Jesal Thacker

Gazing at Third Apple:Decoding Prabhakar Barwe’s Visual Cognition


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An attempt in this essay is to decode Prabhakar Barwe’s practice outside arts historical perspective and observe his paintings, writings and notations against the backdrop of a psychological and philosophical context. There is no linear chronology followed here – it is a flow of thoughts and beliefs occurring simultaneously in various fields of knowledge. Tracing the synchronicity within elements of existence through the transformation and relationship objects have to form, form has to form and form has to space. 

Form as Formation

Prabhakar Barwe (1936 – 1995) was a cult name in Indian Art; a rare intellectual mind concerned with the language of painting rather than images and signs[1]. Born in a family of artists, 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 transitioned from the academic style adapted by Karmarkar into the newly found notions of modernism and abstraction prevalent in the 50’s-60’s. But he did not fall into the particular idiom of abstraction or figurative narration; his practice did not negate the figure, instead, it included the mundane objects surrounding the figure, creating an unconventional order of things. The object thus became the subject, redefining its cognitive context without deforming its formal appearance, as apparitional flight forms[2]. This became Barwe’s unique pictorial language – a process appreciated by artists such as M.F. Husain, Akbar Padamsee, Mohan Samant, Ambadas and Manu Parekh to name a few. As M.F. Husain writes in his tribute to Barwe after the artist’s untimely death on 6th December 1995,

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.[3]

It was a constant struggle, between the utilitarian and the creative that compelled Barwe to balance the needs of the mundane world with his imaginative one, and in this process the mundane became his core subject.

Every single object that we see—every substance, cluster of substances, why even the sky and water, have a form by which we recognize those substances and objects. This is what form means to us in everyday life. Most people don’t see the thousands of objects that are around them as forms. An artist, on the other hand, is sharply aware of the universe of forms he inhabits. On occasion this awareness becomes so intense, that he sees not only the outward forms of objects but the smaller forms that they contain and the even subtler forms that those small forms contain. The number of increasingly subtler forms the artist may see is limited only by the power of his vision. He looks at them all as pure forms, dissociated from their functional context. The artist sees these forms in a very special way, quite different from how most people see them in daily life. What matters to him most are their interrelationships, the configurations that arise out of their juxtaposition, their relationship to their background and even to the unexpressed pictorial references in his mind. The conventional view of a form is modified for him in this way by his own references.[4]

Self-portrait, Ink on Paper, 1989
Image Courtesy: Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation

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. A cognitive flux is at play here, as Barwe carefully accesses and recreates a perception that balances the outer with the inner terrain, a logic infused with sense, memory and intuition. As a Fine Art graduate of Sir. J.J. School of Arts, the approach towards research on Barwe’s art aims to decode the visual stimulation of perception, cognition, and creation through an in-depth analysis of his paintings and diaries.

A grasp of the processes of perception, cognition, and creation is integral to comprehend their interconnections and relation to Barwe’s creative process. Perception comprises all the sensory stimuli that inform us of the surroundings and our own selves. Cognition is the process of thinking as a reaction to the stimuli. However, a stimulus is not the sole trigger for cognitive process, the mind can start forming thoughts based on memory, past experiences as well as the subconscious mind – the mind is continuously thinking, it is never free of thought and neither is the process of cognition. And finally, creation is the act of expressing the sense perceptions morphed into thought formations, combined with memory and the subconscious – a creative cognition.

Humans are rarely conscious of this process, but for an artist the attempt to be conscious of these inner workings is to make aware of this process by its manifested creations. For Barwe, this implies a distillation of meaning from the form, abstracting them of their defined notions and sense perceptions and then presenting them through a renewed relationship of object and form, form and form, and form and space. The physicality of the object is not abstracted completely; instead the cognitive meaning is rephrased and rearranged so as to create simultaneous multiple cognitive perceptions. His work makes us conscious of an involuntary process that continuously defines meanings of everything that is perceived. A mechanical process is compelled to pause by the awe of a fresh and spontaneous cognizance of the objects we don’t even observe. This can be experienced in the paintings explored below namely – Orphan and the Kite, The Third Apple, Ethereal Transitions and Alphabets of Nature. The titles of his paintings are intriguing, they are characteristic of the Japanese Koans, which riddle the viewer into investigating the painting.

