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Whispering Green: Moving towards 'Chance Aesthetics' by Jesal Thacker

A chronicle thinker, Prabhakar Barwe is best known for his thought experiments with object-form-content interrelationships. Born in the family of sculptors, Barwe’s father, Shivram, worked in various film studios, making sculptural molds for commercial use and, significantly, his grand-uncle, Vinayak Pandurang Karmarkar, who was well known for strictly following the academic genre of realism. Barwe’s spent his initial years in the Konkan village, where he was born, and his later years in Bombay (now Mumbai) surrounded by the natural and creative atmosphere.

Inevitably, his creative family inculcated a desire into him to study fine art, not so much as a means of livelihood but primarily as an inquiry into the process and purpose of creative thinking. 

“Barwe was fascinated by the nature of creativity, by the role of the unconscious mind in the imagination and the power of art to transform experience.” [1]

A Beginning: Thought Experiments

Barwe studied at Sir. J.J School of Art (1954-59) that predominantly followed Bauhaus pedagogy, and nurtured Art and Craft departments. Overlooking century-old traditional pedagogy of neo-classicism, the JJ’s dean in 1954, honourable J. D. Gondhalekar followed Charles Gerrard’s approach to let abstraction, distortion, and non-representational elements streamline in institute’s assignments, examinations, and exhibitions. [2] This eclectic atmosphere allowed Barwe to experience both Indian and western theories and art forms while inculcating a deep interest in poetry and spiritual discourse. J. Krishnamurti, the Indian philosopher, and educator, who revolutionized ideas of human psychology, consciousness, and evolution, lectured extensively in India and abroad, conducting a series of talks at the JJ, a few of which Barwe had attended intently. Krishnamurti’s emphasis on perceiving the world afresh, “the understanding of ‘what – is’ and going beyond it, brings clarity - that is the clarity of a mind that is unconfused, without distortion or sense of duality at all” [3]echoes in Barwe’s notations and his book Blank Canvas. [4]

Another prominent impression on Barwe was the pedagogical thinking of Paul Klee. [5] 

“Barwe had an agenda that he followed through his (Paul Klee) work: the agenda of rendering possible the creation of art that could validate its affiliations at the levels of being both authentic in its history, and contemporaneous in the sense of transcending the commonly assumed opposition of tradition and modernity, of representation and abstraction.” [6]

Also at his home, Barwe was surrounded by synchronic ease and harmony. Shri Shivram and Smt. Shanta were not peculiarly orthodox—his mother read the Tukaram Potha [7]and Shivram studied astrology, more as a science than a means of future prediction and benefit. In 1961, it was a struggle between utilitarian and creative that compelled him to join the Weavers' Service Centre at Banaras. The centre was a unique initiative by Pupul Jayakar, whose aim was to uplift the crafts of India by inviting leading artists to design and renew the dying art of textiles. 

Barwe was associated with the Weavers' Service Centre for nearly two decades (1961-82), during which he simultaneously explored traditional Indian concepts of design and his preoccupations with Tantra. 

Tantra to Swantantra

"This introduction to Tantra, the diagram and the word…served as a springboard to understand what art is, and I started doing collage… the basic thing was to seek freedom of application, colour, sticking things together…I thought painting was like war with the canvas. Only later did I realise that one has to surrender, to start speaking, so that there is a dialogue.” [8]

Tantra is an experience of life and scientific study designed to release man’s inherent spiritual power. It involves a disciplined method of seeing or visualizing the hidden meaning of objects by developing an intuitive faculty to perceive the unity and interconnectedness of all existence. Although Barwe was involved with the concept of tantra for a while, he was clear about his artistic intentions, adapting the philosophy towards his cognitive development, rather than assembling and deciphering symbols. 

"I soon realized that I am not a tantrik, If I was to become one, I would have to stop being an artist.” [9]

His effort was to rethink tantra, adapt its philosophy, evolve a parallel language, bear the ideological concept of expansion and interconnectedness, and unfold the narrative etched within its iconography.

“To liberate form (in a way) from its own concreteness, to discard in the process all realistic and known associations of the form, transferring it into a different context and thereby creating new meanings for that form.” [10]

Every individual, according to Tantra, is a manifestation of an energy bearing its own unique consciousness, which transmits and transforms with every symbolic expression that an artist consistently devises. 

