Painted circa 1971, around three years after Bhupen Khakhar had debuted as a painter, Portrait of Shri Shankerbhai V. Patel Near Red Fort is a singularly extraordinary chef-d'œuvre. The painting reveals both peerless formal execution and profound emotional depth, and is of crucial significance within Khakhar’s inimitable body of work. It marks the beginning of the most important phase of his career as a painter, after an initial period primarily immersed in collage.
Having only just ‘arrived’ on the scene, Khakhar once spoke of himself as initially feeling inferior to his colleagues, all artists with formal training, “I felt very inferior; not able to speak English; not so erudite… My painting, I felt ashamed of it”. (B. Khakhar quoted in T. Hyman, ‘Training in Baroda’, Bhupen Khakhar, Chemould Publications and Arts, Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., Ahmedabad, 1998, p. 20)
In Portrait of Shri Shankerbhai V. Patel Near Red Fort, Khakhar incorporated the venerated genres of still life and portraiture into his landscape, therefore deeming himself ready and worthy to join his heroes and predecessors, Henri Rousseau and David Hockney, and even his own contemporaries, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and others from Group 1890. This exhilaratingly radiant and verdant painting firmly places Khakhar among these great artists.
Khakhar’s interest in human nature is the common thread that runs through his entire œuvre, and the explicit sexually charged imagery would not appear in his work for another decade or so. Observing the people around him fuelled the narrative of his paintings and drawings. While his inner circle was made up of people from the art community, Khakhar had a separate set of friends from other walks of life. It was these people who became the subject of his various paintings. As Geeta Kapur notes:
‘… artist friends have a definite but limited share in [Khakhar’s] life while for the most part he prefers more mundane friends.’
Khakhar was attracted to and rumoured to have developed very deep friendships with men, in particular older men (N. Raza, ‘A Man Labelled Bhupen Khakhar Branded as Painter’ in C. Dercon and N. Raza (eds.), Bhupen Khakhar: You Can’t Please All, Tate Publications, London, 2016, p. 22) During this period of the 1970s, two names prominently figure in Khakhar’s inner circle, Ranchodbhai and the subject of the present work, Shankerbhai Patel. Shankerbhai is said to have been frail, almost or nearly blind, and a windower, and Khakhar was his utterly devoted friend. Khakhar never fully recovered from Shankerbhai’s death in 1975 and Gulam Mohammed Sheikh recounts:
‘to Bhupen [Shankerbhai] was closer than his own heart. He almost changed the destiny of that man with his relationship’.
Such was the importance of Shankerbhai to Khakhar, that the artist immortalised him in some of his most important paintings: the present lot; American Survey Officer, an earlier painting from 1969; and Man on Bed, a slightly later work. Khakhar’s unflinching devotion to Shankerbhai is an indication as to why Portrait of Shri Shankerbhai V. Patel Near Red Fort would remain in the artist’s collection throughout his life, occupying pride of place in the artist’s home in Baroda.
The fanciful composition of Portrait of Shri Shankerbhai V. Patel Near Red Fort is described by Bhupen Khakhar in the artist’s self-designed exhibition catalogue, Truth Is Beauty and Beauty Is God, for a 1972 exhibition at Gallery Chemould, Bombay:
“This is a dream sequence. Once I had a dream in which I was invited to a party. All the fruits were laid on a table covered with a white table cloth. I was prepared to eat the juicy delicious fruits. Suddenly I was told by the host that one of these fruits contains poison. I was in a dilemma. On one side the temptation to eat the fruits was great while on the other the thought of death by poison prevented me from eating the fruit.”
The work is characteristic of Khakhar’s dry wit and subtle humour and is representative of a critical moment in his career as he developed a local and idiosyncratic language for Pop art in India.
In Truth Is Beauty and Beauty Is God, Khakhar also wrote about his representation of landscape in Portrait of Shri Shankerbhai V. Patel Near Red Fort, noting that the smaller trees were from “Henry [sic] Rousseau’s paintings”. (ibid.) Further components of Khakhar’s work have other specific origins: the larger tree on the right recalls Indian miniature painting; inspiration for the sky and the ramparts of the Red Fort was provided by a postcard of Delhi; and the portrait of Shankerbhai was based on an earlier charcoal study by the artist.
