reportage Arts

Fuel for the Imagination

How Prabhakar Pachpute brought coal into Indian art galleries

By ALISON SALDANHA | 1 April 2017

I GREW UP around a lot of blackness,” the artist Prabhakar Pachpute told me, as we sat inside a large room in Clark House, a 150-year-old colonial building in south Mumbai. “It’s become an intrinsic part of who I am, and so it will always show in my work.”

Only a month earlier, in May 2016, Pachpute’s work had been exhibited at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai. At the age of 30, he is among the youngest artists to have had a solo exhibition at the NGMA. Sitting at a square wooden table, Pachpute opened his laptop to show me some of his work. After showing me photos of some of his sketches, he played a stop-motion animation video he had made in 2012.

The video begins with a monochromatic sketch of a rural idyll, gradually filling out with trees, farms and hills, to the pleasant sounds of chirping birds and grasshoppers. But within seconds, a windshield wiper runs over the scene, fading it out. As the farms, birds and trees disappear, a bunch of houses march forward like soldiers. A plume of thick black smoke rises from the cluster of houses, while an ominous siren bellows in the distance. Gradually, a swirling blackness envelops the entire landscape. Sudden explosions follow, with the houses trembling in their wake. One could easily mistake this to be a war scene. The houses start marching away, but one remains, breathing heavily as if through a mask.

The next scene opens to an owl perched on a signboard that reads “Sasti Upshethra Main Aapka Swagat Hai”—Sasti subdivision welcomes you. As the bird flies away, the camera pulls back to show the land below and above the signboard. Tunnels are shown gouging the earth underground, as blackness spreads through the screen again, engulfing the Sasti signboard to the sounds of machines and clanking metal. A train emerges overground and speeds out, leaving a trace of its hooting horn as the windshield wiper rises again.

For a few seconds after the video ended, we sat in silence. “Growing up, we would hear sirens all the time,” Pachpute said. “At night, we would wake up with a start as our houses shook from the explosions. Doom! Doom!” He banged his fist on the table for effect.

Pachpute hails from Sasti, a village in eastern Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district, deep in the heart of India’s coal-mining belt. Most men in the community, including Pachpute’s brother, work in the Sasti coal mine, run by a subsidiary company of the publicly owned Coal India Limited. While members of his family remain employed in the mines of Chandrapur, Pachpute has managed an incredible journey. Having had numerous exhibitions of his work at prestigious institutions both in India and abroad, Pachpute is counted among India’s most promising young artists today.

Pachpute’s work can be seen in a variety of media—video, sculpture and even larger-than-life murals. But he is as concerned with the politics of his work as he is with its aesthetics. The large theme running throughout his work is the exploitation of labourers, especially of those employed in various kinds of mining. Over the past few years, he has been engaged not only in drawing attention to the plight of workers, but also in seeking interventions and documenting their overlooked cultures. For this purpose, he has brought coal into Indian art galleries, disturbing the archetype of calm and pristine art spaces with drawings in charcoal and soot.

IN 1984, two years before Pachpute was born, his grandfather received a “call for acquisition” from the central government. At the time, India was looking to expand its thermal energy production—which now serves 80 percent of the country’s energy needs—and wanted to acquire land for mining coal.

“When the call comes, farmers have no choice but to sell their land,” Pachpute told me. “If you don’t, your crops are anyway ruined because the companies have bought the lands surrounding your fields.” Pachpute’s grandfather, like most other residents, sold most of his land to the government. “Some still have their farms next to mines,” Pachpute told me. “The crops are black, everything is black, but the soil there is fertile so the yield is still good.”

The Pachputes received meagre monetary compensation—of Rs 7,000 per acre for eight acres of land in Sasti that is now valued at roughly Rs 13 lakh per acre—and a job for one family member at the mining company. “My grandfather was the first in my family to join the mining company—my father never did, he laboured on our relatives’ land for as long as he could. He never wanted to get into coal mining,” Pachpute said, sipping tea. “Back then it was scarier. We would often hear stories of underground miners quitting their jobs after a month or a few weeks because it was too traumatic to work in absolute darkness with your headlamp as the only source of light. These people had never seen that kind of life before—they were farmers.”

His grandfather passed away months after the land was sold. Shankar, Pachpute’s elder brother, then only 18, began working in the mines. Today, he drives a jeep, transporting mining-company officials to and from various mines around the country.

At the age of eight, Pachpute was sent to live at his sister’s house, first in Chandrapur city and then to Bhadravati village, 50 kilometres from Sasti. “I was a very naughty kid,” he said. “My mother sent me to my sister’s thinking it would have a better influence on me. Perhaps it did. My brother-in-law”—also a miner—“was very strict.”

Pachpute had his first brush with art five years later, when he returned to his mother and brother’s home, in 2000, after failing his first attempt at the tenth-grade board exams. The new school Pachpute attended, in Rajura town, held a drawing competition. “I drew a scenic picture of flowers and trees, and won first prize,” he said. His class teacher was so impressed that he included Pachpute in a group of students who were to exhibit their drawings for the entire school.

