For over forty years I had seen this painting hanging at the residence of the Mayor family, friends of Bhupen’s in Baroda. It is in line with images of ‘ordinary folk’, often small-time shop-keepers or petty traders which he painted in response to the 19th century 'firqa' paintings he had studied for his dissertation for a master’s degree in Art Criticism in 1963. Bhupen however upturned the colonial view of the exotic and often lifeless depictions of traders into lively and intimate portrayals imbued with a dauntless spirit to live their lives despite the challenges of their meagre earnings. Few artists before him in India had attempted to depict such subjects which Bhupen painted with elan, empathy and courage.
The painting shows two Muslim traders who have displayed their wares on an imagined pavement to sell and mend foot-wear against the backdrop of a closed shop, indicated through its outer framing of the painted scene. 'Sheikh Shoe Mart' is scribbled in multi-coloured letters in Gujarati on the top of a rolling shutter. The elderly man on the left sits atop a box covered with a dark drape watching the relatively younger man examining a bright red slipper with broken straps, one dangling and the other sticking out, bearing erotic undertones that Bhupen had by now come to infuse into small details. Between the men lies a little rack with a couple of bottles topped by a makeshift stand with the tools for mending. By the little rack two inexplicable 'objects' tease the eye: a 'wooden board' on the ground with splashes of colour and another form blazing between the box and the rack. The upper portion of the painting displays pairs of foot-wear in single file or in groups under two walking feet and a large, dark object, ostensibly a spread-out piece of hide. The business of painting allows him to introduce such mysteries in his otherwise faithful portrayals of situations. Bhupen, the accountant, enumerates each and every object he paints in close detail (and often previously drawn in his sumptuous sketchbooks) yet his ultimate motive is to transport the entire locale with its characters into the magical space he creates in his paintings for himself to share with them, forever.
It should be remembered, that Bhupen looked at these ordinary folk he painted as soul-mates who became his friends, and at times his lovers. So he paints them with extreme care and affection by touching them as though they were living beings. In a subtle way he also identifies his vocation of painting with the profession of his protagonists: both being manual and labour-intensive. This leads him to 'feel' the material of their craft as synonymous with his own 'material', his paint. In his overarchingly Gandhian pursuit to touch the pulse of his downtrodden characters he also reveals their little secrets that lie concealed in the materials they handle: the tiny hand of a watch repairer, cigarette in mouth, brings to you the ephemeral touch of the tiny dial of the watch he is repairing. I would like to venture saying that Bhupen squeezes the succulent material of their craft to glean their essence, the Rasa or the eternal elixir of creativity. Citing his friend Howard Hodgkin, Bhupen once referred to Velázquez’s Water-seller of Seville in which the painted surface of gigantic water pot seems to shimmer with a sensation of coolness. In The House of Sheikh Phul the Jehangiri painter Bishan Das reveals colour, texture and smell of the used, soiled or fresh garments worn by the characters. No one should feel surprised if the view of Sheikh Shoe Mart also begins to emit smells of a street shop with its leather goods and foot-wears.