• A Music of Poise and Friction : Abir Patwardhan's Recent Works


    (‘ Prayer for the Porcupine ’. Sculpture exhibition at Gallery Sumukha, Bangalore 2007.)

    Abir Patwardhan coaxes metal towards the condition of fruit. His sculptures set the blood singing; they remind us of the primal experiences of the artisan’s quest, of seed and afterbirth, of fire melting the darkness at the cow-dust hour and great trees crashing in a forest, of banana shells and sleeping rocks, of empty nests and teeming pods, of burning feathers and tumescent bowls. Patinated and buffed to convey the intensity of the organic, these germinal and arboreal forms are animated by a gorgeous velveteen hint of the sinister. It is as if Abir has secreted the luminous darkness that leaks from the primordial forces of regeneration and decay, to make sculptures that gleam with a mysterious energy.

    To walk through Abir’s exhibition is to explore the forest of the subconscious, to sense the stirrings of the instinctual life. We are invited to share in an erotics of surrender, where the muddles of the self-conscious self may be abandoned, while we receive the imponderable and impenetrable enigmas of nature. These forms -- which are wet, spiky and furry, by turns glossy and raw -- trigger a synaesthetic delight. Copper smells like wood, looks like a stone that the rain forgot to spray, and tastes like smoky leaf. And touch, itself, can be deceptive: you run your hand over what seem like downy stamens only to set off a music of friction, taut metal striking against tender skin.

    In his earlier works, Abir had enticed metal to aspire to the suppleness of skin and urged ceramic to petrify itself in emulation of the virtues of stone.

    In that phase of his work, fruit hardened into a suspicious-looking cannonball, the shoot of a sprout sprang open as a curlicued whip, and a seed firmed up into a cast-iron dagger. Was this a comment on the cyclical violence that balances the ecological food chain? Abir expresses his almost animistic reverence for nature by pointing to what he calls its ‘precision engineering’. “Some seeds are wind-borne, they fall like helicopters. Some have burrs, they hook onto animals. And yet others fly like winged blades,” he says.

    A recent work, titled ‘The Black Quill’, is an ominous phallic form that burns in the air, its tentacles twisting into poisonous darts. This gigantic plume, boasting a silken-black patina, mesmerises us with its psychic potential. Peacock-blue flecks glitter on its surface, stars of unnamed desire. Abir’s quill is a hybrid natural form, a mythic avatar; but it is also an instrument of terror. This amplified natural form reminds us of Shiva in his manifestation as an infinite column of fire. Or could it be a missile, released against the universe? Abir seems to have inserted a fable of gratuitous human violence into the cyclical push-pull of ecology.


    Abir’s primordial forms resonate with references to Indic myths. If ‘Black Quill’ is the amrita-lingam, Shiva as the column of fire, ‘Sprout’ (2005) could be Hanuman’s tail as he sets Lanka on fire, and ‘Fruit of the Metropolis’ (2005) breaks open to reveal a linga-yoni mudra. The symbolism of purusha-prakriti, the intertwined male and female principles, as well as the archetype of fire as a cleanser and purifier, informs Abir’s sculptures. Or take the fire bowls, which carry the reverberation of the yagna, a sacrificial performance. First, a clutch of firewood swirls in abandon, a fist of fire in the heart of the wind. Somewhat spent, it is polished into an ember. Or is it an egg nestling amidst twigs? Has the egg fossilised into a rock? Does it dream of its past life? Finally the fire recedes to leave a trace of itself, a burn-mark of what it could have been and what it will return to become.

    Abir’s yagna has little to do with Hindu rituals and is more of an enactment of an environmental, even metaphysical ethic: its centrepiece is the recycled self that returns in another avatar. These fire bowls are choreographed as a movement from tandava to lasya, agitation to restfulness. Abir has admired the dancer Leela Samson’s Bharatanatyam performances, her ability to open up a universe of meaning from a single mudra or gesture. Slipping in and out of various registers, Abir’s forms are composed from the sediments of art history, myth, architecture and dance.

