If Prabhakar Kolte’s reputation as a teacher exceeds his reputation as an artist, it is only because that’s how he wishes it to be. “I’m a teacher first,” he says, “and I’ll be a teacher as long as students seek me out for guidance.” During his two decades of teaching at the Sir JJ School of Arts in Mumbai, Kolte was well-loved for discussions that ran far beyond the boundaries of the classroom and which were an early influence in the careers of students such as Atul Dodiya, Jitish Kallat and Sudarshan Shetty. The ongoing show “Re-Unveiling Kolte”, organised in association with Dot Line Space at Byculla’s Nine Fish Art Gallery, traces 53 years of the artist’s career and is his first solo show in over a decade. It reconfirms the 72-year-old’s stature as one of the country’s leading abstract painters. In this interview, Kolte talks about the influences that have shaped his art and why the teaching of art in India remains flawed. Edited excerpts:
I would say that I never ran after the market. It’s not like I wasn’t willing to be a part of the market, but I believe that if you run after the market, you risk your work becoming totally commercial; if you stay in place and allow the market to come to you, then you remain original. So that’s what I did.
This space was once a mill and my early life is connected to mills. My father used to be a clerk at Century Mill, and we used to live in the chawl nearby. All the mill employees lived there and it was a wonderful time and place. We were all one big family. The owner of the mill was a kind man who took an interest in all of us children. There was a gym, a playground and we used to have big Ganeshotsav celebrations every year. And then, when I in my second year at JJ (School of Arts, Mumbai), I used to make textile designs and sell them to the mill. I would get Rs 10-15 for my work, which was good pocket money for me.
My earliest works always had some form that was recognisable, maybe a distorted human figure or a mug or a window. They were not clear, but you could still see them. But later, I realised that I have to free myself from this need to represent existing forms and be totally like a child. We all have a child inside us and we kill it. I recognised the child and since then I’ve taken care of it. When I paint, I paint like a child.
It was after reading Klee that I thought I must find myself. I realised that my paintings had to just be paintings. I didn’t want to create subject or object or make any sense out of what I did. The painting itself is something, some kind of entity, and that’s what I am interested in.
Until the Progressives, people were making ‘successful’ paintings. They would paint thinking how much they have spent on canvases and paints. But the Progressives changed that. One realised that one has to be bold and expressive. I may spoil 10 canvases, but, at least, one will come out that has exactly what I want. That was the Progressives’ gift to Indian art. They showed that there should be risk in painting, because there is risk in life. The Progressives’ work came like a blow to younger ones like us and showed us that what we had been thinking and doing was bullshit. I was really inspired by them. VS Gaitonde was searching for forms that were totally new to the world and which were difficult to describe, (MF) Husain was destructuring the human figure. (KH) Ara, in particular, was revolutionary. Just look at how he made nudes! I don’t think anybody has painted nudes like Ara has. You can feel the skin-ness of the skin in his figures.
Very few artists were doing abstractions, except some big ones like Gaitonde. From the younger generation, I was the only one. My seniors used to say, ‘Arre Kolte, kya kar raha hai? Pet ke liye chahiye na kuch? (What are you doing, Kolte? You also need to feed yourself)’, to which I would say, ‘Abhi main zinda hoon, jab marne ka time aayega tab sochoonga (I am still alive, I will think of it when I am closer to death)’ Then, (Arun) Sachdev, the owner of Gallery 7, saw some works that I had shown at the Indo-German Culture Society and displayed them in his own gallery. He managed to sell almost all of them. That success was very important to me. It showed me that I could sell these work. Until then I wondered if anyone would buy abstract works. I had decided that I might give up painting if I had to, but I would never compromise on what I wanted to paint.
No, I was quite stubborn. Of course, I belonged to a poor family and you know what it’s like when someone from my kind of background pursued this ‘luxury’. But my parents were supportive and I managed. I did some part-time work for a while, but then I realised that I couldn’t do anything but paint.
I’m not a portrait painter, it is not my way of expression. But there is a challenge in it that I sometimes enjoy. Once, in the ’80s, I painted 45 portraits in 45 days. It happened because my teacher, SB Palsikar, saw some portrait that I had done earlier and told me that I should do more of them. I agreed, but after that, whenever he asked me if I had begun work on portraits, I would lie and say ‘Yes, sir’. Then one day, I imagined what it would be like if he decided to come and see the paintings and discovered that I had been lying to him. He was my guru, and I would get into trouble. So I started making one portrait a day, painting anyone, from my students to my wife. But then Palsikar Sir died and he couldn’t see them.
I will always remain a teacher, whether I’m teaching in a college or not. Even now, students from Mumbai, Pune, and other places, reach out to me and come to me for guidance. I was fortunate to have good teachers myself in primary and secondary school. In secondary school, my teacher was a well-known landscape painter called MS Joshi and he encouraged me a lot. Later, in college, I had Palsikar, who became my guru. It was because of all these great teachers, that I too became a good teacher. They inspired me. And I was fortunate to be hired by JJ. I taught there for 22 years.
I became a teacher at JJ in 1972 and taught there till I took voluntary retirement, because I felt the students were misguided. I disagreed with the syllabus, which was the same as what I had studied when I was a student. I couldn’t understand why it had to be the same. The whole world was changing and the syllabus had to reflect that. When I said these things to the administration, they disagreed. They said that the government will have to decide the syllabus, which I disagreed with. Why should the government decide what we teach? But they didn’t have the guts. The teachers were reduced to clerks, earning good money without really teaching. I couldn’t remain in that atmosphere.
There is no room for philosophy in our art schools. People think artists only work with their hands and eyes, but it’s more than that. Each artist also has to be a philosopher, philosophy gives you a reason to paint. One can have an art practice, but creating something is a different thing altogether. For example, portrait painting is a method, a job that you can easily do. But learning to create a new form is very difficult, because you are creating a form that belongs to you alone. It’s not copied from anywhere else. Beyond paper, canvas and paints, an artist needs to have a vision. This can be shaped on the surface of a canvas. Your idea is the seed which you plant on the canvas and the painting grows from that idea.
The art school is coming up in Karjat. We have been getting various permissions for two years, but I think we should be starting construction on the building soon, and, hopefully, by next year, it will be ready. We’ll only take 20 students at a time, and each student will have their own studio. What I want to do at the school is teach without teaching. I will provide everything that is necessary for learning, but I won’t hold the students’ hands. I won’t talk to them, unless they reach out to me with questions. There will also be visitors from all walks of life — doctors, engineers, actors — and the students should themselves reach out to them and learn from them. One essential thing will be a library, because right now, most of our students don’t read. Even I didn’t as a student. But I realised that without reading, you can’t build your ideas and proceed further. I’m putting everything I have into this school, but I’m confident that somebody will come forward to support it.