Prabhakar Pachpute could have become a coal miner. Instead, he became an artist. But he has returned time and again to the dystopian landscapes of his childhood.
A Google image search of Sasti village, Maharashtra, where Pachpute was born, throws up nothing remotely idyllic. Instead, what one finds are images of high-tension wires, factory chimneys and cooling towers, sundry politicians, medicines and Google Earth and Wikimapia panels depicting areas of mining—a smorgasbord, it would seem, of what describes Sasti today.
After he completed his master’s in fine arts from Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Pachpute’s work as an artist has essentially been a study of mining and, to use a justifiable double entendre, its pitfalls. Continuing in the thematic vein of his earlier solo work, 2012’s Canary In A Coalmine and 2013’s The Land Eaters, Pachpute, 31, returns with Shadows On Arrival, a solo exhibition currently showing at Kolkata’s Experimenter gallery: a revisiting of a bleak and bare, colourless world, and the consequent mutation of humans and machines.
In his spare, treeless vision of mining dystopia, the artist returns with his Kafkaesque leitmotif of the metamorphosed man: the headless farmer; miners who have antennas, ploughs and whirring blades instead of heads; even the man in a jacket and necktie whose hollowed out arm has a coal-laden railway wagon entering the dark cavity. In Pachpute’s world, even machines sometimes have extensions that resemble human body parts; a two-way transmutation that summarizes the life of the miner and the land to which he belongs.
Pachpute knows this life personally. When the mining companies first arrived in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district, Pachpute’s grandfather was coerced into selling his land and becoming a coal miner. In 1984, his brother sold off the family’s remaining land and took up the compensatory job offered by Western Coalfields Ltd. “In my opinion, there isn’t any possibility of reviving the land, which had been mined, especially in the open-pit mining process. After digging so much, the earth automatically loses its biodiversity and the soil gets contaminated. It is really hard to grow anything there,” he says on email from Hong Kong, where his work was being exhibited.
Shadows On Arrival poses questions on ecological sustainability that could be juxtaposed against the coal fires that have raged on for over a century in Jharia, a result of unchecked and unplanned mining. Using charcoal “for its deep graphic quality and sense of temporality”, the largest painting in Shadows On Arrival has a human figure looming in exaggerated fashion over the scene, multiplied in scale many more times than even the machinery and the quarried landscape—the menacingly oversized representation could well be a metaphor for human hunger for dominance over nature. At Experimenter, the long shadow of the viewer is cast on Pachpute’s clay installation of a pastiche of mining life in the middle of the gallery, symbolic of our own culpability.
“Mining is one of the major activities tied to many other small and big businesses such as steel plants, thermal power plants, coke (fuel) plants. It is the same with other natural resources which have other businesses depending on them. It’s all about the resources,” he writes. “It’s true that the world is unable to wish mining away, but we do have a sad history of the leftover (land left fallow and unusable) from mining. My question is, how do we deal with these issues?”
He travelled to countries like Brazil, Colombia and Poland, often encountering people completely dehumanized by the mining industry, but it was in Germany’s Ruhr valley that Pachpute found an open-pit mining zone transformed into a kind of amphitheatre and cultural public space—a transformation within the post-industrial gloom that “impressed” him. “Since then, I have started looking at mining with a different perspective,” the artist says.
Shadows On Arrival is on till 29 April at the Experimenter gallery in Kolkata.