Mumbai, The National Gallery of Modern Art, Bhupen Khakhar - A Retrospective, 4 - 26 November 2003
London, Tate Modern, Bhupen Khakhar - You Can't Please All, 1 June - 6 November 2016
Berlin, Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Bhupen Khakhar - You Can't Please All, 18 November 2016 – 5 March 2017
Timothy Hyman et al., Bhupen Khakhar - A Retrospective, Mumbai, 2003, illustrated, p.98
A. Jhaveri, A Guide to 101 Modern & Contemporary Indian Artists, India Book House, Mumbai, 2005, p. 45
Chris Dercon and Nada Raza, Bhupen Khakhar - You Can't Please All, London, 2016, illustrated p. 36
E. Clayton, Howard Hodgkin, Painting India, Lund Humphries, London, 2017, illustrated p. 23
This meeting initiated a lifelong friendship between the two artists. A common friend and noted British writer and artist, Timothy Hyman has construed, “When … Hodgkin first met Khakhar, he had already been for many years a passionate collector of Indian album paintings - whose lucid depiction and detail might seem in obvious contrast to his own elusive mark-making. But what Hodgkin admired in Indian miniatures - and recognized also in Khakhar’s work – was pictorial artifice made explicit. Each painting by Khakhar presents itself as a series of very decisive moves. Yet while Hodgkin himself leaves visible in his pictures the layers beneath (the archeology of their making), Khakhar arrives at a surface solid and opaque, impermeable.” (T. Hyman, Bhupen Khakhar, Chemould Publications and Arts, Bombay and Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., Ahmedabad, 1998, p. 51) Khakhar too, looked at Indian miniatures very closely. Their warm cadence, framing and narrative techniques provided direct inspiration for him to unfold the lives of his humble subjects as they went about the daily humdrum of their existence.
This honest representational mode is what drew Hodgkin to Khakhar’s works. “Khakhar has been able to paint what he lives, nothing about art and everything about life—without hang ups.” (O. Gustorf and N. Raza, 'Bhupen Khakhar: Painting the Truth, An interview with the curator Nada Raza', ArtMag by Deutsche Bank, 2016, http://db-artmag.com/en/95/feature/bhupen-khakhar-painting-the-truth-an-interview-with-the-curator-/) Khakhar’s eccentric works are surely the result of an artist doing exactly what he liked, making use of a variety of sources in an unabashed way to weave an idiom, unambiguously his own. Both men admired each other’s work and discussed at length things such as “the building of a picture.” While at first glance, as Hyman posits, their work may seem at polar ends of each other, on studying their oeuvre, one can draw many parallels. Hodgkin on one hand, made his mark as “a slow, methodical worker who could spend years building up a painting’s surface, he did not have a solo show until he was 30, and for years thereafter toiled against the grain, his work at odds with prevailing fashion.” (W. Grimes, ‘Howard Hodgkin, Whose Paintings Were Coded With Emotion, Dies at 84,’ The New York Times, March 9, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/09/arts/design/howard-hodgkin-dead-british-painter.html) Correspondingly Khakhar was the first contemporary Indian artist to incorporate his country’s artistic traditions into his art, in the process overthrowing the dominant trend of abstraction, which was sweeping Indian modernism at the time. A penchant for colours seems to be yet another binding factor between the two. Khakhar once commented, “When I have decided that I want to paint …a story, and I have worked out what figures I must put in the paintings, then I forget about the story, because then I have to deal with color and that is the most difficult part.” (U. Beier and B. Khakhar, ‘Bhupen Khakhar: An Artist must be Vulnerable,’ Courtesy Aspect Magazine, Issue no. 23, January 1982, unpaginated).
Harmoniously, Hodgkin’s main complaint about British artists was their aloofness about colour. Likewise both artists also preferred to work in modest formats, so much so that in jest, they are known to have once challenged each other to create an eight-foot painting. In the case of Khakhar, this led to the creation of The Celebration of Guru Jayanti, 1980, touted to be the largest and most iconic of his works.