“I went home that day and shared the news,” Pachpute said, adding that he had no idea what to do next. “That’s when my sister-in-law found out about Manoj-da and introduced me to him.”

Manoj Bobade, now 39 years old, was known in the village for his bamboo crafts and portraits. He took Pachpute on as a pupil and taught him how to draw and paint. For the exhibition, Pachpute put up five drawings that he had made with the guidance of “how-to-draw” manuals. Some were nature scenes, and others were portraits of people.

The event kindled a friendship that lasts till date. Every day before and after school, Pachpute visited Bobade. The two sat together and drew till it was time for the young artist to return home for dinner. “Manoj-da introduced me to poetry and proverbs,” Pachpute said. “I fell in love with proverbs—how they conveyed so much with such simplicity.”

One day, a friend of Bobade’s visited his house while Pachpute was around. He had brought some drawings by the artist Shrikant Puranik with him. “I was amazed. I couldn’t believe such art could exist,” Pachpute said.

Curious to know more about Puranik, Pachpute decided to meet him. Puranik, who also lived in Rajura, was studying art at the Indira Kala Sangeet Vishwavidyalaya in Khairagarh town in Chhattisgarh. “I went to his house at 8.30, 9 in the evening,” Pachpute said. “He was watching TV then in his kurta and shorts. He sat me down and looked me straight in the eye and interrogated me. ‘Do you really want to be an artist?’ he asked. I said, ‘Yes.’”

Puranik then told Pachpute to meet him the next day at 9 am at the bus stop, saying, “We’re going to do landscapes.” Unsure what “doing landscapes” meant, Pachpute thought it would be some kind of a field trip. “I thought landscape is something to do with architecture and how people measure land,” Pachpute said, laughing. “When I got to the bus stop, I found Shrikant already sitting by the roadside, sketching. Without looking up at me he just said, ‘Ok, start drawing.’ I was so confused.” Puranik taught Pachpute how to draw the human body and use watercolours.

Pachpute wanted to go to the same college as Puranik, but his family had other plans. “My parents enrolled me in a polytechnic so I could do some vocational training and get a trade, a steady job,” he said. “But I was hell-bent on going to art school. I didn’t think I would be a full-time artist then. I just thought I could become an art teacher in the village.” After he failed the first year of the polytechnic course, they finally gave in. The college turned out to be relatively inexpensive—Rs 2,000 for lodging and Rs 2,000 for tuition per year—so Pachpute’s parents agreed to pay for it.

At the Khairagarh art school, Pachpute finally felt the freedom of being away from home. At night, the senior students would often rag first-year students. “You never knew when a senior could summon you, so as first-years, we made sure we were in our rooms by 8 pm,” he said.

To escape the rituals of ragging, first-year students were expected to create 50 to 100 fresh sketches every day. “The sketches had to be of this size,” Pachpute said, spreading his arms to indicate the size of the drawing paper. “Classes actually started at 1.30 pm in the afternoon but we woke up at 6 am every day, 365 days of the year, to sketch and paint,” Pachpute said. “The seniors would check our sketches every night. If we missed out on any, we were certain of getting beaten up.”

Pachpute, along with some of his friends, continued to sketch every morning even after his first year in Khairagarh. Drawing human figures became second nature. “I don’t need references anymore,” he said. “It wasn’t compulsory to continue the second year onwards but we would do it anyway. We became a big group. Every morning we went to nearby areas and villages to sketch people before class.”

Despite the ragging, he believes the seniors were very helpful. “They critiqued our work and helped us improve our drawing. One senior told me to put up my sketches every day in the room so that I can see the improvement in my work for myself and see which areas need more focus. That helped me learn so much,” Pachpute said.

At the college, Pachpute came to hear of the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, or MSU. “One of our seniors managed to get through,” he told me. The senior warned Pachpute and others of how difficult it was to get into the college.

Pachpute managed to clear MSU’s entrance test, and, for the interview round, took 50 of his best sketches. In 2009, Pachpute was the only artist from Indira Kala Sangeet Vishwavidyalaya to get into MSU.

But life in Vadodara proved to be incredibly hard. Pachpute could not keep up with the living costs, and MSU was a lot more competitive than Khairagarh. At one point, Pachpute was unsure if he would be able to finish his master’s degree. “I was very sad in Vadodara. It was very different from Khairagarh—we were kings there!” Pachpute said.

The sculpture department at MSU was open only between 8.30 am and 12.30 pm, leaving Pachpute with few hours to work on his sculptures. “What was I supposed to do the rest of the day?” he said. “Other students managed to rent some other space for work but I didn’t have that kind of money. I could not even afford a five-rupee tea.”