    Abir imbibed, early in life, the value of shaping and crafting dreams into reality with his hands. His parents, Jayoo and Nachiket Patwardhan, architects and filmmakers, and his grand-aunt Nirmala Patwardhan, the noted ceramicist, socialised him into an ethos where painting, pottery, stitching and cooking were all equally important expressions of the self and its creativity: these practices generated a sense of autonomy yet also a confident interdependence. After completing his MFA from the Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda, in 2001, Abir learned the techniques and processes of the traditional copper-beaters of Pune, the tambats, for two years. Copper, with its rich red-brown tone and easy malleability, is an ideal metal from which to fashion a biomorphic imagery. While we could place Abir in an art-historical context that shows the affinities that his work bears to the vegetal forms of Nagji Patel, Madan Lal or Mrinalini Mukherjee, I suspect that his real linkages lie elsewhere -- for instance, the world of the crafts, which has taught him the importance of dhyana, meditative focus, and the mandate of perfection.

    This artisanal need for technical perfection and precision of surface feature is balanced by the artist’s regard for nature, which is pitched at a level of archetypal awareness. Thus, the beauty that emanates from Abir’s sculptures does not remain at the level of a Wordsworthian quest for memorialising beauty. Rather, it approaches the Blakean or Rilkean sublime, beauty grained with a sense of awe and bearing the aura of terror. Abir’s best works bring us to the edge where we stare into the sublime. ‘Strange Fruit’ is even more frightening and attractive than the ‘The Black Quill’. It heaves with the pulse of life, is cut open to reveal swarming worms, a rotten-ripe planet in miniature. But look closely: this piece of eerie erotica whispers, also, of the emotional landscape of a self that has caved into its own darkness and been held ransom by creatures of its own making. These works are emotionally loaded, even melodramatic: the totem-pole tree is roofed by a large vulva; the larger-than-life eye is empty except for a stiff ingrowth; burst pods hang like sharp blades in the air.

    ‘The outermost reaches of my mind’ could be seen as a surreptitious self-portrait: the artist fashions an atavistic bull’s head, from which lash out long Gorgon-like tentacles. Is it a minotaur’s head trapped in a labyrinth? Amongst those thrashing tentacles, is there a thread that will release the artist from his dark maze? Abir’s recent works are moving towards an appreciation of such leaps of imaginative faith as enlightenment. ‘Three Apartments’, an intimate work, has blade-hands that playfully conceal and reveal a rock-egg in three bowls On closer examination, the blade-hands turn out be lotus petals guarding the egg-womb. ‘Leaf Storm Buddha’ presents the great teacher as though he were made of copper leaves. The artist, who does not believe in organised religion, casts the Buddha in the foliage of the tree under which he achieved enlightenment. But, as russet leaves whirl in a storm, the Master’s face remains empty; Abir adroitly confronts the viewer with an imaginary mirror that she can fill with her own thoughts, doubts and exhilarations.

    Abir Patwardhan has the potential to improvise and extend his practice beyond the studio, and into site-specific sculpture-installations and earth art. Pick up his helmet-shaped pod, decorated with enchanting rivets, and it suddenly rings out in your hands. The clink of metal seems to implore Abir to listen to the call of his material, and follow it into the wide spaces that await his eye and his hands.

  • ' Grave beauty in natural forces' The Deccan Herald, Monday March 12, 2007

    It is quite wonderful to find a young, sensitive and involved artist to be as rooted in things immediate and basic as he is contemporary, and fortunately so without any calculated elegance or borrowings from conceptual or other paradigms. If Pune's Abir Patwardhan should be linked to a heritage, it would be one associated with Mrinalini Mukherjee and especially Valsan Koorma Kolleri. Despite occasional traces of inspiration, Abir's sculptures at Sumukha (Feb 27th to March 14th) are spectacularly original.

    Mediating a monumental scale and intimacy, the artist looks into the manifestation and behavior of organic fertility and rudimentary processes of germinating, striving for place and growing. Relying on the tight, hard seed and meandering tentacle like sprig motifs, he conjures a manifold imagery that oscillates between plant and animal forms with a sense of the human body being intuited underneath.

