My first introduction to Prafulla Dahanukar’s work was the mural in marble at the Shiv Sagar Estate building at Worli. I saw it many times, visiting Mumbai for the long summer vacations from Baroda throughout my schooling years. Of course I did not know she had made it, then, but the fact that it stuck about in my memory for so many decades speaks for the power of the image, especially an abstract one at that. The sharp rising lines, like a stag’s horns, reminded me of a herd of deer or a chariot drawn by numerous horses, dynamic and moving, in tandem with the breeze swaying the branches of neighbouring trees and the waves crashing on the rocks of Haji Ali in the distance. Once, at the Lotus cinema opposite Shiv Sagar, with my cousins to watch a movie, I remember running across the road to take a closer look at the mural, but when I got there it looked so far up that I could see it only in bits and pieces, and the magic it wielded when seen from a distance was lost. I walked back a little disappointed, somewhat cross; it was much later when I was studying murals that I could understand the several challenges making a mural presented to their artists.
I never met Prafulla Dahanukar in her lifetime, though I had heard of her, of her status as being on the fringe of the Bombay Progressive Group, am aware of her popularity as an artist in Mumbai, and a significant amount of clout she wielded as a senior woman artist in Mumbai when Mumbai ruled the world of Indian contemporary art. I am basically familiar with the work of artists from Baroda, of the Baroda School. Prafulla’s early work reminds me of the kind of style and content followed by a number of young students of the Baroda School of its first decade – the 1950s, especially under the venerable Bendre Sir. A romanticized, profusely emotional depiction of rural landscapes, farmer and tribal families, village haats, in dark palette with stylized humans, trees, and animals reflected the popular ‘India lives in its villages’ understanding of the newly independent country by its urban artists. It was a dynamic time with the artist community struggling to find the right visual idiom and relevant content that could address the challenges posed to the creation of the what/why/how of modern Indian art.
Over the last few years, with the artworks of the Indian ‘moderns’ made during these times being in great commercial demand, we are now exposed, via auction catalogues, to a lot of otherwise ‘not seen’ works crawling out of the woodwork and can compare, evaluate them. Made in the 1950s and 1960s, they reveal honest efforts by artists trying to portray a reality of India that they strongly connected with or imagined they connected with. Prafulla’s “Raga and Ragini” (1956) is an evocative example of her work from this period. Playing with the attractive transparency of water colours, Prafulla showers the two wandering female musicians (inspired by miniature painting figuration) with an ethereal canopy of colour (a haystack?) as they gaze thoughtfully towards what appears to be a stylized tulsi vrindavana, in the light of the weak winter sun glowing just above the horizon in the distance. Another work, a night “Landscape” (1956), is a dark oil on canvas, depicting a bunch of village homes huddled in the shadow of rising hills/trees in the background, painted with strong, bold strokes of black, very dark blues and greens. The foreground is painted in lighter shades as if the moonlight is streaming in, nudging into the shadows and lighting them up. This is a complex work that can allow for numerous readings and one that I find very engaging.
The fact that in those early decades after Independence Indian artists were diligently experimenting with different styles, even exploring Westernized ones, can be seen in “Friends” (1967) where Prafulla expertly displays her technical skills in painting the long-necked, straight forehead-nosed , thin female faces with slits for lips and dark oval smudges for eyes. Hovering between expressionism, realism and sundry other ‘isms’, Prafulla adds her own signature touch to the work -- I particularly enjoy the way one girl’s profiled nose becomes her friend’s frontal left nose line! An untitled, vertical oil on canvas, of a female labourer carrying a load on her head (1972) indicates Prafulla’s move towards painting realistic characters and later, her prolific creation of portraits, as well as the roadside vendors typical to Mumbai streets.
However, the eighties in-between, brought a different kind of energy and interest in Prafulla’s oeuvre – she turned her attention to creating murals. A number of these are installed in various public spaces, thus taking her work to the public. She explored all kinds of mediums – ceramic tiles, mosaic tiles, glass pieces on marble slabs, fibre glass, mirror, epoxy resin on plywood, wood on aluminum sheets, iron and product scrap, tarpaulin – using abstract as well as realistic imagery. Of all the murals, the Shiv Sagar one stands out in terms of its pictorial and composition quality and dramatic impact, both factors that are extremely important for mural-making. Amongst the first ones she made (in 1967), I am quite sure the clients allowed her free rein to create what she wanted and the result is for all to see. She was not able to take this effort forward in the murals that followed almost a decade later, probably because commissioned work often dictates choice of subject, material, sometimes even imagery, and that painful process gets invariably reflected in the final artwork.
It was in the late 1990s and into the next century that Prafulla created some of her most memorable works. These serene abstract landscapes/mindscapes with a disciplined wave-like disturbance horizontally slashing across the canvas are reminiscent of natural vastnesses undisturbed by human interference. These could be of the sky, clear and quiet, except for the colour plays by the setting sun on a few lightly wafting clouds; or of the sea, calm and tranquil, only ruffled by an odd wave here and there or the surf rushing towards the beach; or of a green prairie rolling towards the horizon, punctuated by a few low trees in patches. The ‘disturbances’ are woven in delicate patterns formed with an ingenious use of colours and short brush strokes. The broad horizontal colour strokes, gentle yet firm, from end-to-end of the canvas seem to somehow lengthen the frame sideways making the vistas wider than they actually are. These works also have a calming, spiritual effect on the viewer and one can look at them for long stretches of time. Prafulla made numerous oils on this theme, like an artist possessed, each canvas with an individual identity of its own. Space and Time take over finally, as nothing else can, reigning over the Universe as they have since time immemorial. It is as if Prafulla has had a divine epiphany; and then all is quiet.
Sandhya Bordewekar Baroda, 2017