To sustain himself, he started taking up commissioned works, charging anywhere from Rs 3,000 to Rs 5,000 per piece. “Manoj-da helped me a lot this time. With his help, I could apply to the Hope Foundation”—a non-profit working in health and education—“for student support. They then sent me Rs 1,000 a month.” Pachpute even applied for admission to the National Institute of Design. “I felt I should abandon dreams of being an artist and focus on design and getting a steady job. I even got admission,” he said. “But it was too expensive for me.”

As he struggled to find his feet in MSU, his father died. He was at the brink of quitting when the people of Rajura came to his rescue. Bobade and Puranik, together with Pachpute’s friends and family, approached the local member of the legislative assembly and asked for a loan to allow him to complete his studies in Vadodara. “They made me show him my artwork, which convinced him to lend me the money. They gave me some of their own money too,” Pachpute said, adding that the loan was paid off soon after his first sale as an artist.

The extra funds allowed Pachpute to pursue his creative interests more freely. He could now afford to buy a projector. But he remained tight-fisted, and did all his work himself. “There were many sculpture students who would get help from the caster for their work,” he said. “I didn’t have money to make such requests.”

During his second year at MSU, Pachpute began coming into his own. The lecturers urged students to create meaningful, socially-relevant art. The students had to decide the theme of their art and submit their work plans for the year ahead. But Pachpute still had not figured out what the larger theme of his work would be.

One monsoon day in August 2010, a professor of Pachpute’s, the artist Tushar Joag, brought to class a newspaper clipping about the 2010 Copiapó mining accident in Chile, in which the Chilean government had rescued 33 miners after a 120-year-old copper and gold mine caved in. “It made me think of my family, relatives and friends, all miners, risking their lives daily,” he told me. “Mishaps like this one in Chile were common yet they never received such attention from the government or media in spite of being closer to home.”

Thus began his excavation of the personal experiences of living in one of the country’s richest mining belts. With some distance from home, he could look back at his life more objectively for material. He started to connect his earlier works—visual interpretations of proverbs and poems he came across and liked—with the realities of miners. He also began to explore murals as an art form after playing one night with a torchlight and the wall shadow of an unfinished elephant sculpture. He completed the figure by drawing intricately on its projected silhouette. He named the multimedia experiment The Giant.

Pachpute chose to specialise in sculpture. For his dissertation, he created two artworks, entitled Frozen Moment and Tribute to a Coalminer. Frozen Moment consists of fibreglass maquettes—small-scale drafts of large sculptures—of miners staring in awe at a projected drawing of an explosion. “This was the first work where I used a slide projector,” he said, adding that though the work was about the 2010 Chilean mine disaster, he looked at it through the prism of his own experiences of witnessing such incidents first-hand in Chandrapur. Tribute to a Coalminer, an installation, showed another miner maquette staring at a lump of coal, seemingly weighing its significance, while an owl perched on the miner’s shoulder appeared to be watching a stop-motion picture projected on a wall behind, played in a continuous loop. The film showed an elephant falling down a cliff while a group of men try to save it, pulling it back with ropes.

“Both the miner’s headlamp and the owl can see in the dark, or rather, past the state of darkness,” Pachpute told me. The elephant in the stop-motion video, he said, represented the strength needed to carry on working in the mines. “Miners live on community support. The men here are trying to save the animal, saying, ‘Don’t fall down, don’t fall down,’” Pachpute said. His father’s untimely death, he admitted, had some influence on the piece.

I spoke to Tushar Joag, who is now a teacher at Shiv Nadar University, on the phone. “I could see that he”—Pachpute—“was pushing himself conceptually. In fact, his conceptual development made him stand out in the classroom because, at the master’s level, most students already come with a certain high level of skill. Pachpute’s love for poetry helped that development.”

Apart from helping him find his subject matter, MSU also introduced Pachpute to his wife. In 2014, he married the artist Rupali Patil, who also went to MSU and whom he had been dating since his college days.

ON A BREEZY EVENING in late June last year, I met Pachpute and Patil at their 400-square-foot studio apartment in a low-cost residential colony in Goregaon, a western suburb of Mumbai. A rough yellow-wax sculpture of a human body lay on a loft jutting out above the doorway. We sat down on a printed green-and-purple wicker mat spread out in the centre of the room, resting our backs against the frame of a diwan. Next to us, their three-month-old son slept peacefully in a baby car seat.

“We preferred this over a one-bedroom flat because it gives us enough space to spread out our work—especially for him,” Patil said, dressed in a black-and-white checkered dress, pouring tea into Japanese cups decorated with blue flowers. “When Prabhakar was growing up, he didn’t have a lot of space,” she said. “Perhaps this is his way of breaking down that barrier.”

Pachpute said that he first came to Mumbai in 2011, when Tushar Joag invited him to work at his studio on an exhibition. “I jumped at the chance,” Pachpute said, dressed in jeans and a midnight-blue T-shirt. “We would go for gallery openings and casually meet with artists like Sudhir Patwardhan and Atul Dodiya, who we had only ever read about in books or class. I knew this is where I have to be if I wish to have a career,” he said.