This essay is an attempt to decode Barwe’s practice outside an art historical perspective and instead observe his paintings, writings and notations against the backdrop of a psychological and philosophical context. There is no linear chronology followed here – it is a flow of thoughts and beliefs occurring simultaneously in various fields of knowledge. Tracing the synchronicity within elements of existence, David Bohm declares,

The unbroken wholeness of the totality of existence as an undivided flowing movement without borders. We are all linked by a fabric of unseen connections. This fabric is constantly changing and evolving. This field is directly structured and influenced by our behaviour and by our understanding.[5]

Bohm was an American-born British quantum physicist who made significant contributions in the fields of theoretical physics, philosophy and neuropsychology. During the latter part of his life, beginning in the early 1960’s, he was engrossed with the teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti and conducted a series of dialogues with him enquiring into the nature of thought and the source of conflict in the world.

J Krishnamurti, an Indian philosopher and educator, revolutionised the ideas of human psychology, human consciousness, and evolution. He lectured extensively in India and abroad, conducting a series of lectures at Sir. J.J. School of Arts, a few of which Barwe attended. Krishnamurti’s emphasis on perceiving the world afresh, to observe the what is without the shadow of the past is the secret of freedom followed by a renewed sense of listening, seeing and learning, which again is a continuous process. This is the most significant part of Krishnamurti’s teaching that is also witnessed in the writings of Bohm (as seen above) and Barwe. As quoted by Barwe,

Getting rid of accumulated mental clutter is vital. We cherish certain ideas and images over long periods of time because they seem attractive in the imagination. But when we try to express them as images, they become insubstantial and fragile. Preconceived ideas do not grow into living images. They are visually valid only when they are conceived in relation to a particular picture frame. Imagined by themselves, they refuse to take root on the specific piece of canvas in front of you. They shrivel up and die. Once the mind is cleared of preconceived images, new forms, contexts and meanings with their visual manifestations, stand revealed. A new form in its visualized image brings with it, its own rationale. There is no question then of right/wrong, necessary/unnecessary. [6]

Contemplation is a process that leads to the expansion of one’s own cognitive perception and cognitive thinking. Barwe connects both these processes through his visual imageries. He breaks away from the shackles of the past only to renew their existing cognizance. Stretching the perspectives just as Barwe has demonstrated through the two works, Contemplation and Untitled, viewers too would need to expand their formal sensibilities to visual perception. Both the works depict a shift from painting a head to painting a mind that is in a state of contemplation with its infinite possibilities, without overtly distorting the outer form of the head. The paintings philosophize life and the process of perception, rather than depicting a reality. Barwe imbibed everything he saw in his surrounding into his art; the mundane became his muse. Static reality found poetic rhythm in his compositions. Empty spaces held the canvas with floating formations. Objects lost their essence, only to be transformed into space-form logic as the paintings were then perceived within the quantum of an empty box.

Orphan and the Kite, Enamel on Canvas, 48” by 54”, 1988
Image Courtesy and Collection: National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai

A tranquil bluish grey surface occupying the largest space in the painting ‘Orphan and the Kite’ is painted to form one expansive empty space beholding the gaze of a young boy staring directly into oblivion. The image captured in the painting is that of many simultaneous moments synthesised into one, which in essence has no thought but is only a series of observations. The young boy standing at the centre of the ground holding a blackboard in his hand is reminiscent of a village boy walking to school, or perhaps returning from school (considering the muck on his body, which could be an impression of fun and play). He isn’t directly looking at any of the objects around, nor the landscape, yet they all seem directly related to him. Distance is perceived from the open/broken fences that form a border at the back; it gives an impression that the boy has travelled a long distance but is unperturbed, having no expression of fatigue, or happiness – just a calm gaze. The kite too, an exciting element for any child, doesn’t get the attention of the boy. It is enlarged here to the extent that the houses resemble toys, but still the kite holds no significance for the boy. On the other side, one sees a bare tree, with no life, but with the heap of sand, it almost begins to float. Thus, the combination and play of two images gives rise to a third image – through the processes of perception and imagination. As quoted by the artist,

In some cases, a meaningful form emerges precisely from a coming together of two or more forms. The independent meanings of the component objects are either blended in equal proportions, or both lose their separate meanings to acquire a new meaning. The original meaning of a form changes if another form is included within it or if it is repeated several times. For example, if a picture shows many moons in the same sky, as many moons as there are ordinarily stars, then our idea of the moon changes. Any change made in the original form changes its accepted meaning. We call such a form abstract.[7]