    Throughout, the shapes reveal themselves as dormant and potent, or as pushing and searching in fluid rhythms of tentative regularity and balance. Whether resting on a support or hanging, the sculptures –in parallel to organic forces seem to be impregnated with a constant dynamism that acknowledges also a static core. Echoing such forces, they exude fluid energy and sensuality, as Abir finely blends rawness with supple beauty, violence with tenderness, repulsiveness with alluring grace, heavy ominous tones with lightness and humour, gravity with lyricism. Simultaneously, the viewer can receive the forms as related to ordinary reality as well as to archaic phenomena and myths. While certain iconicity pervades them, it relates not to religious iconography but to its natural sources. The impact remains one of the powerful and the unbridled more than the precious or the sacred, and it stimulates a strong psychic response in the viewer, one steeped in rudimentary, perhaps atavistic layers of the mind which can be felt on one's skin.

    The use of beaten copper here proves as ingenious contemporarily as it bonds with the traditional craft and its own anchoring of vessels in biomorphic references. One should admire the way Abir combines full, lush plasticity with hollow or open shapes and with thin, linear elements; mass with silhouette contours, solidity with almost immaterial effects, all those interacting with the air around them, with light and their cast shadows. His surfaces are able to evoke carnal smoothness and dry, corroded cracking crusts.

    Rather similar to nature itself, from partly direct, detailed forms he approximates abstract ones that comes close to a soft geometry and appear to be pregnant with potential symbolism. If some of the serpentine sculptures let one recall ancient Indian images as well as the Greek Medusa, it only underscores Abir's success in reaching to the primeval basis of things lasting that are experienced universally.

  • Art Review - Abir Patwardhan Sunday, March 11, 2007 Published in Financial Times, Bangalore

    Abir Patwardhan’s first solo show in the city, presents his recent works that are inspired by nature. In this series titled ‘Prayer for the Porcupine’ Abir lays out a delightful array of fruit and seeds where forms rule and the fluidity of copper charms.

    The sculptures draw inspiration from nature but refrain from being literal translations. Analogical at times, they are impressions, and sometimes imaginative renderings from fantasy. ‘Strange Fruit’ split in two has a frightening effect covered with wriggling worms, while ‘The outermost reaches of my mind’ has these long tentacles reaching out in exploration. The sculptures are beautiful, and have been crafted to perfection. With engineering precision and miniature detailing, the artist avoids being repetitive and offers a substantial variety. His sculptures have a sense of the unusual and even a touch of humor at times. Having worked in the past with paper, iron and ceramic amongst other mediums, the present series makes use of beaten copper. Abir first sketches out his concept, which then develops further in his drawings, and by the time he starts work with the metal it evolves in form and shape.

    An avid traveler Abir admits he is fascinated by native arts and crafts. He believes such exposure adds perspective to one’s art and also helps in relating real situations to myths and legends. The artist has a master’s degree in fine arts (sculpture) from MS University Baroda, and lives and works in Pune.

    The exhibition is on till March 14 at Gallery Sumukha,
    Bangalore – 560 027.

  • ‘Fruit of the Metropolis’ Sculpture exhibition at Jahangir art gallery, Bombay 2005

    "Since our experiences of space are limited to momentary segments of time, growth must be the core of existence. We are reborn, and so in art as in nature there is growth, by which i mean change attuned to the living." - Isamu Noguchi1

    The setting is a lush, surreal garden. A profusion of enlarged seeds, split open pods, cross-sections of fruits and sprouting forms bathed in milky white, red, green and brown glazes fills it. The sheer fecundity and fullness of the organic forms hits the eye as the textures simulate the delicateness of fiber, the wrinkled skin of a dry fruit or its spiky insides and the speckled surface of a seed. In this garden of excess, there is a joyous exploration of materials like copper, ceramics and bronze as well as a tapping into the immense possibilities of the natural world that hinge between the physical, the symbolic, the sexual, the tactile and the structural.

    For a young sculptor like Abir the from of the hermetic seed very aptly and simply contains within it Noguchi's dictum. And through it he explores the idea of birth, growth and change that the latter holds so central to the discipline of sculpture and to life itself.