During one such gallery opening, Joag introduced Pachpute to Zasha Colah and Sumesh Sharma, the founders of the Clark House Initiative, an alternative art space in Mumbai. “Sumesh came in shorts for the opening that day,” Pachpute recalled, laughing. “Zasha looked at me curiously. She asked me many questions.”

A few steps away from south Mumbai’s most renowned cultural institutions—such as the National Gallery of Modern Art, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghralaya, the Jehangir Art Gallery and Regal Cinema—the Clark House building stands in various levels of disrepair and unravel. Inside, on the ground floor, lies the Clark House Initiative. The art space is renowned for engaging with regional artists from diverse backgrounds, and for showcasing the work of young artists. It also offers residencies and is generally a burrow for the artists working there.

Recalling her first meeting with Pachpute, Colah said that she wanted to see his work as soon as he told her what it was about. “I had never come across someone working on this before,” she said. “He was talking about things he had seen, not an idea.” The Clark House Initiative was the first to provide Pachpute the space to do murals, which would become his signature medium. “I like the sense of freedom walls gave me,” he said.

In 2012, Pachpute had his first major solo exhibition at the Clark House Initiative gallery, titled Canary in the Coalmine. Impending renovations to the art space allowed Pachpute’s imagination to roam freely over the walls and panels of the room in the back. From a few sketches on the wall against a shadow as conceived in The Giant, the artist now took over the entire cube—including the ceiling, which he covered in soot from candle smoke, turning the gallery into a coal mine. The process encouraged him to look at the site’s features differently, merging them into the narrative built from his research, memories and experiences in Chandrapur. Power outlets thus came to be the heads of the site manager or mining official, while leaky walls added textures to the pitch-black mining site recreated in harsh strokes of charcoal.

The gallery was rendered pitch black, and Clark House handed visitors a torch before letting them in, adding a theatrical element to the exhibition. Somewhere in the back of the cave-like room, one could hear the sound of water dripping, something Pachpute had put in place intentionally. Pachpute remembered visiting a mine in 2010, where he couldn’t see anything. “But you could hear the sound of a water drip—tip, tip, tip—in the distance,” he said. “It reminded me of the Chinese water-drop torture technique, where water is slowly dropped onto a person’s forehead, eventually driving them insane.”

Canary in the Coalmine was a resounding success, with many of its components being sold. A Mauritian art collector bought all of Pachpute’s panels for roughly $8,500, while the businessman Anand Mahindra bought the sculpture of an owl placed at the doorway. “We kept it on for eight months,” Colah told me. “We refused to bring down that room till it was absolutely time to, so a lot of people saw that work. A lot of curators would discuss it and show people and talk about it, and he got a lot of great invitations through that.”

The exposure from the show took Pachpute around the world, with invitations from art institutions in Germany, Japan, Italy, Belgium, Turkey and Brazil, among other countries. It gave him the opportunity to study different kinds of mining operations and the way people living around those areas cope with their surroundings. He held exhibitions combining the stories of miners in India with those of miners in other countries.

“The artist residencies showed me how other countries treat their miners and what facilities are available to them,” Pachpute said. “It helped me see there is a future after mining.”

OVER THE YEARS, through his unique experience and ideas, Pachpute has developed a distinctive approach to art, with recurring motifs and a cast of characters easily identifiable in his exhibitions.

Apart from the elephant embodying the strength of mining villages, there is the owl, whom Pachpute calls “the proverbial third eye and silent observer.” With its ability to see through darkness, the bird stands as a metaphor for both the artist and the audience. There are the faceless farmers and miners, depicted with mining headlamps, farming tools or antennae for heads, and the “manager”—a stocky figure with a power switch, a coal block or a landmine for his head.

While some would consider sketches and maquettes preliminary drafts of finished works of art, Pachpute has treated these as their own art forms. “Baroda taught us how to present our work in a clean, polished way,” he said, adding that he had to learn how to not give his works a grand finish. “Caring to present something polished interferes with the flow of work,” Pachpute told me. “We really need to ask, what is the need and importance of producing something polished as opposed to in fluid motion? Why do I need to make it so neat and presentable?” According to Pachpute, when an artist makes a human figure, it is more important to get the character right than the proportions.

I pointed out that his ideas sounded similar to those of the sixteenth-century art historian Giorgio Vasari. “Yes, that’s exactly it!” he said. In his book The Lives of the Artists, Vasari compares the Florentine sculptor Luca Della Robbia’s finely polished work with the rough-hewn and unpolished style of his contemporary Donatello. “Just as poems dictated during a poetic frenzy are the truest, the finest, and the best when compared to those produced with great effort, so the works of men who excel in arts of design are best when they are created by a single stroke from the force of this frenzy rather than when they are produced little by little according to the inspiration of the moment with great effort and labour,” Vasari wrote.

Many of Pachpute’s major ideas and his huge cast of characters found a place in the artist’s exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai. Pachpute took over all the walls of the space for the work, titled no, it wasn’t the locust cloud, which spread across 69 metres and stretched three metres high. After over eight months of planning, brainstorming and practice, Pachpute executed the work for the show in 12 days.