The imprint of their camaraderie has been reminisced about in detail not only by friends and scholars alike but can also be seen in select works by each of them. A current exhibition at Hepworth Wakefield in Yorkshire on Hodgkin’s India works revealed a long-lost painting titled From the House of Bhupen Khakhar (1975-76). Many of Hodgkin’s works from his India series were inspired by people he encountered there, people who became his friends, and who he returned to visit over a 53 year-long love affair with the country. From the House of Bhupen Khakhar is one such recollection of Hodgkin’s time in Khakhar’s house in Baroda. Featured in the Wakefield show, this work received a special mention in many press reviews with one reporter stating that it did “immortalize his [Hodgkin’s] warm friendship with the Indian modernist painter.” (H. Little, ‘Howard Hodgkin’s India – in his own words,’ The Financial Times, July 7, 2017, https://www.ft.com/content/06f1bf0e-5ce0-11e7-b553-e2df1b0c3220) Likewise Khakhar has commemorated this friendship in works such as Howard Hodgkin’s Pillow (1979), depicting Hodgkin's Wiltshire home during one of his extended stays in England.
“It would be Hodgkin, more than any other friend, who would lead Khakhar beyond his difficult local context into a kind of world- citizenship.” (Hyman, p. 45)
In 1976, Khakhar made his very first trip abroad facilitated by a cultural exchange programme by the Indian government which took him to USSR, Yugoslavia, Italy and the United Kingdom. In the UK, Khakhar stayed with Hodgkin as his guest. In 1979, he returned to the UK, this time as an artist-in-residence at the Bath Academy of Art in Corsham. This prestigious residency was prompted at the behest of Hodgkin. Khakhar lived with Hodgkin again this time for six months, teaching at Bath once a week.
“Relationships, collegial friends in particular, built through disarming charm and genuine hospitality, substantially accelerated Khakhar’s intellectual and artistic development.” (N. Raza, ‘A Man Labelled Bhupen Khakhar Branded as a Painter,’ Bhupen Khakhar, You Can’t Please All, edited by C. Dercon and N. Raza, Tate Enterprises Ltd., 2016, p. 18) One such alliance was with Timothy Hyman, whom Khakhar met in 1976 with Hodgkin. Hyman went on to write the first English monograph on Khakhar in 1998, which to this day remains a seminal publication. Hyman also included Khakhar’s work in a curated exhibition titled Narrative Paintings: Figurative Art of Two Generations in 1979 showcased across 4 venues in the UK including the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, London. Khakhar’s work was in the esteemed company of international artists like RB Kitaj, David Hockney, Anthony Green, as well as Hyman and Hodgkin.
On 20th June 1979, Khakhar opened a solo exhibition at two adjacent galleries of Hester van Royen and Anthony Stokes Ltd. Hodgkin was once again the conduit for this introduction. Anthony Stokes recalls, “The first Bhupen Khakhar painting I ever saw was at Howard Hodgkin’s house in 1978. Entitled ‘Tailor’ it is one of the series of pictures of tradespeople and it depicts a tailor cutting a cloth.” (A. Stokes, ‘B. Khakhar,’ Grosvenor Galleries, London, March 2013, p. 8) These different representations allowed Khakhar to engage with the UK arts scene and in turn steered him towards future exhibitions with the Knoedler Galleries (1983) and Kapil Jariwala galleries (1995). He was later given a retrospective at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid in 2002 making Khakhar one of the most lauded Indian artists of his time.
