his earliest studio, at JJ. The first floor has a collection of works and artefacts from his time at the WSC.
“In his early years, Barwe was influenced by Tantric philosophy, where we see the use of bright, primary colours. By the time we get to the second and third floors, which represent the period from the late ’70s to the late ’80s, there is a significant shift,” says Thacker.
The colours are softer here, the tones lighter, and there is a distinct use of space and mundane static objects such as fruits, clocks, and leaves. “During this time he came into his own as an artist. Rarely does a human figure appear in these works, but you can see that visual process that has taken place in his mind. Objects float in space. They are not distorted, only morphed, their proportions changed, and he builds his narrative around that,” says Thacker.
The fifth level, the dome, holds the diaries and 15 canvases from the late ’80s to Barwe’s death in 1995. “These works are minimalist, but mirror very strongly the identity of the artist. Their titles – The Gramophone, The Staircase, The Clasp – are all so brief, like triggers in his mind,” Thacker says.
As you make your way through each floor, don’t miss the corners where you can create postcards (which can be filled out and posted too) or sketch your own impressions on the drawing benches.
“Because he was such a meticulous diarist, we have great insight into his process,” says Thacker. “With the interactive corners, we are looking for the viewer’s textual response to the images and visual response to the text.”
The month-long retrospective will also include lectures by artists such as Anju Dodiya and Anant Joshi, on specific aspects of his work.