Form as Spontaneity

The paintings and the artist’s writings lean towards a refreshing childlike contemplation, perception and imagination. The boy in the painting, Orphan and Kite, symbolizes the need for a spontaneous and uninhibited way to look at life and the objects around us without materialistic desire, as when your desires are few, your mind is naturally tranquil[8], a thought recurrent in Zen Buddhism. The Japanese culture is ingrained with Zen philosophy, reflections of which are evident in their practice of painting, architecture, forms of art such as Ikebana and Origami, and every day events such as drinking a cup of tea. In fact, Okakura Kakuzo through his long essay in The Book Tea explains the unique tradition of the Japanese tea ceremony, from utensils used at the ceremony to its historical and aesthetic context. This book is neither about tea, the drink nor tea, the plant; it’s about tea, the experience. It’s about the virtues of simplicity, purity, and humility. Okakura Kakuzō, the author of the book, was a Japanese scholar who contributed to the development of arts in Japan and towards re-educating the Japanese people to appreciate their own cultural heritage. Writing primarily in English, he traveled around the world to emphasize the importance of the Asian Culture, attempting to bring its influences to realms of art and literature, which was at that time largely dominated by the Western Culture. His book, The Ideals of the East with Special Reference to the Art of Japan, published in 1903 on the eve of the Russo-Japanese War, is famous for its opening paragraph in which he sees a spiritual unity throughout Asia, which distinguishes it from the West. It says,

Asia is one. The Himalayas divide, only to accentuate, two mighty civilisations, the Chinese with its communism of Confucius, and the Indian with its individualism of the Vedas.” [9]

His greatest influences in India have been over Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, and Prabhakar Barwe.

Barwe treasured The Book of Tea, to the extent that he gifted it to all those who were close to him. Krishnamurti’s psychological proposition of spontaneous thinking and perceiving has been woven into Barwe’s aesthetic ideologies with the philosophical ideas of simplicity, purity and humility that Okakura emphasised. Like warp and weft, both these teachings can be distinctly experienced and yet the resultant image reflects a synchronised and individualised perception. Barwe pursued his interests towards Japanese culture and Zen philosophy that professed a harmonious existence, a life of aesthetic simplicity as well as creative spontaneity that is achieved through the mastery of the mind. For example, in a Zen painting, one is transfixed by the sheer spontaneity of brush strokes and an emptiness that beholds the gaze of the viewer. Artists subject themselves to strict spiritual and aesthetic disciplines, intentionally leaving large parts of the paper/canvas blank, an emptiness that invites the viewer into a void. Belief is that it is the strength of the practice that engulfs the viewer, to practice emptying the mind so as to express its purity and true nature that in turn is experienced by the viewer. If you observe there is no linear perspective followed in the landscape, the empty space engages the viewer to contrive a perspective, leading to a psychological and intuitive intrusion. This intrusion becomes the sole reason behind creating the artwork, an intrusion that is not an obstacle in the viewing, but an awakening of the subtleties of sense perception. For example, a realistic depiction of a fruit, although enchanting, would only tempt the viewer and reveal the mere physical aspects of the fruit; but a spontaneous brush stroke surrounded by nothing but empty space, invites the viewer to question this simplicity and its vitality – notions that lead to a contemplative state of being, for which the empty space is absolutely integral. The final perception and interpretation is then left to the viewer’s imagination, thus enabling multiple possibilities inside a single image.

Six Persimmons dates 13th Century is a blue-black ink work executed in a Zen painting style, depicting six similar fruits painted spontaneously, capturing the formal elements of form and gravity. The purpose here is to achieve the vitality of the fruit instinctively, which is only possible when the mind is free of thought, thus this exercise and attempt of the artist fits perfectly to suit a purpose, which aims to free the mind of any thought, in order to spontaneously reveal the ‘true nature of the object’. Arthur Waley best describes, Six Persimmons is passion congealed into a stupendous calm.[10]

The second painting, also monochromatic, depicts an imagery of one particular kind of fruit, an apple. However, the attempt here is to free the mind of its ‘natural form’ to enable a perception of the third apple – one that actually doesn’t exist. The title of the work Third Apple invites the viewer to search for it on the canvas, only to find that the third apple is left to the imagination and abstract mathematics of a viewer. The title engages the viewer in a search for the third, only to find a form of two apples to be conjoined as one. The spontaneity here is of perception and humor, as the artist teases the mind, triggering it to find the third. S.V. Vasudev writes,

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.[11]

Both the paintings, Six Persimmons and The Third Apple, invite the viewer to an inner terrain, one through the spontaneity of form and the other through the spontaneity of thought. Such creations require a mind devoid of thought, to contrive an empty space that is actually pregnant with a plenum of abstract sensations and intuitions.