    "The simplicity of the seed form, the highly complex structures of the fruit tissues and their many layer of skins, the compartments that pods have so well arranged like cells in honeycomb, fascinate me. I can think of endless metaphors when I examine the processes the seeds pass through, weather of pollination, dispersal, germination or growth into a new life form," notes Abir.2

    For this alumni of the Baroda Faculty of Fine Arts (having completed his B.F.A.and M.F.A in Sculpture in 2001), it was the experience of working with traditional copper beaters, the Tambats, in his hometown of Pune that first drew him to the subject of fruits and seeds. The malleability of the medium allowed him to tease out details, surfaces and textures. In the past four years he has extended this exploration to the medium of ceramics (having learnt from veterans like Nirmala Patwardhan and P Daroz), bronze and iron.

    To begin with the central theme, there are various explorations of the seed form. The Ceramic seed with its suggestive fold bearing a likeness of flesh is in contrast to the bronze mottled version of its surface and the highly textured rendition of it in cast iron. And then there is a free standing copper seed with its almost tentacle-like forms that envelope the kernel of latent energy within. In another work he constructs a small peephole granary of sorts filled with small seeds and pods.

    Even as Abir admires Brancusi's minimal yet deeply expressive forms, he finds himself attracted to the decorative, to the elaborate drama of patterns.
    A series of cross-section of fruits allows him to reconcile the binaries of the functional and the decorative. In these copper and ceramic works (Hedgehog, Section I and Section II) he plays with the different surfaces starting from the smooth seed or the flaky outer skin to the multiple inner layers that have various functions of protecting, weatherproofing etc. The textures have a function and fulfill the vital role of protection. In the case of the Bean pod with beaten iron sheet as its outer covering and copper sheet on the inside, the play is between the outer dried shell and the delicate seed structure within.

    Extending this learning to a series of shells, he gives the seedpods, bamboo and plant remains a matt gold glaze. The surface of the shells simulates the appearance of metal-like armour that protects the fragile life form within.

    It has to be pointed here that the emphasis on organic forms has always been part of the Baroda curriculum where Abir spent six years. The sculpture department has had a long engagement with nature as an object of study. Since the 1960s,sculptors like Krishna Chhatpar and Raghav Kaneria encouraged students to make drawings of natural forms like seeds, cocoons and were responsible for integrating the biomorphic world of nature with the teaching of sculpture”. One can site many examples of this continued engagement-in Nagji Patel's exploration of the fruits and seeds in stone, in Ravinder Reddy's early erotic forms of blossoming organisms, in Madam Lal's marble depiction of a sprouting seed and in Mrinalini Mukherjees larger-than-life ceramic plant forms.

    In all these artists, the sexual subtext of organic forms in terms of imagery has been exploited very successfully. For now it is the formal structures of the fruits and seeds that enamours Abir more. But in more than one work there is a hint of him going beyond the studies he has made to maximize on their symbolic potential and this will only evolve further as he continues working.

    What is pleasurable to witness in his works is the palpable joy of image-making that comes across-in the finely crafted copper Eighty Eights, an entwined form embellished by copper threading at points, in the simple stylized forms of the star seed, the Banana and the Dudhi, and in the Ceramic fruit that continues it upward surge despite being straitjacketed into a tight grid. He combines materials to create new imagery like in the case of Sprout , a black and white ceramic form wrinkled like an elephant skin, from which emerges a shining copper tube.

    There is a capturing of movement and lightness in some works and also an interesting exploration of the play between the macrocosm and microcosm in some others. When holding up a tiny section of a fruit or enlarging the insides of a seed or investigating a portion of fruit skin in various stages of aging, it is as if the world is represented in the small subsection. Like in the case of the cross-section of jackfruit that has an architectural quality holding within it an entire fortress or the Flying seed which magnifies the working of a single seed as it readies to disperse into the air and augment a new birth.