The exhibit garnered more than 5,000 visitors in a month—not including those on the opening day—a considerable hit by the city’s art-world standards, Colah said. The media coverage, too, was unprecedented, as the show not only drew mainstream news outlets, but also film directors and four different documentary crews.

Pachpute’s favourite poem, “Rahim Kaka and the lost goat,” written by the Sasti poet Kishore Kawathe, who is a member of the Sapta Ranga artists’ collective of mining residents in Chandrapur, also made it to the walls of the NGMA. The poem is about a farmer who, while looking for his lost goat, enters an abandoned mine. The poem ends asking how many more Rahim Kakas must we lose.

“Abandoned mines are closed mines—they are dangerously fragile as the earth here has been caverned out,” Pachpute told me. “In Chandrapur, we have many such sites that are dangerously left unguarded after the land is fully exploited.” In the work, Pachpute sketched a man, with a headlamp for his head, sitting on a goat pointing forward.

At the centre of the room stood a rough paper-mache sculpture of a manager. With its coal-block head, the seven-foot sculpture held maps in one arm while its other arm stretched out pointing an index finger into the distance, as if summoning troops to march forward. It was the first time Pachpute, who usually made maquettes of hapless farmers and miners, had ever created a large sculpture.

Another departure in Pachpute’s recent works is the presence of more colour. “I used colour in a big way in São Paulo, Brazil,” he told me, talking about his exhibition in the country in 2014. “The people and the place were so vivid and colourful. I wanted to bring out my experience not merely using black, since my research also was on the gold mines there.”

Colah believes Pachpute’s conversations and experiences with people from different parts of the world have played a key role in his journey as an artist over the last five years. “It has led to a beautiful richness such as that he brings to this NGMA show,” Colah said. “The vibrant cultural vocabulary, the references to films, and ideas—you don’t find the same force of blackness as we did in Canary in a Coalmine.”

The colour is also reflective of the new joy in Pachpute and Patil’s life. Barely five weeks prior to Pachpute’s largest exhibition in India, Patil gave birth to their son. “We got to know we were expecting a child while in Turkey on a combined residency there. Our friend, artist Anna Bogan, said we should pick a gender neutral name,” Pachpute said. They decided on “Rumi.”

Pachpute does not give much thought to the commercial problems that can arise from his approach to art. After an exhibition, his colossal murals are painted over, erased forever—similar, in a way, to how the histories and cultures of villages are wiped out in mining belts. Even the sculptures he creates are fashioned with materials such as paper mache or wax—less permanent than stone or metal.

In most of his exhibitions, every piece plays an indispensable role—the sum of all parts forming a coherent whole—often rendering it difficult to sell individual components. “In Clark House, we could preserve the wood panels, but usually they are just painted over,” Pachpute said, adding that apart from the occasional purchase Clark House or other art houses manage, he earns from artist’s fees from residencies and biennales. “You just have to keep moving on,” he said.

But other than a lack of concern for its commercial prospects, Pachpute is capable of a strange sense of detachment from his work. A few days prior to our first meeting, on the afternoon of 2 June last year, a fire broke out in the top floors of the four-storey Metro Plaza building—a residential-cum-commercial structure on Colaba Causeway, a couple of buildings away from the Clark House in south Mumbai. Though no casualties were reported, media reports said the blaze had gutted two entire floors, seriously damaging the 150-year-old heritage building. A lesser-know n loss was that of more than a hundred works of art by Indian and international artists associated with Clark House, lost permanently in the fire as the collective had rented a portion of the fourth floor for storage space. Both Pachpute and Patil had some of their work destroyed.

“It’s an absolute tragedy,” Patil said, horrified. “We’ve lost years of work.”

“It’s okay,” Pachpute responded with an air of calm.

“Oh please, Prabhakar, you’re in another league,” she said, admonishing him with a smile.

Two days after his exhibition at the NGMA, Pachpute took his sense of detachment to another extreme. While shifting the sculpture of the manager to the back of the Clark House building, its heavy base of plaster and metal broke, toppling the statue’s delicate head over. Frustrated, and realising there was no space for the structure, Pachpute broke the rest of it with his bare hands.

“I didn’t like sculpting this man,” he said. “I just didn’t want to keep it. Everything was going to be destroyed from the show anyway, so I didn’t want this to be the only remaining piece—it had no meaning for me. I wasn’t very happy with the work either,” he said, with a hint of disgust.

“I have come to see the process of creating my art as performative,” he continued. “The way I interact with the canvas when creating a mural. Everybody doesn’t get to see me do it, of course, but it’s a connection I make with the space and the medium.”

While Pachpute draws attention to workers’ problems, he also wants his work to engage with the people it talks about. “My work may show people around the world what is the situation of miners back home. But back home, it shows people what is the situation of people around them,” he said.

