The city and its crowded soul
Considering how the people and architecture of Mumbai and Thane have inspired artist Sudhir Patwardhan for decades, it is fitting that his retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) is overpopulated to a fault. Usually, art shows offer viewers a sense of expanse. Not this one. Curated by Nancy Adajania, Walking Through Soul City, is crammed with paintings, making NGMA’s cavernous interiors seem as densely-packed with objects as a two-BHK apartment shared between six flatmates.
Overcrowded as it may be, that the exhibition has such a wide selection of Patwardhan’s works makes it a treat. A curiously beautiful fact about Patwardhan’s older paintings is that the city in them still feels familiar. For instance, even though the specifics of Street Corner (1985) – like the open windows and doors that let you practically enter the lives of strangers – may have changed, when you look up at the BEST bus standing next to you in a traffic jam, you’ll see napping commuters, just like in Patwardhan’s painting. The streets are still full of pillion riders who hold on to helmet-wearing scooter drivers the way the embracing couple does in Street Corner.
In contrast, some paintings, like Lower Parel and Ulhasnagar (both painted in 2001), feel like the opposite of timeless. The four-panelled Ulhasnagar shows a landscape that’s almost unrecognisably idyllic, with its canal of water winding past the width of the painting in the foreground. Disrupting the scenery is the second panel, which has a factory-like structure squatting front and centre. A dead, bloated corpse of a cow lies nearby and the water is a swirling, toxic bruise of reds and purples.
Even as progress has turned the city unnervingly lifeless in works like The Emergent (2012) and Mumbai Proverbs (2014), Patwardhan has managed to find inspiration in it. His paintings show aspects of Mumbai’s shape-shifting urbanity that have remained constant, like the struggle for space in The Clearing (2007), where everything but a barren little patch of earth is crammed with buildings. Or Night Bite (2018), which shows a snack stall as an oasis of neon, battling both darkness and munchies.
In the crush of paintings on display, there’s one from 2019 titled Marchers. It shows a featureless crowd of people walking ahead, unperturbed by the fact that two among them have fallen. Despite the bright yellow used for the figures and the cyan accents that make the bodies seem like they’re made of oxidized copper, it’s a gloomy painting. This is a crowd that cares nothing of its trampled brethren, as long as it moves ahead. The painting is worlds apart from the monochromatic strength of Woman in Crowd (2011), in which a woman weaves her way through a group of pedestrians, cyclists, and scooter-riders. The group moves in one direction while she disrupts their flow by cutting across them.
Mumbai’s crowds have been the subject of some conversation this past week as thousands have thronged to register their objection to the idea that the definition of Indian citizenship requires amendments. In different parts of the city, at different times of day, people have taken to the street in protest. Celebrities have stood next to nobodies, all of them broken by the same despair, and glued together awkwardly by a similar rage. Together, they’ve raised slogans and sang songs tunelessly (for tuneful protests, you’ll have to look up videos of protests in Assam and Manipur). They’ve carried placards, they’ve turned on the flashlights of their phones, they’ve waved flags, and they’ve made sure no one was trampled.
This is a Mumbai you won’t find in Patwardhan’s paintings. It’s a city no one remembers because this is Mumbai in a still-evolving present. There’s no telling if the city will continue to surprise everyone – including itself – and keep taking to the streets; or if it will retreat to the windows, balconies and refuge areas that Patwardhan has documented over decades. Yet, despite the newness of the protests, if you look closely at the crowd of Patwardhan’s paintings – peopled with figures characterised by strong lines and unwavering humanity – it’s easy to imagine these old residents belligerently stepping out of the canvas of the past to stand shoulder to shoulder with those shaping Mumbai’s future.
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