Towards 'Chance Aesthetics'

Whispering Green, painted in 1974, compliments all these aspects of primitivity and its digression towards abstraction, “progressing towards an unusually purer and more poetic approach”. [11] During this period, Barwe was introduced to the I Ching, an interesting book of oracles demonstrating a method of exploring the unconscious through the symbolism of its hexagrams. In its mathematical definition, a hexagram is a six-pointed star [12], and in the I Ching, a hexagram is a symbol created by six horizontal lines, where each line is either a Yang (unbroken line) or Ying (broken line). Created with the process determined purely by chance, there are a total of sixty-four hexagrams, each denoting a characteristic that aids the reading. “By simply relying upon chance, we allow entrance to that which we cannot usually hear because we are too busy thinking or plotting or reasoning.” [13]

Whispering Green by Prabhakar Barwe, 1974, 4 x 3 feet

Whispering Green projects multiple contexts within its composition, symbolizing a pastoral land, an astrological computation of space, each assembled with a group of matchsticks, forming a microscopic grid – interlace of form, rhythm, and design – elements that were prevalent in his earlier canvases. But there is yet another layer of experiment in this particular canvas: a paradoxical play between chance and choice. The matchstick formations are a conscious attempt to create a hexagram-like structure. Not following the defined process of creating forms, Barwe allows his visual intuition to create an oracular expression. On close observation, one notices abstract ring formations that at first seem like cracks on the surface, but on closer inspection, they are intentional marks etched from the reverse, which is another conscious attempt towards the process of ‘Chance Aesthetics’. 

Leonardo Da Vinci writes in his work, Treatise on Painting, “By looking attentively at old and smeared walls, or stones and veined marble of various colours, you may fancy that you see in them several compositions, landscapes, battles, figures in a quick motion, strange countenances, and dresses, with an infinity of other objects. By these confused lines, the inventive genius is excited to new exertions.” Chance Aesthetics explores the idea as the primary structure and formation through which individual movements — including Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Nouveau Realism, and Fluxus — could be traversed. [14]

Between 1969 and 1970, Akbar Padamsee, one of the pioneers of modern Indian art, made a rare 16mm experimental film titled Syzygy. It was an eleven-minute silent, black and white film, shot on 35mm (later converted to 16mm), and made in collaboration with the animator, Ram Mohan. Based on Paul Klee’s pedagogical drawings, Padamsee recalibrated approximately a thousand patterns through an abstract style. “What I put in the film (Syzygy) is much of the kind of thinking that goes into a painting. An infinity of possibilities is chaos and the limitation of this infinity through a programme, is order.” [15]

The cognitive process seen in Paul Klee’s sketches was reordered by inducing the element of chance, the resultant images being an abstract composition of numbers, alphabets, dots, dashes, linear formations, characterizing an innate algorithm. Whereas Padamsee elucidates the contradictory gestures through which he “programmes” the drawings: “Programming implies two movements: intensive and extensive. Intensive…towards the centre; extensive…away from the centre. The intensive phase is towards ultimate density. The extensive phase is towards ultimate invisibility.”  [16]

Cultural theorist and art critic, Nancy Adajania co-relates Padamsee’s programming process to Bela Bartok’s works, scored from the Fibonacci sequence; enquiring further if the films were not made in a spirit similar to concrete music of John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and the architect-musician Ianis Xenakis – all of whom played between chance and the programme. To which Padamsee confirmed in an interview to Adajania, that he was reading John Cage’s writings, was acquainted with Xenakis’s work, and in the 1960s had even seen Cage and Robert Rauschenberg perform in Bombay. Adajania further observes Padamsee’s use of the phrase “Programme for a film” – a term from broadcast usage – as a subtitle for Syzygy, as though he were, like Cage, broadcasting a soundless film. [17]

Based on an experimental algorithm and functional chance aesthetics, Akbar Padamsee's Syzygy certainly informed Barwe of varied possibilities, the glimpses of which are witnessed in Whispering Green. Padamsee’s Syzygy was a new media exploration while Barwe’s painting, a new compositional breakthrough that led to a radical change in experimenting with objects and their renewed meanings, which constantly transformed in each canvas! 

Nevertheless, the I Ching continued to inspire Barwe’s practice compulsively. Moving from the direct illustration of the hexagram, Barwe adapted the element of ‘chance’ and ‘spontaneity’ to evaluate image-Grammatics as an inquiry into the relationship of form and content. 

Reality is monotonous because it is related to time. Its linearity is its limitation. The values we live by are determined by birth and death and the reality of our lives is constricted between these two points. The purpose of art is not to reproduce the monotonous surface of reality, but to go to its roots, to explore it from every angle, and to create something new based on these observations. [18]

By Jesal Thacker

A graduate from Sir J.J. School of Art, Mumbai, Jesal Thacker established Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that engages with researching and publishing books on Indian art. Also an independent curator, she has curated several exhibitions, Prabhakar Barwe’s retrospective being the most recent project in 2019, exhibited at the National Gallery of Modern Art (Mumbai and New Delhi).