In Rajura, Pachpute held a slideshow presentation of his work for the people of the town, organised by Sapta Ranga. Mining areas are heavily guarded and often even the families of workers are unaware of the kind of lives they lead—daily climbing 200 feet underground into a black void at dawn only to emerge past sunset. Pachpute hopes his work will plug that gap in communication. “When we had a showing of my work in the village, people could easily relate to what I was trying to show,” he said. “They didn’t find it too abstract or beyond them.”

His work led the filmmaker couple Iswar Srikumar and Anushka Meenakshi of the U-ra-mi-li sound project, which recorded the music, movement and rhythm of everyday life across India over two years, to also pursue the sounds of miners at work in the Chandrapur coal mines. The video that ultimately came out of the project, which is part of a film that is currently in post-production, also showed the miners’ families in the villages what the workers endure every day. Pachpute said this reaffirmed his conviction to set up a museum in Chandrapur as a tribute to the lives of miners.

“The museum would house everyday objects miners take with them when descending into the mines, their talismans, torches, photographs, etcetera,” he said. “Maybe someday I could do it in other mining areas, but for now it is my goal to set something up back home.” Pachpute added that the museum would also store his archival images and research work, collected over the years, on mining in Chandrapur and other communities he has visited across the world.

This, he believes, will show miners and their families the rights, security and facilities people in other parts of the world are entitled to when they give up their land for the country’s economy. “For instance, in Germany we saw that abandoned mines had now been converted into tourism sites, and a new economy had taken shape,” he said. “The idea is to perhaps give people hope that all is not lost in spite of mining destroying their land.”

BUT AS PACHPUTE’S CAREER ADVANCES, and the stakes get higher, a dilution of his idealism appears to be a real threat. With the ubiquitous lure of money and fame in the art world, a single misstep could compromise his self-proclaimed position of the “silent observer.”

On a grey, wet evening in June, Pachpute was at the stately white Jindal Mansion on Peddar Road, Mumbai—one of the country’s most expensive addresses, on one of its most expensive streets. A showing of his work had been organised by Art India magazine, a concern of the JSW Foundation—the social development arm of the steel and energy conglomerate JSW Group.

We sat to the right of a grand foyer, on white-framed, cream-cushioned garden chairs arranged as if in a theatre. A white screen, erected near a front-right window, and two carved wooden chairs faced the audience. Across the room, snacks of phyllo pastries, mini pizzas and cookies, with tea and coffee, were served in the parlour. Due to the rain outside, and to lack of publicity for the event, a lean crowd of about ten people had shown up. At 6 pm, the event commenced, and Sangita Jindal, chairperson of the JSW Foundation, and resident of the mansion joined the audience.

A number of people reacted with amazement to see an artist from Maharashtra’s coal-mining hinterlands fill the white setting with the spectre of his carbon-based art. But the scale of the irony was lost on most. The businesses of the JSW Group include coal mining—they run operations at multiple mines in Chhattisgarh.

When I later brought this up with Pachpute, he said, “I’ve never visited the Jindal mines, but this was an opportunity to know what they think and how they perceive the situation of miners. I wanted to understand what are their concerns. I guess it was a sharing of views and ideas.”

Pachpute had prepared a Powerpoint presentation. Dressed in a light-blue shirt over jeans and white sneakers, he casually sat by the windowsill and discussed his work in detail as the projector shifted slides. He closed the presentation to a supportive round of applause and threw the floor open to questions.

After a few run-of-the-mill queries were answered, Sangita Jindal began speaking.

She praised Pachpute’s art, saying she was particularly touched when he played his stop-motion videos. She then asked, “You show reality, and our steel plants, too, depend heavily on coal, but can we also think of hope?”

Her corporation, she said, has for years been heavily involved in welfare work related to health, education and childcare for villages around its mines. “My concern is to not just show what is, but to also show hope,” Jindal said. Pachpute defended himself by bringing up the humour and playfulness in his works and the scenes of post-industrial hope visualised in his recent NGMA mural. But Abhay Sardesai, the editor of Art India, interrupted him, saying, “Where do we meet if we represent both the industrial and the subaltern? How can we have an exchange?”

Jindal agreed with Sardesai, and said, “If we not just show the plight but also work on changing lives, it would be possible to start a proposal and collaborate with the people out there to get something more concrete done.”

The contemporary artist Anita Dube entered the conversation at this point, lauding Jindal’s initiative, but adding, “We need to take care that such exchanges do not in turn distort the artist’s independent point of view.” For the rest of the discussion, Sardesai and Dube, along with the artist Prajakta Potnis, sometimes spoke for Pachpute and sometimes over him. I had a sense that both Pachpute and I felt a bit out of place in the setting.

After the event, we walked out of the mansion together and to the nearest railway station. It was still raining, and, with our umbrellas held high, we tried to navigate the peak night traffic, hopping over puddles in Mumbai’s streets. I asked him if there was a chance the event would lead to a sale, given that a special screening of his work was just held in his honour. Pachpute said he wasn’t sure. “I’d probably have to create more hopeful art for that,” he said, chuckling. “Hope for sale!”

