Feature / Review: Prabhakar Pachpute/ Te Tolanche Dhaga Navhate / Sushma Sabnis
Artist Prabhakar Pachpute’s solo show titled ‘Te Tolanche Dhaga Navhate’ comes full circle, drawing in the stories of the desolate cotton farmers turned coal miners of Chandrapur, at the NGMA, Mumbai.. observes Sushma Sabnis.
At the NGMA, as one wipes the summer glory off their brows, one confronts an old enemy – stairs. Especially the fourth floor climb is one of those ‘Mountain Dew’ moments for most. As each step is conquered painstakingly, one nearly recoils as a huge headless figure stands at the landing, pointing somewhere. This ominous creature is the Manager character, as artist Prabhakar Pachpute explains in his solo show, ‘Te Tolanche Dhaga Navhate’ (No, it wasn’t the locust cloud). The show is curated by Luca Cerizza and Zasha Colah and is on view at the circular dome space of NGMA, Mumbai.
And so the story goes..“Once upon a time in a land far far away, there lived a group of diligent farmers, who tilled and caressed the earth to produce the finest of cotton to make the finest of clothes. Then one day, the clouds refused rain or even barter for a drop of water for the fluffy crops, the flowers wilted, the lands dried up and the kingdom went barren. Ploughing the land further to find water or wet earth, the farmers came across a bounty buried eons ago, the black gold – coal. But somewhere, not too far away, sitting on a throne of crystal and gold, a corporate king received the news of such a place replete with tons of black gold buried in the ground. The corporate with their pull, set out to claim this invaluable fossilized peat for himself, come what may. He knew the owner of the coal was the owner of the world. The corporate king set out buying farm lands from the farmers, convincing them that they could never earn as much from a petty cotton field as they could from a coal mine. Some were cajoled by greed, some bullied into submission, others desperate to survive, succumbed. The farm lands cracked, heaved and sighed in resignation. The air was putrid with sulphur and other toxic chemicals, the water bodies were polluted or dried up, the rest of the vegetation died silent deaths along with the farmers’ hopes. The once proud farmers were forced to become workers in those very coal mines. The aroma of the earth emanating from the farmer’s body was replaced by soot and dust, like a second skin which could never be peeled off, like a breath of hell.” There are other fairytales we have heard of with better tidings, but not this one.
Prabhakar Pachpute’s ‘Te Tolanche Dhaga Navhate’, unravels like a dystopian fairytale, as he answers questions about his large scale charcoal drawings which adorn the circular walls of the dome. The human figures and animals have farm implements and other objects as heads. The implement used for the head appears to be some kind of a marker as to the aptitude of the figure. Inducing a kind of verbal claustrophobia, he reveals that he has been inside an active/ live coal mine in Chandrapur, India and in other places all over the world.
“You are blind inside a coal mine without the head light. It is dark, damp and smells horrible. You can’t see the floor. You cannot be afraid of the dark if you are a miner, you allow that darkness to seep in, until it seeps into your soul. Then it is too late” Prabhakar says. He has been visiting many coal mines all over the world and his own family gave up their nonproductive farming lands to the devouring arms of coal mining corporates.
Light defines vision, so there would be a slight visual impairing which is expected when one works in a closed mine, especially as the digging gets deeper into areas of absolute darkness, heat and bare minimum or no air supply. Oxygen combusts in these zones and freak fires and collapsing of the roof of the mines are common incidents. In William Kentridge’s video titled ‘Mine’ the artist depicts the lives of those working in the mining industry as the trolley which digs deeper and deeper to bring up resources. While the miners live in abject poverty and dire conditions, the manager orders one more dig deeper than the very soul of the miners. In Prabhakar’s works, one confronts the agitation, the despair and futility of human life when faced with greed. The Manager character from Kentridge’s work, also shows up in Prabhakar’s narrative as a human figure with a head of antennae and land survey maps which he holds pointing in some direction of resources.
The numerous sacrifices and losses mount up, lives perish unnoticed and futures get buried in those dust mounds that are left behind on a dead land after a mine goes dry. Rains refuse to shower such ravaged lands and human greed merely moves on to better digging sites. In one such section, farmers clasp at their bits of lands, desperately trying to retain it, to keep it from being usurped by the avaricious claws of corporations.
In another section of the frieze, Prabhakar depicts farmers as human figures with fertilizer pumps/sprays as human heads. They are shown hanging on to storm clouds which loom over the lands as if in an attempt to make them rain on the scorched lands or as headlamps which look down upon that diminutive figure who sits at a large crack in the earth, trying to feel the inside of the land, to ascertain the reality of that gaping void. This figure ‘Doubting Thomas’ as Prabhakar references the famous Caravaggio painting, could be of the management or land surveyor. This could also be seen as a self absorbed urban society who hears and sympathizes with the suicidal farmers’ abysmal conditions over lavish dinner-party conversations, and have no actual comprehension of ground reality. This imagery could represent the metropolitan Indian who is hyperactive over arm chair revolutions while being a conspicuous absentee in saving one coal obliterated life. This ‘Thomas’ could be the manipulative, dispassionate politician who turned as dead as the land to the cries of the suffering populace, as soon as his vote banks were reassured.
In his singular video work projected on the ceiling of the dome at NGMA, four-legged watchful drones constantly scout for new lands to be explored for natural resources. The stop motion video ends with a pair of binoculars aimed at the viewer reflecting looming dark clouds. The drones are a feature which keep repeating in the entire frieze. The watchful corporates play an important role in the survey of the lands and the decisions taken often overlook and overthrow environmental concerns.
So what happens to the land after stripping it completely off its resources? The artist answers this question with another image, a human being propped up on stilts, lies flat on the dry land as a metaphor of the dead mines. A hollow human body with an open body cavity, where the landscape becomes just another dust bowl with furious dust storms on its surface. The land like a dissected body relieved of its internal organs, a mere shell, yells out in deafening silence. Prabhakar also references his own works made earlier on the salt mines of the Dead Sea and the Brazilian gold mine of Serra Pelada where the open faced dead mines collect rain water and support a village which exists precariously on the hollowed out land, supported by huge stilts.
The works in this show portray the multi-layered engagement that the artist brings as a critique and his intense research on mines from different parts of the world. He brings a note of optimism at revival of these mines, by way of trying to turn them into stadiums and social hubs as has been tried out in several parts of the world. How much these could be implemented or save the environment remains to be seen. Attempts have been made to resurrect the dead land, but this Lazarus would need a lot more than just calling out to come back from the dead.
What would strike the viewer as an oddity is that the artist uses charcoal to make his drawings. The very material which has caused grave damage to the environment, to him, his family and millions of others. But if one were to justify this, the charcoal / coal which is used comes from peat, peat the fossilized organic matter, organic matter which was once a living thing, a leaf a tree, a bird, a human being. When seen in this perspective, the drawings of Prabhakar literally embody the essence of those lost, those who became the peat, those who prefer to become one with the earth than live on it. It would be wrong to use any other medium which could adhere to the subject as closely as coal itself.
Prabhakar Pachpute’s work silences the viewer. A silence which is very similar to a guttural scream. It tears through the depths of a body hollowed by greed, laid barren, a soul wrung out dry by apathy. Most fairytales end with happily ever afters, but in this story the ending remains suspended like souls in limbo, like dust particles of the dark clouds (dhagg), not of locusts, but of humanity.
The show, ‘Te Tolanche Dhaga Navhate’ is on view till 15th May 2016 at NGMA, Mumbai.
Images Courtesy: Prabhakar Pachpute, Poonam Jain, Yogesh Barwe and Prabhakar Kamble.