In 1982, Hodgkin included Khakhar’s work in a curated exhibition Six Indian Painters at the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) in London as part of the Festival of India. Other artists in this exhibition were stalwarts such as Maqbool Fida Husain, Jamini Roy, Amrita Sher-Gil, K.G. Subramanyan, and Rabindranath Tagore. “I really would have liked it to have been just about Bhupen, but there was no question of that. The gallery wanted something much more general.” (S. Jhaveri and H. Hodgkin, Tate etc., Issue 37, p. 84) Khakhar is known to have been the youngest of the artists in the show and by doing this, Hodgkin “wrote him into a genealogy of artistic greatness.” (‘Chronology,’ Bhupen Khakhar, You Can’t Please All, Tate Enterprises Ltd., 2016, p. 176) This proved to be the beginning of a long-standing relationship with the Tate Museums – in 2001, Khakhar’s work was part of the exhibition, Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis and most recently in 2016, the Tate held an international retrospective, You Can’t Please All in honour of Khakhar. This exhibition was accompanied with an expansive new publication made possible by the generous support of Hodgkin and his partner, Mr. Antony Peattie; once again a testimony to Hodgkin’s enduring and relentless support of his friend. All these different introductions and representations over the years proved to be crucial platforms for Khakhar’s international acclaim.
The experience in the UK turned out to be transformative for Khakhar in more ways than those outlined above. It facilitated what has been termed as his “coming out of the closet” and declaring his homosexuality, something which he had hinted at, in subtle ways all his life, through his work, but never outwardly until the UK experience. In England in the 1970s, Khakhar bore witness to the increasing acceptance of homosexuality resultant of it becoming legalised the decade before. Being exposed to and interacting with artists such as David Hockney, gave him a much-needed freedom which he had yearned for. This became the hallmark of the next phase in his artistic production, an autobiographical one that made him the first Indian artist to freely disclose his sexual orientation through his work.
De-Luxe Tailors was a gift from Bhupen Khakhar to Hodgkin. Initially, it was hung in Hodgkin’s home in Wiltshire which is where Bhupen stayed as a guest in the 70s and where Anthony Stokes first came upon Bhupen’s work before offering him a solo exhibition. Later in Hodgkin’s life, the painting travelled with him to his flat in London where it was hung on the bedroom landing.
Incidentally this was one of the works featured in the sought-after solo exhibitions of 1979. “In a letter to Geeta Kapur, Anthony Stokes writes about the show's reception “We have had an extraordinary press reaction with good, consecutive, thumbs up reviews from Bill Feaver, Observer, John McEwen, Spectator, a color reproduction in the Observer Magazine with long caption, Timothy Hyman (five pages in London Magazine), next week we’ll see Timothy’s other piece in Artscribe.” (S. Jhaveri, ‘B. Khakhar,’ Grosvenor Gallery, London, 2013, p. 7) De-Luxe Tailors is an arresting and ground-breaking work that has been receiving critical acclaim from its very creation until the present when it was recently touted as one of the best works in the Tate retrospective of 2016 by long term journalist and follower of Bhupen’s work, Paul Levy. (P. Levy, ‘What’s Happening Here? The Enigmatic Bhupen Khakhar,’ An Arts Journal Blog, June 6, 2016,http://www.artsjournal.com/plainenglish/2016/06/whats-happening-here-the-enigmatic-bhupen-khakhar.html)
This painting is one of Khakhar’s first works in his own individual voice, marking a clear shift from his neo-miniature collages of the 1960s to the next phase of his output, inspired by popular realism. Hyman writes, “Around 1972, Khakhar’s language gelled: all its hybrid constituents fell into place. And it was as though a door suddenly opened. He found himself entering upon a vista no painter had ever penetrated before; the vast terrain of half-westernized, half-urbanized modern India. His own background and lifestyle - his daily work as an accountant on the fringe of the city, his continuing intimacy with a wider range of human types and conditions than most artists’ lives allow for - now began to pay off. (Hyman, p. 41-42)
Based on the every man, this was the beginning of what Khakhar called the 'Trade' paintings – a series of portraits of people defined by their professions, the likes of tailors, watch repairers, barbers and factory accountants. For the very first time, the working class of India that had been mostly excluded from the sophisticated realm of art found a place for themselves. In the interview with noted writer, Ulli Beier, Khakhar explained, “…I want to introduce an element which people can relate to immediately…” (U. Beier and B. Khakhar, Courtesy Aspect Magazine, Issue no. 23, January 1982, unpaginated) Speaking of his subjects, he elaborated, “…every evening after five, I walk through the Bazaars and I make a mental note whether I am going to use this shop or that in the next painting I am trying to evolve. I am at a loss to know exactly what my feelings are towards these people. At one time I feel fully sympathetic towards these people; but at other times I also feel against their hypocrisy. And another thing is that I come from that same class. So I feel some kind of immediate identification with them. So it goes on at so many levels. I attack it and I love it, don’t know what it is…” (ibid.) While at first glance these paintings appear social, there is also a baffling sense of loneliness in these works, a play of empathy and mockery depicted by a man who sees himself as both a witness and an accomplice.