I GREW UP around a lot of blackness,” the artist Prabhakar Pachpute told me, as we sat inside a large room in Clark House, a 150-year-old colonial building in south Mumbai. “It’s become an intrinsic part of who I am, and so it will always show in my work.”

Only a month earlier, in May 2016, Pachpute’s work had been exhibited at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai. At the age of 30, he is among the youngest artists to have had a solo exhibition at the NGMA. Sitting at a square wooden table, Pachpute opened his laptop to show me some of his work. After showing me photos of some of his sketches, he played a stop-motion animation video he had made in 2012.

The video begins with a monochromatic sketch of a rural idyll, gradually filling out with trees, farms and hills, to the pleasant sounds of chirping birds and grasshoppers. But within seconds, a windshield wiper runs over the scene, fading it out. As the farms, birds and trees disappear, a bunch of houses march forward like soldiers. A plume of thick black smoke rises from the cluster of houses, while an ominous siren bellows in the distance. Gradually, a swirling blackness envelops the entire landscape. Sudden explosions follow, with the houses trembling in their wake. One could easily mistake this to be a war scene. The houses start marching away, but one remains, breathing heavily as if through a mask.

The next scene opens to an owl perched on a signboard that reads “Sasti Upshethra Main Aapka Swagat Hai”—Sasti subdivision welcomes you. As the bird flies away, the camera pulls back to show the land below and above the signboard. Tunnels are shown gouging the earth underground, as blackness spreads through the screen again, engulfing the Sasti signboard to the sounds of machines and clanking metal. A train emerges overground and speeds out, leaving a trace of its hooting horn as the windshield wiper rises again.

For a few seconds after the video ended, we sat in silence. “Growing up, we would hear sirens all the time,” Pachpute said. “At night, we would wake up with a start as our houses shook from the explosions. Doom! Doom!” He banged his fist on the table for effect.

Pachpute hails from Sasti, a village in eastern Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district, deep in the heart of India’s coal-mining belt. Most men in the community, including Pachpute’s brother, work in the Sasti coal mine, run by a subsidiary company of the publicly owned Coal India Limited. While members of his family remain employed in the mines of Chandrapur, Pachpute has managed an incredible journey. Having had numerous exhibitions of his work at prestigious institutions both in India and abroad, Pachpute is counted among India’s most promising young artists today.

Pachpute’s work can be seen in a variety of media—video, sculpture and even larger-than-life murals. But he is as concerned with the politics of his work as he is with its aesthetics. The large theme running throughout his work is the exploitation of labourers, especially of those employed in various kinds of mining. Over the past few years, he has been engaged not only in drawing attention to the plight of workers, but also in seeking interventions and documenting their overlooked cultures. For this purpose, he has brought coal into Indian art galleries, disturbing the archetype of calm and pristine art spaces with drawings in charcoal and soot.

IN 1984, two years before Pachpute was born, his grandfather received a “call for acquisition” from the central government. At the time, India was looking to expand its thermal energy production—which now serves 80 percent of the country’s energy needs—and wanted to acquire land for mining coal.

“When the call comes, farmers have no choice but to sell their land,” Pachpute told me. “If you don’t, your crops are anyway ruined because the companies have bought the lands surrounding your fields.” Pachpute’s grandfather, like most other residents, sold most of his land to the government. “Some still have their farms next to mines,” Pachpute told me. “The crops are black, everything is black, but the soil there is fertile so the yield is still good.”

The Pachputes received meagre monetary compensation—of Rs 7,000 per acre for eight acres of land in Sasti that is now valued at roughly Rs 13 lakh per acre—and a job for one family member at the mining company. “My grandfather was the first in my family to join the mining company—my father never did, he laboured on our relatives’ land for as long as he could. He never wanted to get into coal mining,” Pachpute said, sipping tea. “Back then it was scarier. We would often hear stories of underground miners quitting their jobs after a month or a few weeks because it was too traumatic to work in absolute darkness with your headlamp as the only source of light. These people had never seen that kind of life before—they were farmers.”

His grandfather passed away months after the land was sold. Shankar, Pachpute’s elder brother, then only 18, began working in the mines. Today, he drives a jeep, transporting mining-company officials to and from various mines around the country.

At the age of eight, Pachpute was sent to live at his sister’s house, first in Chandrapur city and then to Bhadravati village, 50 kilometres from Sasti. “I was a very naughty kid,” he said. “My mother sent me to my sister’s thinking it would have a better influence on me. Perhaps it did. My brother-in-law”—also a miner—“was very strict.”

Pachpute had his first brush with art five years later, when he returned to his mother and brother’s home, in 2000, after failing his first attempt at the tenth-grade board exams. The new school Pachpute attended, in Rajura town, held a drawing competition. “I drew a scenic picture of flowers and trees, and won first prize,” he said. His class teacher was so impressed that he included Pachpute in a group of students who were to exhibit their drawings for the entire school.