(This essay is part of an ongoing research publication on Prabhakar Barwe)

Endnotes

[1] Hoskote R. (2014). Introduction, The Blank Canvas RevisitedThe Blank Canvas first edition translated from Marathi into English by Shanta Gokhale. Published by Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation.

[2] A Hundred Years of JJ School of Art (1857-1957). Sir J.J. School of Art, Bombay.

[3] The Philosophical Basis of J. Krishnamurti's Teachings.

[4] Barwe, P. (1990). Kora Canvas. Published by Mauj Prakashan. Referred to The Blank Canvas first edition translated by Shanta Gokhale. Published by Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation in 2014. 

[5] Paul Klee’s Notebooks is a two-volume work that compiles his lectures at the Bauhaus schools in 1920s Germany and his other main essays on modern art. These works are considered so important for understanding modern art that they are compared to the importance that Leonardo's A Treatise on Painting had for Renaissance. Herbert Read called the collection "the most complete presentation of the principles of design ever made by a modern artist – it constitutes the Principia Aesthetica of a new era of art, in which Klee occupies a position comparable to Newton's in the realm of physics." Paul Klee has had an immense influence on Indian Modernists, especially the pedagogy at Sir J.J. School of Arts.

[6] Sambrani C. Poetics of Suggestion: a tribute to Barwe. The Asian Age.

References can be seen in the early works of Prabhakar Barwe, especially the floating compositions and transparent technique of painting.

[7] Tukaram was a popular Varkari sant and spiritual poet of the Bhakti tradition in Maharashtra. His poetry, called abhanga, expressing the possibility of direct communion with God, which for him was Vitthala or Vithoba, was popular with ordinary people. Having been influenced by earlier Bhakti saints like Namdev, Dnyaneshwar, Kabir, and Eknath, Tukaram’s abhanagas are a stream of uninterrupted words, rhythmically attuned to the yearning of his own soul and mental peace, devoid of the scholastic orthodox Vedantic literature and Brahmanical governance. Simplicity in language woven with devotion, highlighting the importance of nature, self-governance, and the ecosystem, was his way to Vitthala.

[8] Prabhakar Barwe in an interview with Neville Tuli (12 July 1993): “I was thrown into a kind of isolation, and that did help me when I look back, a great deal. At that time however it was a terrible thing, the loneliness and the violent desire. I was also totally dissatisfied with the art that existed in those days. There was a search to get our own language in art. This introduction to Tantra, the diagram and the word… served as a springboard to understand what art is, and I started doing collage… the basic thing was to seek freedom of application, colour, sticking things together… I thought painting was like war with the canvas. Only later did I realise that one has to surrender, to start speaking, so that there is a dialogue… All through, the very activity of painting was like giving vent to sexual energy.” The Flamed-Mosaic: Indian Contemporary Painting, Published by HEART/ Mapin, 1997.

Reference works of Prabhakar Barwe, Once Upon a Time there was a King, 1968 and Untitled, 1966

[9] Hoskote, R. (1992). At the Edge of the Plausible. Prabhakar Barwe in an interview with Ranjit Hoskote. The Sunday Times of India. Bombay.

[10] Shinde, N. (1990). The Hidden Aspect of Reality. Prabhakar Barwe in an interview with Niyatee Shinde. The Times of India. Bombay.

Reference works of Prabhakar Barwe, Ethereal Transition, 1969, and Sonali’s Moon, 1971.

[11] Nadkarni, D. Prabhakar Barwe.

[12] Stars have been common elements in many of Barwe’s earlier works of the late ’60s. Radiation of the Moon and Anatomy of a Mystical Star to reference a few.

[13] Palmer M. (1995). I Ching – The Shamanic Oracle of Change.

[14] Malone, M. (2010) Chance Aesthetics at Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. St Louis, US.

[15] De Souza, E. (1972). Talking to Padamsee. Akbar Padamsee in an interview with Eunice de Souza, The Times of India, Bombay.

[16] Padamsee, A. (1969-70). Syzygy. Programme for a Film, Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship project. Bombay n.d. (limited edition, screen-printed by KT Royan).

[17] Adajania, N. (2015). New Media Overtures before New Media practice in India. Domus.

[18] Barwe, P. Tr. Gokhale, S. (2014). The Limits of the Real. The Blank Canvas First edition translated from Marathi into English, Published by Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation, Mumbai.

Note: I have mentioned Bombay in place of Mumbai for all the publishing dates before 1996.

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