Form as Emptiness

Barwe adapts the concept of emptiness in his works, and composes his elements without following any linear perspective. There is a centrality to his composition, either by leaving the canvas empty with objects transformed as forms, or with a strong central element (like the painting above) in an empty surrounding. The composition may vary but the proportions remain the same, giving equal prominence to the empty space as well as to the form, thus creating a balanced and captivating gaze, a logic to his own painting – form as emptiness and vice-versa.

Form is here emptiness, emptiness is here form, a quote from the Heart Sutra[12] presents the meaning of Shunyata in a concise yet penetrating manner. This sutra that forms the bedrock of Zen and Buddhist teachings is also a recurrent chant in their daily practice. As humans, we perceive our entire life as a form, everything we see, hear, know is through a form – through its materiality and existence. The human body is also a form and to keep its existence alive is our prime preoccupation, which is how we then relate to all the other objects surrounding our lives. Fruits become an object to eat, flowers are then objects to decorate, animals are objects to fear or domesticate and so on. Our entire existence is bracketed into a meaning that relates to physical survival. So objects that don’t directly relate to survival are given lesser or no significance. Life is then only a means to survive. Except that man is a thinking animal and thus the perspective of mere survival is not the final aim. A lot of Eastern philosophy and art (which is a reflection of its philosophy) is an attempt to perceive the fruit beyond it being just a fruit (as per its edible nature). To think of the fruit as emptiness engages a higher order of psychological perception that reduces the element of desire (if not vanish it completely) to further induce an inquiry into the interpretation of colour, scent, form, and texture. As one begins to perceive these elements in newer ways, their identities slowly begin to melt as you probe deeper. What more can a fruit contain beyond the contents described? Nothing.

Realizing this nothingness, this Shunyata is the beginning of experiencing everything that is contained in the nothingness. Only a calm, tranquil mind may see and experience the interconnectedness and constant movement of everything that exists in the Universe. As said by Avalokitesvara “All phenomena are empty. They don’t exist by themselves alone. Everything is interconnected, everything is one energy, one essence and, at the same time, many.”[13]

Conclusion: Form as Coherence

So far, the essay has observed the significance of a free mind and its relative spontaneity in an empty space. Further, observation of the process of how forms are continuously forming as a result of experiencing Shunyata will help understand different other aspects of Barwe’s work. For him, nothing is ever static. As quoted by Paul Klee, “Forming is good. Form is bad; form is the end; form is death. Forming is movement; it is action. Forming is life”[14]

In simple terms, the quote signifies that the paths to form must be made as alive as possible, and in order to do so one must extract from the very examples that nature puts forth before us, in her constantly evolving formations, a movement that exists despite its apparent static exterior. Barwe’s three drawings and the paintings below are an apt example of the continuously evolving forms in nature. In fact, one glimpses all notions of form in these works if observed carefully – combinations of forms that create an abstract third image, the inner and outer form of the objects, the synchronicity of their interconnectedness and the constant movement.

Image courtesy: Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation

Ethereal Transitions, by Prabhakar Barwe, further describes the above paragraph and the universal notion of synchronicity, interconnectedness, and movement. The painting is distinctly divided into three planes; the bottom being an opaque and earthy yellow ochre, occupying nearly three fourths of the picture plane; the middle band, which is more translucent, occupying the least space seems to be the most significant conceptually as it paves the path for the transformation with the black semi-circle signifying the opening of the lid; the last and larger part of the picture plane is painted in a bright opaque red that generally signifies strength and stability, but because of the forms and its compositions, the section has a very dreamy and floating feel. Overall, the picture plane and composition is held strongly by its smallest and darkest sphere.

