The mind of Prabhakar Barwe

Published: 10 March, 2019 07:30 IST | Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre | Mumbai

The illustrative book Chitra-Vastuvichar grants an access to the mind of a painter whose exhaustive diaries arrested each passing thought on forms and objects

Prabhakar Barwe's enamel on canvas, titled River of Silence (1981)
Prabhakar Barwe's enamel on canvas, titled River of Silence (1981)

Sumedha Raikar-MhatreThe hanger, an unremarkable commonplace object, fascinates painter Prabhakar Barwe around March 7, 1995. He juxtaposes a huge hanger with other objects (chair, flower, fruit) in an enamel on canvas.

As he completes the work a little later, Barwe writes (April 25) about the exploration that the hanger may lead to, at the conceptual level. "The idea is to create something new by synchronizing my abstract tradition with today's representational modern world. For that, one should be able to digest both well.

I am happy to be able to work in that direction," the para-long self-suggestion is a scribble from Barwe's diary, written a few months before he passed away. Had it not been for his untimely death, he would have lived up to the promise in the note: "From now on, up to the beginning of monsoons, I propose to work on water colours only… I have all the material. I just need to concentrate and continue to work." On March 16th, his 83rd birth anniversary, Barwe's diaries correspond beautifully with his active years (1971-95) in which he ceaselessly experimented with form, space and objects.

A portrait of Barwe
A portrait of Barwe

Pages from Barwe's so-far unpublished 62 handwritten diaries (300-page Honesty Deluxe non-ruled notebooks that he unfailingly bought from Girgaum) have been excerpted in the newly-released book Chitra-Vastuvichar (roughly translates as, Thoughts on the art-object) which compiles the painter's writings in Marathi. Fifty-two diaries were recently exhibited in 'Inside the Empty Box' commemorative showcase of the pioneer modern painter's canvases, watercolours, sculptures and poetry, at the National Gallery of Modern Art.

Publisher-curator Jesal Thacker, who has retrieved Barwe's works from his family and friends, feels the diaries have an unmatched openness about them. "How many painters write so coherently about their choice of the medium, use of colours, feelings while being on a particular work, and the failure in doing justice to a specific concept?" Barwe's place in Indian visual art is irreplaceable because his approach is unusually egalitarian; his diary jottings allow access to a supremely private cognitive space that many creators-innovators never wish to bare; also they are works of art deserving an English translation to be relayed to a wider art world.

Pics/Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation, Ashish Raje
Pics/Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation, Ashish Raje

The diaries follow an academic's discipline and an interlocutor's warmth; treating the reader as an equal. They were not written for an audience, but they are interactive and chatty by default because Barwe believed in dialogue. In some sketches-graphs-grids, Barwe literally charts the transition of objects into forms, spelling out each juncture of evolution; the journey of the red hibiscus flower is particularly enchanting, especially the way he ties it up with the Ganpati Atharvashirsh.

He also deconstructs metaphysical concepts in a non-esoteric parlance (Truth has infinite doors; what is true visually, is also true from every other point of view/ A painting is primarily meant for the self, but a good painting doesn't allow 'the self' to be projected in it) coupled with quirky illustrations. As if he owes an explanation to the viewer, he illuminates why certain themes-objects (dry leaves, fruits, buildings, safety pins, clouds, sparrows, stones, crows) play on his mind at a given point in time.

Publisher-curator Jesal Thacker seen with the new book Chitra-Vastuvichar, which pays homage to his diaries, and a diary note on the essence of Tantric art
Publisher-curator Jesal Thacker seen with the new book Chitra-Vastuvichar, which pays homage to his diaries, and a diary note on the essence of Tantric art

Published by Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation and Popular Prakashan, the 528-page Chitra-Vastuvichar (Rs 795) is a good mix of thought-provoking archival material like 30-odd poems, correspondence with friends, self-addressed post cards, self-portraits, republished articles on contemporary art practice, a recall of his experience in the US and also the stint with weavers at Varanasi. The painter explains, in the form of a soliloquy, why he veered away from realism in his JJ School days and what attracted him to the miniature painting. He shares his transitory adherence to the Tantric art tradition from 1965 onwards, which he found limiting and ritualistic by the end of 1970. He writes on the amorphousness of abstract art, stating that people can read meaning into nonfigurative forms only if they are willing to apply fresh parameters of appreciation, before declaring their popular preference for a realistic traditional landscape or a portrait.

Barwe's iconic Kora Canvas (1990) dealt with his creative process and his choice of the abstractionist style. The new compilation (edited by Hansodnya Tambe, Madhav Imaratey and Hemant Karnik) includes Barwe's comments on the goings on in the world of visual arts, some which are quite severe. He comes down very heavily on the lack of visual art literacy in Maharashtra. He feels the `literary word' dominates the social discourse in the state, which weakens the Marathi mind's ability to either respond to visual motifs or produce art that meets international standards. In one piece titled: Kalakshetratil Atmavancha (Self-deprivation in the field of arts) he points at the disservice done by Maharashtrians (especially the middle class) to themselves by failing to acknowledge their lack of tools for appreciating the visual arts. Barwe feels Maharashtra has not produced greats, other than painter V S Gaitonde and poet Arun Kolatkar, because it subscribes to naïve mythical verbose concepts that do not give birth to resonant life-sustaining art.

About Mumbai's elite art circles, he feels the 'international' repute earned by stalwarts (whose works are exhibited and auctioned at foreign destinations) is an illusion created by vested interests. He has strong opinions on how art should be valued and priced by the patrons. He is also highly dismissive of the newspaper review circuit – "critics whose criticism is based on ignorance."

Barwe is distinctly apolitical in his writings and art practice; he feels true classic art cannot emerge if the artist is bound by a social or political ideology. For him, an artist should be committed to art and art alone, and any other consideration can not only spoil the work of art but lead to "flat propagandist" works. It is interesting to note that none of his works have a political overtone. For instance, the note on 31st December 1992 (when Mumbai was burning in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition) evokes wonderment about the universal passage of time and the possibilities of experimentation with the advent of a fresh calendar.

The front page cover of Chitra-Vastuvichar has Barwe's Mumbai-datelined untitled maze-like representation completed at 11 pm on December 11, 1975 – a time when civil unrest was at its peak in Bombay as the state of national Emergency engulfed India! As the joke goes: When Barwe was teased by his fraternity about his lack of a declared political leaning, he had a stock line in his defense: "I live in Shiv Srushti," which was an oblique reference to the name of his housing colony in Kurla, but could also mean, in jest, that he was inclined towards the Shiv Sena.

Chitra-Vastuvichar is as impersonal, as it is apolitical. There are rare references to his wife-daughter; his Nagaon childhood rural setting etched only to underline the impact on the creative consciousness; personal letters have loads of allusions to art circle news. The painter doesn't mention his falling health or his being in and out of hospitals towards the end of 1995. In fact, friends who visited him as an ailing patient recall an ever-alert Barwe who only spoke of chitra and vastu till his last breath.

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. You can reach her at

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