The subjects in these works recall the manner of 18th century Company paintings wherein artists recorded customs and views of an exotic land for European patrons in a documentary fashion, eagerly adapting from a variety of western styles. We see here an amalgam of Indian miniatures in colour and design, 14th century Sienese painting and Company paintings in their narrative aspects as well as a faux naive style reminiscent of Henri Rousseau. Khakhar presents his audiences with different vantage points, indigenous as well as international, by way of which they can enter the work and identify with it.
The sign “DE-LUXE tailors” receives us. The picture plane is dominated by Khakhar’s characteristic Sienese inspired saturated colors of blue and pink. The ground slopes up towards the horizon. We have a large figure in the foreground, a man who appears to be the head tailor - the iconic figure - larger than everything else, and his apparatus - the working table, his tool - the scissors, another workman and tables at the back, the fruits of labor- the shirts hanging in the background, a fan and a fitting room with what appears to be a mannequin. All of these are rendered with an accountant’s precision and a Léger-like mechanical exactness. “Khakhar once outlined how such a painting might come about; how in an actual room he scrutinized each object one by one, and considered how best to render it in paint, working through an imagined list by Vuillard, Rousseau, Léger, each modifying the other. Each painting becomes a kind of a container or cabinet, to display a range of vivid, crisply depicted items.” (Hyman, p. 42) The treatment of the main protagonist is un-academic with a large head and stiff, thin limbs. The tailor is a recurrent figure in Khakhar’s oeuvre rendered in a number of sketches over the years as also in a later canvas of 1988.
Khakhar’s pictures are complicated. Co-curator of his Tate retrospective, Nada Raza reflects on their layered nature and symbolism, “He said that he thought of great paintings in the same way he thought about great novels, complex and layered… the delineation of public and private is something that Khakhar portrayed often, using the device of the doorway or window [also seen in De-luxe Tailors]. When he was painting his trade paintings, the watchmaker, the barbershop, he portrayed spaces that a gay man would naturally be drawn to… because they are spaces where men can meet, come into close contact. The tailor’s shop, the paan shop, where people would congregate in the evening.” (O. Gustorf and N. Raza, ArtMag by Deutsche Bank, 2016) It has been suggested that the doll-like mannequin in this work seems to be taken from the popular ‘Ideal-boy’ educational charts found in India. One almost wonders if Khakhar is hinting at himself as “the ideal boy” – a good son who fulfilled the expectations of his family and community but hiding in a “closet” to protect his privacy.
De-Luxe Tailors stands as a testament to Khakhar’s brilliance in navigating boundaries between the public and private, the traditional and the modern as well as the different classes that permeate our society. It is the first trade series work to appear on the open market, making it a unique opportunity for collectors to acquire it. Most of the other highly coveted paintings in this series such as Factory Strike, Janata Watch Repairing, Bank Manager, View from Teashop, Barber’s Shop and Assistant Accountant I.M. Shah, either found their place in Khakhar’s friends' homes or in much esteemed private and institutional collections.
This painting is a testament to a long friendship between two great artists who outwardly could not be more different, yet subtly show connections in their bodies of work that reveal how their thought processes were in some ways aligned through shared and parallel experiences.
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