The painting has an invisible vertebrae signified by the three distinct spheres painted in different indigenous formations. The bottom one is more rooted with its formations going downwards, the middle one in the red section has a more central and rotational formation that connects to the horizon with dotted lines, and the third one, which is slightly conjoined with the second, is a depiction of an eye, signifying the opening of the inner eye. Adjacent to it on the left is another circle, painted as concentric formations using dotted lines going in another direction, floating in space, very different from the bottom three solid circular formations. Another floating form is on the right top corner, which is distinctly indistinct, as it may seem like a bird, or a school of fish, or a synthesis of them all along with human faces. Regardless of its interpretation, the feel is floating and transcending. The painting could depict the different states of consciousness and a chakra awakening, a thought prevalent in Tantric Buddhism, which had an impact on Barwe’s visual epistemology for a brief period whilst he worked at the Weavers’ Service Centre in Benaras, though he later realized, “I am not a Tantrik, if I had to become one, I would have to stop being an artist.”[15]

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.”[16]

Prabhakar Barwe’s most iconic painting, Alphabets of Nature painted nearly two decades after Ethereal Transitions perfectly depicts the transition of his gaze from a symbolic visualisation of consciousness to an inner realisation and exploration of consciousness. Transforming the physical essence of being into its intuitive and psychic coherence. The colour palate too changes completely, from the prominent warm colours to the soothing greys and blues that instantly calms the viewer in the first glance. From attraction to a longer gaze, Barwe has transformed his visual language, a transformation that is soaked into years of silent contemplation and spontaneity. He creates his own order. The cognitive flux evolves into a cognitive coherence that seamlessly balances the outer with the inner terrain, marrying logic with intuition. There seems to be a marriage of sorts where the established logic of his painting has progressed into an effortless union and synchronicity.

The subject of the painting itself symbolises the interconnectedness of the self with nature, and the composition only enhances the view, where each aspect of nature has either been transformed according to the artists renewed inner sensibility. For example, a human figure is seen in the tiniest form at the rear end of the canvas, as though he is entering a magnanimous world of nature of which he is an insignificant component. The tree which is usually known for its strength and vertical stability is seen here stretched and curved, like a semi-circle encircling the entire creation and aptly coinciding with the leaf on the other side, probably to depict its correlation and interdependence. The objects too have a soft water-colour rendering to them, giving a sense of fluidity and naturalness which is their core substance. One observes many kinds of leaves (a constant muse for the artist), in different forms and stages poetically rendered and symbolising the cycle of life and death. And yet the flight of the orange-red bird makes you travel into an endless time, juxtaposed by the descending tress into an unknown space. Empty space is here woven within the forms and composition, which is distinctly different from the previous canvases presented here. The earlier works have a central focus and proportionately larger empty spaces. Emptiness here does not have a distinct entity but has been entwined into the canvas with the forms that are spread out organically. As quoted by the artist,

In my opinion, space is every bit as important as form, whether it is occupied by a form or not. If space and form are well balanced in a picture, the space becomes as eloquent as form and the picture gains in meaning. If space and form are not in dialogue with one another, the meaning suffers and the picture seems incomplete despite the presence of meaningful forms. The picture is coherent and complete only when space and form meet, complement and merge into each other. Form takes shape in space and creates around and within itself space that is right for it. Indeed, form and colour are two expressions of space. Form is form because it is more clearly defined. But as much as it is right to say that space gives birth to form, it is right to say that form creates space.[17]

The distinct elements perceived in his paintings, form as form, form as spontaneity, form as emptiness and form as a coherent space are all aspects of a singular oneness that he charts with a deliberative intuition that informs his visual cognizance. We began by observing how the process of mind-expansion led to a renewed sense of perception and visual thinking. Proceeding further with a disciplined contemplation and spontaneity new forms begin to emerge that aren’t clearly seen but only imagined as a combination of two or more forms. The cognitive mind that is already at play here at this stage, both for the artist as well as the viewer is then again emptying its formed definitions as a symbolic representation of conscious awakening, which again is transformed as realised, formalised, individual consciousness. The term individual consciousness here should not be confused by the individual ego, but instead a consciousness that has been formed after rigorous cycles of cognition until finally the thinking mind is conscious of its nature and its relationship to outer visual nature. Nature that had been constantly informing the artist through the mode of sense perceptions is then informing the artist through modes of intuitive perceptions. A disciplined process of visual cognizance – ever reforming, fresh and spontaneous is what leads to the visual awakening of The Third Apple.