    What is interesting is the deliberate foregrounding of material in Abir's Works. He works with material that have histories and memories of their own and there is a modernist engagement with their intrinsic qualities and surfaces. And yet with the choice of copper and ceramic as sculptural mediums, both of which are associated with traditional craft and design, he subverts the purity of the modernist cannon.
    Some might call it unfashionable, perhaps, this engagement with the beautiful and the aesthetic that informs much of Abir' s work. But there is something valid about the objects he offers us for contemplation-in their veritable sensuousness, their painstakingly described textures and their carefully investigated forms-that makes the walk through his garden of excess such a pleasurable exercise.
    - Vidya Shivadas

    1. Catalogue text, The Interlocking sculpture of Isamu Noguchi, Pacewildestein, New York,2003
    2. Interview with the artist
    3. Easy by Nilima sheikh titled 'A post-Independence Initiative in Art' in Contemporary Art in Baroda, Tulika, New Delhi, pp.114

  • Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man
    ‘Fruit of the Metropolis’ Sculpture exhibition at Jahangir art gallery, Bombay 2005.

    Creativity is like ocean throwing up waves on the shores of the earth. Each generation gives forth young talent that bursts onto society like a roaring cascade! Abir was fortunate to emerge from a sea of creativity being the son of well known architects-filmmakers. As an infant he played amongst the pencils and papers strewn about the house by his parents. His language skills emerged from the words of artists arguing over what is beauty, art and harmony.

    Costumes, paintings, buildings, stage sets, screenplays and all of the sketches and drafts and models made his childhood toys. Colors were everywhere. If art is some order or harmony, life in a studio is chaos-from that beautiful chaos Abir began to view his world and to understand his universe, Every beautiful mountain has its pitfalls and chasms and under a large banyan tree they say, no grass grows much less under two!

    Negotiating his freedom and his own 'Place' within the arts has been no easy task, yet the process has brought early results. Art and revolt are but a face in a mirror ! Abir's work is a system of inter-related mediums. There is the work of his two dimensional sketches, charcoals, prints and paintings that explores human emotions personalities, and characters through expressions; shades and shadows; textures and contrasts. They are not two - dimensional signs, but personae made real. The human condition hovers off the surface and dwells in complex imagery.

    The two dimensional works generated a daring three dimensional submersion into sculpture and installations; using a variety materials...terracotta, stoneware, metals, rope, stone and anything...Abir has explored the nature of 'thing' which in turn become signs and symbols of feeling, situations, ambiguities and the intangibles found only in human gestures-like a smile, or a smirk, there are physical signs which leave materiality behind, and enter the realm of human nature. A smile is a transitory thing, generating a more tangible emotive response. This is what Abir's three-dimensional work is all about. It is not about objects and things; it is about people, feeling and emotions. The terracotta heads pull from the viewer a bit of nostalgias from the ancient past; soon to be countered by mystical beings and creatures created from the artist's own mind. While there is a playful shift in Abir's sculpture between the real and the imagined, they pull from the viewer a slice of his/her own experience and self. This link between the acts of an artist and the "self" of the viewer is where Abir's gift lies. Instead of creating odd bits and pieces of things, just to be different, he makes a new reality out of everyday notions, hints of things seen before, yet unseen; old yet totally new. He helps us find in ourselves things and emotions which are on the tips of our emotional tongues, but we can not speak.

    It is in his ceramics that Abir turns his magic on us, using the discipline of the kiln, the rules burnings colors, the limitations of the materials to create a universe of strangely beautiful creature-plants. Their oddness makes us question, "Are they from outer space, or from the ocean's depth." On further study we realize they are from a place called nowhere: The nowhere that dwells only in the twists and turns of imagination, of thinking, of dreaming. As a third phase, Abir’s work with the medium of ceramics clearly builds on his two dimensional ideas and his sculptural concepts. It is the work of a mind that changes, fades, emerges and is never fixed. There is no modernist style, or a set fashion, but a newer age of seeking, searching and being. Without limiting Abir’s with a label, it is within its “always changing nature” that Abir rejects the traps of styles, fashions and schools of thought carrying us into its own unique exploration of his own conception of the universe.

    This young artist’s skill lies in his creative grasp to invent objects which leave their materiality behind to become aspects of those who view them; parts of ourselves which we know are there and do not see! In this manner Abir pulls at our souls and hearts, revealing to us what is human, what are emotions and the fullness which is the empty vast universe which none of us can ever describe.