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Articles on Indian contemporary art by Swapna Vora

Padmanabh Bendre
by Swapna Vora

March 05, 2007

Fields, layers, unbroken expanses

(click on the small image for full screen image with captions.)


Padmanabh Bendre

Splashed, split, sometimes gently lacerated colors, infringed, annulled prisms, interrupted regularly, ruptured opportunities, breaking news. So I see Padmanabh Bendre’s current work. Leaves and memories rustle in nearby art galleries. The air-conditioned wind blows gently and the stillness of his art envelops us. Art in Bombay now has glittering doors, gala openings and glamorous boys as everyone strains and stares across the room to see the next winner of a million. And so the whirligig of contemporary art continues with sly appreciation for nothing but the price.

Padmanabh Bendre and I sense the shadows of old memories, of artists who lugged canvases from far off Bandra, Goregaon, and hoped the new brushes would finally be available today. Or perhaps someone had cornered a stock of imported paint? Outside, leaves flutter marking the loss of both innocence and ignorance in contemporary Indian art. The sun shines on expensive floors and hi gloss paint on which to hang our experience. And so we mark what we’ve lost. These used to be galleries where artists and simple viewers walked together and our speech drifts out into the silence. The crowds at openings overwhelm the paintings and possibly me as well.

Fig. 1
Sitting amidst his thoughtful exhibition of flowers, birds and humans, Bendre gently explains that he starts first with color. His work has layers of colors, each planned, executed carefully and anticipated, and finally welcomed. Bendre prepares a canvas and then rolls out colors, carefully controls their spread and movement. Preparing a canvas with broken expanses and depending on what has been achieved, he starts planning the finishing figures, textures and the particular drama and life of that painting.

Padmanabh’s father was the renowned painter, N S Bendre, one of the original fathers of Indian contemporary art. His work was well known in household after household. While fame and acclaim from a prestigious father are invaluable, one also has to live alongside a shadow while creating one’s language, ‘cultivating one’s own garden’. N S Bendre was a pioneer, often showered with silver and gold medals as he received some of India’s highest awards for his art. He headed various art universities and helped create the august Lalit Kala Academy. So listening to talk of Impressionists, Cubism, Shanti Niketan and European expressionist work, young Padmanabh grew up among intellectual giants and highly sensitive artists. Those, he reminisces, were days of joy and sharing, nothing was created solely for money. And this spectacular, many tinted background glinted with the heady days of India’s freedom. He added, I still have a few paintings of his from 1950 to 1965 and these show experimental styles, techniques, and few have seen them.


Fig. 2

P Bendre was a successful architect and had studied town planning. After many years of working in architecture, that blend of art and engineering, he decided he must paint and could wait no longer. He says his mother gave him full support and said not to worry about finances but to go paint. Thoughtfully, he says he was really grateful.

Bendre mentioned what fun it had been having all these intellectual and artistic geniuses visit his house, how his mother used to cook for them and students would come for advice from his father. He said it was informal and loving, for there was a great spirit of sharing and enjoying success, even if it was someone else’s. He sighed that the art scene today is not so pure, it seems to be bad. And he wondered if art would survive because of its worth, and not simply because of its monetary value.

Indian art, both contemporary and ancient, is being gulped by buyers everywhere, by Indian and international cognoscenti and those with that wonderful human creation: money. Certain painters established as money-spinners find their work snatched before they have even finished painting a particular work.

Padmanabh said art is perhaps not art anymore. He mentioned a student of his famous artist father and said this student used to be in and out of our house. Today, he said wryly, he was too busy with sales to say Hello. Is creativity not ultimately connected to our source and related to gratitude, emotion, whatever makes us different from simply existing? ‘Art is not art anymore.’ It is then something different?

Fig. 3
He spoke of visitors from Shanti Niketan and Madras and remembered great unity and joy, so much politeness in his privileged childhood. “There was so much interaction between students and my father at my home. My father used to advise carefully and very personally. There was interaction between student and teacher, and between artists. Money is here and with it has arrived arrogance.”