“I went home that day and shared the news,” Pachpute said, adding that he had no idea what to do next. “That’s when my sister-in-law found out about Manoj-da and introduced me to him.”

Manoj Bobade, now 39 years old, was known in the village for his bamboo crafts and portraits. He took Pachpute on as a pupil and taught him how to draw and paint. For the exhibition, Pachpute put up five drawings that he had made with the guidance of “how-to-draw” manuals. Some were nature scenes, and others were portraits of people.

The event kindled a friendship that lasts till date. Every day before and after school, Pachpute visited Bobade. The two sat together and drew till it was time for the young artist to return home for dinner. “Manoj-da introduced me to poetry and proverbs,” Pachpute said. “I fell in love with proverbs—how they conveyed so much with such simplicity.”

One day, a friend of Bobade’s visited his house while Pachpute was around. He had brought some drawings by the artist Shrikant Puranik with him. “I was amazed. I couldn’t believe such art could exist,” Pachpute said.

Curious to know more about Puranik, Pachpute decided to meet him. Puranik, who also lived in Rajura, was studying art at the Indira Kala Sangeet Vishwavidyalaya in Khairagarh town in Chhattisgarh. “I went to his house at 8.30, 9 in the evening,” Pachpute said. “He was watching TV then in his kurta and shorts. He sat me down and looked me straight in the eye and interrogated me. ‘Do you really want to be an artist?’ he asked. I said, ‘Yes.’”

Puranik then told Pachpute to meet him the next day at 9 am at the bus stop, saying, “We’re going to do landscapes.” Unsure what “doing landscapes” meant, Pachpute thought it would be some kind of a field trip. “I thought landscape is something to do with architecture and how people measure land,” Pachpute said, laughing. “When I got to the bus stop, I found Shrikant already sitting by the roadside, sketching. Without looking up at me he just said, ‘Ok, start drawing.’ I was so confused.” Puranik taught Pachpute how to draw the human body and use watercolours.

Pachpute wanted to go to the same college as Puranik, but his family had other plans. “My parents enrolled me in a polytechnic so I could do some vocational training and get a trade, a steady job,” he said. “But I was hell-bent on going to art school. I didn’t think I would be a full-time artist then. I just thought I could become an art teacher in the village.” After he failed the first year of the polytechnic course, they finally gave in. The college turned out to be relatively inexpensive—Rs 2,000 for lodging and Rs 2,000 for tuition per year—so Pachpute’s parents agreed to pay for it.

At the Khairagarh art school, Pachpute finally felt the freedom of being away from home. At night, the senior students would often rag first-year students. “You never knew when a senior could summon you, so as first-years, we made sure we were in our rooms by 8 pm,” he said.

To escape the rituals of ragging, first-year students were expected to create 50 to 100 fresh sketches every day. “The sketches had to be of this size,” Pachpute said, spreading his arms to indicate the size of the drawing paper. “Classes actually started at 1.30 pm in the afternoon but we woke up at 6 am every day, 365 days of the year, to sketch and paint,” Pachpute said. “The seniors would check our sketches every night. If we missed out on any, we were certain of getting beaten up.”

Pachpute, along with some of his friends, continued to sketch every morning even after his first year in Khairagarh. Drawing human figures became second nature. “I don’t need references anymore,” he said. “It wasn’t compulsory to continue the second year onwards but we would do it anyway. We became a big group. Every morning we went to nearby areas and villages to sketch people before class.”

Despite the ragging, he believes the seniors were very helpful. “They critiqued our work and helped us improve our drawing. One senior told me to put up my sketches every day in the room so that I can see the improvement in my work for myself and see which areas need more focus. That helped me learn so much,” Pachpute said.

At the college, Pachpute came to hear of the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, or MSU. “One of our seniors managed to get through,” he told me. The senior warned Pachpute and others of how difficult it was to get into the college.

Pachpute managed to clear MSU’s entrance test, and, for the interview round, took 50 of his best sketches. In 2009, Pachpute was the only artist from Indira Kala Sangeet Vishwavidyalaya to get into MSU.

But life in Vadodara proved to be incredibly hard. Pachpute could not keep up with the living costs, and MSU was a lot more competitive than Khairagarh. At one point, Pachpute was unsure if he would be able to finish his master’s degree. “I was very sad in Vadodara. It was very different from Khairagarh—we were kings there!” Pachpute said.

The sculpture department at MSU was open only between 8.30 am and 12.30 pm, leaving Pachpute with few hours to work on his sculptures. “What was I supposed to do the rest of the day?” he said. “Other students managed to rent some other space for work but I didn’t have that kind of money. I could not even afford a five-rupee tea.”

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Alison Saldanha is an assistant editor with IndiaSpend.org. She previously worked for the Indian Express. Her writings have appeared in Scroll, The Wire, the Hindustan Times, Business Standard and the Economic Times, among other publications.

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