With the poisoned fruit, Khakhar alludes to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. In the Biblical story, the couple is a foundational unit; in Khakhar’s painting, the woman is absent, with only the male figure of Shankerbhai present. The entire composition is a dream narrated by the artist and, in a sense, Khakhar’s aforementioned dilemma concerning the fruit is whether or not he should be the first sinner. Khakhar had not ‘come out’ at the point of painting this work, a hesitation which is echoed in the decision around the uneaten poisoned fruit.
The symbolism of the painting goes further still: the old man in the composition is a sign of advancing age, while the “golden banana tree with a crimson flower” (ibid.) in the foreground is a symbol of auspiciousness and regeneration in Hindu beliefs. Commenting on Khakhar’s symbolism Raza states, ‘He said that he thought of great paintings in the same way he thought about great novels, complex and layered…’. (O. Gustorf and N. Raza, ArtMag by Deutsche Bank, 2016) Although Khakhar never received formal training as a painter, the art history course that he took at the Faculty of Fine Art in Baroda helped him learn about European painting, especially the work of Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse and most importantly the naïve style of Rousseau. Though often referred to as an untrained artist, Khakhar’s genius lies in his ability to put forth a highly sophisticated approach to representation in his work, of which Portrait of Shri Shankerbhai V. Patel Near Red Fort is a profound example.
Bhupen Khakhar’s earliest works, such as Wall of a Small Hindu Temple (1966), were hybrids that introduced new forms of art to Indian audiences of the time. They embodied that impulse of a young, independent mind, eager to peel off all that was conventional and established and re-examine it on his own terms. Collages were some of the first works of art Khakhar produced, a choice of medium that largely arose due to the artist not yet being fully trained as a painter. It would be a few years before Khakhar would make his painting debut with People in Dharamshala in 1968. (T. Hyman, ‘Training in Baroda’, Bhupen Khakhar, Chemould Publications and Arts, Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., Ahmedabad, 1998, p. 15)
Although one would imagine Khakhar to have been influenced by the Progressive Artists’ Group, having for a time been a student at the J. J. School of Art in Bombay (now Mumbai), he is said to have found the school uninspiring and dull. By contrast, the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda where he took the Art Criticism course was a breath of fresh air for Khakhar – it was new, it was contemporary. It was in this atmosphere of free and original thought that Khakhar thrived.
When he moved to Baroda in the early 1960s, Khakhar shared a flat for a short while with Jim Donovan, then a fellow student from London, in the Old Town of Baroda. Donovan was instrumental in introducing Khakhar to Britain’s Pop art movement, and it was this encounter that formed the central core of Khakhar’s philosophy. (T. Hyman, ‘Training in Baroda’, Bhupen Khakhar, Chemould Publications and Arts, Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., Ahmedabad, 1998, p. 12-13)
Khakhar drew inspiration from collected objects and material: nathdwara prints, mythological oleographs, film posters and calendar art. As Geeta Kapur writes:
‘He gave his version of Pop art a definite local meaning (long before the term local gained currency as binary of global). Over and above this, he historicized the phenomenon by linking it to the nineteenth and early twentieth century history of stylistic hybrids in Indian art.’
By the late 1960s, Khakhar switched to painting as his principal medium which was the beginning of a new era for the artist. Like most Baroda School artists, Khakhar’s work was about the narrative. In the period after People in Dharamshala (1968), Khakhar’s style became more and more refined, as seen in Parsi Family (1968), Sheikh, Flower-pot and the Moon (1969), American Survey Officer (1969), Tiger and Stag (1970) and Mrs. Nilima Sheikh Looking at Orange Flower (1970). By the time Khakhar painted Portrait of Shri Shankerbhai V. Patel Near Red Fort around 1971, he had perfected his faux-naïf style. One might even go so far as stating that the foundations for Khakhar’s celebrated ‘Trade’ paintings lay in early works such as the current lot.