“My art teacher loved me, my work was considered good as a child, color was embedded in me. Even my clothes were original and colorful, I wore orange pants to college,” he laughed. Regarding architecture, “ …it was seen as a safer occupation and so I did it. However, my design and space planning were good; I did many housing projects, but still longed for painting. A strong incident made me become a painter, some family issues. One fine day, I gave up architecture and decided I must paint now. During the last six months of my father’s life, I started painting with watercolors. My father gave me a couple of demonstrations, about water and light. He used to observe closely, silently, but did not comment much. He died and by then I knew I wanted to be a painter. My mother supported me, and said, “You’ll manage financially, just go ahead.”
Some landmarks, some foundation stones in Padmanabh Bendre’s career:

In 1970, he worked on pointillist figures and started his early efforts in abstract. He said: “In 1993 – I had started via pointillism – I did 12 paintings and sold 11. I was so encouraged, but people then started saying that I was copying my father. It did not bother me for I had already evolved my own mother tongue. I started abstract work and this was perhaps noticeably different.”

“In 2003 – I diverted my attention to other forms, other subjects. 2004 in particularly was a total turning point. I exhibited 20 works, each an experiment on whatever came to my mind. I followed no particular theme, no set pattern, no thought. This exhibition was so successful. People bought my work and said, “This is different, this is new.” And it was, it came from within me. There was no set method but a lively experimenting with layers of acrylic and watercolors.”

“Between art and engineering is architecture and that background always stayed with me. But now I turned again to figurative art, to the tribal Bhils of Madhya Pradesh, where I had lived as a child.”


Fig. 4
Today Bendre has a wonderful, thoughtful collection showing in Bombay. It is a one-man show with images of peace, fountains and curiosity. One painting titled, ‘Blind girl’ has so much work in it and layers and layers of colors, depths and light. “Sometimes a good painting is not sold”, said Bendre. “Often people buy because of a name and it is not because they like a painting, they’re just hoping it will increase in value. That is fine but one can’t help wondering what people would buy just because they really liked something so much and what an artist would have done if he painted solely because he must, because he felt impelled.” And so this old debate goes on….

“My next exhibition will start from here," he said looking at a gallery full of his highly evolved and painstakingly done layers of colors. “Whatever is around me, I am influenced by it. I am attracted to nature’s many forms: a flower, a leaf, curves, I’m inspired. No straight lines, I paint because I must. I simply show what I render from nature. If I do sell something, that is fine, it is ok. I am free, I do not feel compelled to follow any fashion, or art dealers or even a sale, just what my heart says. If you like it, it is well and good, and if not, that is ok too. This is my journey, my personal quest through life, a voyage, my experiments with images of water, earth, flowers, and of course, color. The end has become less and less important for the journey itself has been worthwhile. Sometimes someone just puts together a few startling images or a new juxtaposition of colors, but there may be no maturity, quality could be limited. I like careful, full grown, lovingly nurtured visions, not just an overnight adventure. Overnight someone may shoot up and this is fine but, for me, my thoughts ask: is it great or just a new sensation? Is it thoughtful? Is there really something said to which we should listen carefully or just a new born baby’s cry which must be attended to? True art presumably will last and give joy for it will be promoted by time itself.”

We look at gentle street artists out on the pavement as a shadow falls, blocking their painted Taj Mahals, sunsets and birthday girls. I remembered the gulmohur trees and monsoons of a Bombay childhood as we spoke of what we had seen, or even that which never was, hoping to achieve communication.

Painting comes alive when the shakti moves, when you really have something to say and for me, personally, I like art which pulls the carpet from under my feet and leaves me a little breathless, a little vulnerable and perhaps shifts my views, albeit slightly. As Hiroshi wrote, "No chirps of birds. No ding and dong from the street for a while." The best art slows me and leads to moments of quiet enlightenment, to survey another life’s waters and waves and bear witness to shared insight.

Padmanabh Bendre lives and paints in Bombay.

© Swapna Vora &

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