‘Inside the Empty Box’  is a series of projects through which Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation attempts to decipher the artists life, art and mind – as expressed in his  collages, paintings, sketches, diaries and writings.

“Barwe was concerned with the language of painting; rather, with images and signs. In classical music the words don’t mean anything. You go by notes. You can express something just through notes…the same goes for painting. When you give up all those images, you become abstract. You evolve a language of painting which is very subtle. There are signs of research in Barwe’s work.” - Excerpt from M.F. Husain’s tribute to artist Prabhakar Barwe.

Prabhakar Barwe was a cult name in Indian Art; a rare intellectual mind concerned with the language of painting rather than  images and signs. Born in a family of sculptors, he was initiated into Sir J.J. School of Arts by his grand uncle Vinayak Pandurang Karmarkar - who laid the foundation of his interest in art. However, from a very young age, Barwe sought to define his own language and thus transitioned from the academic style adapted by Karmarkar into the newly found notions of modernism and abstraction. Yet he did not fall into any one of them; his practice created its own order of things. As quoted by S.G. Vasudev, “Barwe is a shinning example of the Indian painter who has joined the mainstream of contemporary art without dislodging his moorings, aware at the same time, of the need to look afresh at tradition."

It was a constant struggle, between the utilitarian and the creative, that compelled him to balance the needs of the mundane world with his imaginative one. This led him to join the Weavers’ Service Centre at Varanasi in 1961 - a unique initiative by Pupul Jayakar, with the aim  to enhance and uplift the crafts of India by inviting leading artists of that period to design and renew the dying art of textiles. Barwe was associated with the WSC for more than a decade (1961-1982), in the span of which he explored the traditional Indian concepts of design and his preoccupations with Tantra simultaneously.

Tantra is both an experience of life and a scientific method wherein a practitioner can activate an inherent spiritual power. Although Barwe was involved with the concept of Tantra for a while, his ideology changed when he returned to Bombay in 1964. The city, with its memories and landscape drew him to recreate the modes of perception and composition, echoing realties that he perceived differently through form-space and colour-composition. He soon realized, "I am not a Tantrik, if I had to become one, I would have to stop being an artist. “

His effort thus had been to evolve his own Tantra. For him, it became  a way of thinking which encompasses everything, a concept that resonates with the Sanskrit definition of the root word tan, meaning to expand. Every individual, according to Tantra, is a manifestation of an energy bearing its own unique consciousness. The objects around are the outcome of the same consciousness ever revealing themselves in various modes - a thought recurrent in Rabindranath Tagore’s aesthetics too “that man reveals himself and not his objects through art.”

Barwe was intrigued by the interrelation between the inner space that forms our mind, and the outer space that contains us and our art. He began to redefine this space - creating a distinctive order using objects from his daily life (outer space) and translating them into a notation of forms on the canvas that do not adhere to the outer order. Thus, he creates his own order, one that redefines notions of perception - without distorting the originality of the object. A flux is at play here, as Barwe carefully accesses and recreates a perception that balances the outer with the inner terrain, a logic with intuition. There are two distinct elements, one is the significant manner in which the object is represented (as form/texture/mass/volume) and the other is the relationship these elements have with one another and their surrounding space. This space - that seems empty and stark - holds the objects in their redefined transformations and creates a frequency that invites the viewer to enter into the Other Shore.

Space is an integral aspect of Barwe’s pictorial language. The artist wrote, “In painting we experience this space, in a way we merge with it and transcend ourself. As thoughts activate mind, forms and colours activate this space. We’re surrounded by forms and colours in endless ways of appearances. Transforming forms into the objects simplifies problems in relation to the space. Now forms are redefined considering only the demand of the space of the painting. Coming together in almost impossible ways, they create a new reality, which observes only one logic, logic of the space of the painting.”

“Indeed, Barwe’s paintings are best described as exquisite haikus in the realm of art. The simple forms, posed as objects, gather several layers of meaning and rise above the ordinary to establish fresh connotations, much like the Japanese poems. Having seized upon the essential finding that an apple is an apple in the market but comes onto the canvas in the shape and substance of form, Barwe proceeds to find a way, not of distorting reality but of repairing the senses, to adjust the focus to a new perspective, far removed from the visual perception without drama or distortion.” - Excerpt from S.V. Vasudev’s review ‘Experiments with Space’

Inside the Empty Box

The box is a recurrent subject in Prabhakar Barwe's diaries and art works. He explores and experiments with various dimensions and perceptions of the box, imagining a life inside it. Suffering from asthama, he would be compelled to be keep the doors and windows of his home and studio closed, not allowing a single spec of dust to enter that may lead to an aggravation. However, this experience triggered him to perceive and recreate the objects from his mundane life into this box - one confined by it’s  physical dimensions yet expansive in its creative space – as he explored multi-dimensionality through time and space.

He then realised that the box was never really empty, nothing ever is  empty or void. In this empty box itself, he experienced the quantum of space and its relational objects. What contains these objects in universe to be where they are and how are they construed  from different perspectives in space?  Such questions persisted inside his mind. He explored them through his own psychological, intuitive and creative space.

I am reminded here of H.G. Wells, who conceptually phrased the aspect of time and space through a cube. He says, "Clearly, any real body must have extensions in four directions: it must have length, breadth, thickness and duration. There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time. There is, however, a tendency to draw an unreal distinction between the former three dimensions and the latter, because it happens that our consciousness moves intermittently in one direction along the latter from the beginning to the end of our lives. There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it."

This project under the umbrella "Inside the Empty Box" is an effort to decode and decipher the multi-dimensionality of Barwe's practice, a dimensionality that was created through the varying quantum of space and time.


Inside the Empty Box - National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai (8th February 2019 to 10th March 2019)

Astitva : The Essence of Prabhakar Barwe, National Gallery of Art, Delhi (13th June 2019 to 28th July 2019)

Chitra Vastu Vichaar Publication

Talking Shadows - An Artists' Symposium


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