References


[1] M.F.Husain pays tribute to Prabhakar Barwe, ‘We have lost an intellectual mind’, Indian Express 10 December 1995. From the archives of Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation.

[2] Geeta Kapur’s essay Pictorial Space, published by Lalit Kala Akademi accompanied with an exhibition conceived and conceptualized by her in 1977.  Apparitions as defined by art critic Geeta Kapur, “refers to images of reverie that appear like a flash, illuminating the spaces around marking it off from mundane space as a nimbus marks off a supermundane presence, and sets it apart in memory – suspended and transfixed. Apparitions, in the context of considerations on pictorial space imply images that establish their ambience, a ‘sacred’ or magnetic space, free from the laws of gravity and perspective, a space which in turn allows a felicitous freedom to the images for achieving levitation”.

[3] Ibid, M.F.Husain.

[4] The Blank Canvas by Prabhakar Barwe, Chapter: Form and Meaning-Page 32, First Edition published by Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation in 2014

[5] David Bohm’s book Wholeness and the Implicate Order, originally published 1980 by Routledge, Great Britain.

[6] The Blank Canvas by Prabhakar Barwe, Chapter: The Blank Canvas-Page 25, First Edition published by Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation in 2014.

[7] The Blank Canvas by Prabhakar Barwe, Chapter: Form and Meaning-Page 39, First Edition published by Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation in 2014.

[8] Interpretation of Zen artist, Sangai’s Calligraphic painting and essence of all Zen teachings. From the book Three ways of Asian Wisdom by Nancy Wilson Ross, page 176.
[9] Okakura Kakuzō’s book The Ideals of the East with Special Reference to the Art of Japan, published in 1903

[10] Arthur Waley was an English Orientalist and sinologist who achieved both popular and scholarly acclaim for his translations of Chinese and Japanese poetry.

[11] Excerpt from S.V. Vasudev’s review ‘Experiments with Space’. From the archives of Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation.

[12] The “Heart Sutra” is one of the most popular scriptures in the Mahayana tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. It is one of 40 sutras that comprise the “Prajnaparamita Sutras,” which were believed to have been written between 100 B.C.E. and 500 C.E. The precise origin of the Heart Sutra is unknown. According to the translator Red Pine, the earliest record of the sutra is a Chinese translation from Sanskrit by the monk Chih-ch’ien made between 200 and 250 CE. In the 8th century another translation emerged that added an introduction and conclusion. The longer version was adopted by Tibetan Buddhism. In Zen and other Mahayana schools that originated in China, the shorter version is more common. In this sutra, Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is speaking to Shariputra, who was an important disciple of the historical Buddha. The early lines of the sutra discuss the five skandhas — form, sensation, conception, discrimination, and consciousness. The bodhisattva has seen that the skandhas are empty, and thus has been freed from suffering. The bodhisattva speaks: Shariputra, form is no other than emptiness; emptiness no other than form. Form is exactly emptiness; emptiness exactly form. Sensation, conception, discrimination, and consciousness are also like this.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Paul Klee’s theory of the paths to form published in the book Klee & Kandinsky: Neighbours, Friends and Rivals published by Prestel, page 321.

[15] Ranjit Hoskote in converstion with Prabhakar Barwe, from the article ‘At the edge of the plausible’, published by The Sunday Times of India, 1992. From the archives of Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation

[16] Indian Literary Criticism: Theory and Interpretation, edited by G. N. Devy.

17 The Blank Canvas by Prabhakar Barwe, Chapter: Form and Space-Page 51, First Edition published by Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation in 2014 

The essay is a part of the Jesal Thacker’s ongoing curatorial and research project. Excerpts from this essay would be published in the catalogue that would be accompanying Prabhakar Barwe’s retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai scheduled for February 2019.

Jesal Thacker is an artist by training, but she chose to pursue scholarship in art instead of art practice. A graduate with a degree in painting from Sir J.J. School of Art, Mumbai, Jesal engages with research on modern and contemporary Indian art. She has curated several notable exhibitions and is especially interested in studying the abstract movement in India and around the world and their close associations with eastern philosophy and mystical concepts. Jesal Thacker is the founder-director of Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation based in Mumbai.


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