Dark Matter Hits White Cube: Excavating India’s Coal Miners

"Dust Bowl in our hand" (2013), Charcoal on paper, 60in X 72in
“Dust Bowl in our hand” (2013), Charcoal on paper, 60 X 72in. (all images courtesy Experimenter Gallery, Kolkata)

KOLKATA, India — Much like an experiential therapist, Prabhakar Pachpute took the viewer inside a coal mine in his first solo show, 2012’s Canary in a Coalmine at Clark House Initiative in Mumbai. Upon entering a windowless, unventilated room in a run-down space, one confronted the solid darkness equipped only with a flashlight. Among the uncertain beams, the sordid realities of life in a coal mine were retold with sarcastic charcoal drawings on the wall, lumps of coal with miner’s boots on the floor, and the ominous sound of water dripping all around. Presented here was our collective guilt about the heavy price our coalminers are paying for the “progress” of our country. Since that exhibition, Prabhakar has been anointed as a breakthrough young Indian artist and has exhibited across India and Europe.

"Back to the Farm I" (2013), Charcoal on paper, 24in x 36in.
“Back to the Farm I” (2013), Charcoal on paper, 24 x 36in. (click for full size)

This therapy, though intended for the viewers, seems to have helped the artist as well. Or it could have been his success. In his second Indian solo, The Land Eaters at Experimenter in Kolkata, Pachpute — who narrowly avoided his family vocation of coal mining — eases up a bit on the darkness.

The key installation of the show, “Heroes of the Sataranga Collective,” alludes to a ragtag army of good made up of seven Chandrapur locals. A few hours journey from Mumbai, this is the desolate coal mining district, where Prabhakar has grown up and channels his dark matters from. With a medley of “real” and virtual presences (four of them are sculpted and the rest painted on the wall), they also stand witness to Prabhakar’s dexterity in unpacking a sculpture into lights and lines.

"Heroes of the Sataranga Collective" (2013), Clay Sculptures, LED Lights, Shadow projection and Charcoal drawings on the wall, Installation view
“Heroes of the Sataranga Collective” (2013), Clay Sculptures, LED Lights, Shadow projection and Charcoal drawings on the wall, Installation view

Though trained as a sculptor at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, he has been surprisingly swift in finding a visual language combining all his favorite mediums —  drawing, sculpture, animation, and lighting. The tools came to him effortlessly, charcoals for drawing, miner’s headlamps for lighting and the dark local clay for sculpting.

"Earthwork of Hadasti" (2013), Still from the stop motion video, 48  x 36in.
“Earthwork of Hadasti” (2013), Still from the stop motion video, 48 x 36in.

In “Earthwork of Hadasti, an animated video is projected from a wooden playhouse atop a freshly mud-filled pit. The stop-motion animation was achieved with repeated erasure and redrawing. The process mirrors the content, the inevitable migration of the mining community from Hadasti to Asti after the coal runs out. As we follow the line of vision of an owl cutout (a recurring witness character in his work) sitting atop the playhouse, the style  of the charcoal drawings makes you feel snug while the content makes you anything but. Perfectly fluffy Disney clouds morph into chimney smoke and the cute little houses grow malnourished stick feet in order to migrate.

"Wide Angle" (2013), Charcoal on paper, 24 x 36
“Wide Angle” (2013), Charcoal on paper, 24 x 36in.

Though the owl has remained the same, the other recurring characters from his work have evolved. The shriveled mineworkers with plug-heads used to queue up in front of the well-fed coal mine manager with a Powerpoint head. Now they are locked in their personal frames.

The pickaxe-headed coal miner is trudging forward, zombie-like,  while the wiper-headed coal mine manager is wiping the past nonchalantly. The pickaxe man is spotted again in “Sasti Underground  Mine No. 3” and “Dust Bowl in our hand,” two large and masterful charcoal drawings where he looks confused and purposeless at an abandoned closed-cast and open-cast mine, perfect pictures of irredeemability. His quandary is answered when the exhibition ends in a cramped enclosure.

"Binoculars" (2013), Still from the stop motion video, 48  x 36
“Binoculars” (2013), Still from the stop motion video, 48 x 36

In the work titled “Kakhet Kalasa Gavala Valasa (What you are searching for, is very close to you and you go around the world for It.),” a sculpture of a man with a wooden playhouse on his back strikes the ostrich pose. The animated video projected from the playhouse shows an army of searching eyes on little feet going around in circles, viewed through binoculars.

The answer, according to the Sataranga Collective and Prabhakar, lies in reviving agriculture in that region. It could very well turn out to be wrong. But Prabhakar, with this exhibition, already has the right answer to another big question. The one his family asked, when he told them he would rather be an artist than a coalminer, “Ussey kya hoga?” (“What use would that be?”)

"Sasti Underground Mine no.3" (2013), Charcoal on Paper, 60in X 72
“Sasti Underground Mine no.3” (2013), Charcoal on Paper, 60in X 72
"Back to the Farm II" (2013), Charcoal on paper, 24in x 36in
“Back to the Farm II” (2013), Charcoal on paper, 24in x 36in
"Binoculars" (2013), Still from the stop motion video, 48  x 36
“Binoculars” (2013), Still from the stop motion video, 48 x 36

The Land Eaters is on view at Experimenter Kolkata (2/1 Hindusthan Road, Gariahat, Kolkata, West Bengal) through November 16.

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