City people

Updated: Jan 26, 2020, 07:52 IST | Paromita Vohra | Mumbai

The Sunday papers is how I discovered Sudhir Patwardhan. Poring over the photos of his paintings, I wished I might see them one day, which I did.

Illustration/ Uday Mohite
Illustration/ Uday Mohite

picBefore the Internet, the Sunday papers were my aimless surfing. I've bought five each week since I was in college, immersing myself in their unpredictable polyphony each weekend.

This is how I discovered Sudhir Patwardhan. Poring over the photos of his paintings, I wished I might see them one day, which I did. Then, in 2003, I encountered the painter for real, at a train yard. Two local trains were being painted to announce the coming of the World Social Forum to the city. Various famous artists, with art students, were painting a dabba each with an interpretation of its theme, 'another world is possible'. I was filming this, when I saw Sudhir and ran to interview him. His car was painted with images of people flying, holding briefcases and bags. "Tomorrow this train will be packed with commuters inside. They will all be absorbed in their dreams and anxieties and memories as they travel. So, I've painted this outside, their thoughts released into the city." An inside out thought, simultaneous delight and tenderness, it made you see the painter and the painted in one frame.

Looking at the paintings in the ongoing retrospective of his work at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, you repeatedly experience this feeling. Every image makes you look at the people of the city intently. Sometimes by themselves in the crowd—in a train, on a balcony, riding pillion on a scooter—their faces turned inwards in exhaustion, remembering, anticipation, moving though still. Sometimes interacting with each other, in caretaking, in conversation, in violence. Whether in layered tableaux of a city's parallel lives and lanes and travels or single figures moving towards you, you look, really look, at people, and also feel you are looking at the artist looking at the people, thinking about them. Every figure is individuated, even the tiniest as seen from a steep high-rise window, or in the far reaches of a street scene—the woman on her cell phone, resting her foot on a low parapet, an old woman sweeper, resting on the pavement, the varied stances of dozens of tiny men in the corridors of a chawl, a baby crawling on the edge of the street. The detached intimacy of cities.

In a city crowded, intense and difficult as Bombay is, what does it mean to pause and look with such intentness and patience? If, to pay attention without intrusion, is a kind of love, then this compassion is turned outwards, to the people we look at, and inwards, to ourselves as one among them. It is an unsentimental sympathy with humankind, a fellowship with others that is suggested, without assuming a cloying, false brotherhood, as sometimes done by political pieties, without fixing the meaning of people by identities and types, assuming no connection except to be one among many.

In contrast, I was struck as I watched yet another of those Indian heartland web series, with their vintage filters, meticulously aged interiors and costumes and boring profanities by how little these claims to external realism, seem to see people as anything but types. They should go see this exhibition.

I wish such art could be painted on the walls of the city. Imagine in fleeting meeting eyes of kindness, fidelity and mischief as you rush about the city, striving to stay human.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

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