On the occasion of the Bhupen Khakar retrospective at Tate Modern in 2016, Shanay Jhaveri, who was then curator of South Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, spoke to the artist Howard Hodgkin about his love of Khakar's work and the enduring friendship the two artists shared over the years. Ahead of the Howard Hodgkin, Portrait of the Artist sale on 24 October at Sotheby's in London, we share an extract from their conversation.
BHUPEN KHAKHAR AND HOWARD HODKIN IN HODGKIN'S GARDEN IN WILTSHIRE, CIRCA 1982. PHOTOGRAPH © ANTHONY STOKES.
Shanay Jhaveri: When did you meet Bhupen Khakhar for the first time?
Howard Hodgkin: It was at the first Triennale-India in New Delhi in 1968. During my visit I went to see the art critic and curator Geeta Kapur, who I knew slightly. She asked me what I thought of the exhibition. I told her I thought it was all rubbish – except for three pictures. She said: "That’s very interesting, the painter who did them is standing right here." That was how I met Bhupen.
SJ: What was it about his pictures that struck you?
HH: I felt they were the only ones there that were original. They had their own identity. They were three narrative pictures. Their authenticity shone out like a sound of a bell in this terrible, crowded exhibition.
SJ: And that meeting initiated a lifelong friendship between you…
HH: Oh yes, it did.
BHUPEN KHAKAR, HOWARD HODGKIN'S HOUSE ON HAND PAINTED CUSHION, 1979. ESTIMATE: £100,000—150,000.
SJ: I know that his trips to England in 1976 and, in particular, 1979, when he stayed with you, were very important for him personally. He said after that second visit he could appreciate how people – how men – could relate and live together. I think the experience of being in England was quite significant for him in that sense.
HH: I'm sure it was. I'm amazed by what you've just said, because I hadn't come out as homosexual. I thought Bhupen was gay, but I was not at all sure about that.
SJ: At the time you were living with your wife and children in Wiltshire.
HH: Yes, indeed, and he liked the family scene very much.
SJ: He was always a very social person; he had numerous friends and liked to surround himself with people of all different types, from different strata of society. Did you spend time with him at his home in Baroda?
HH: A little, in the beginning. I remember I was very impressed by seeing underwear hanging on the wall, like a picture, on a little wire coat hanger. It belonged to a boyfriend and was made of black silk. I couldn’t understand why… but it made me look at him with new interest.
SJ: I know that Geeta Kapur played quite a crucial role in helping Bhupen to get his first exhibition at Anthony Stokes’s gallery in London.
HH: Yes, that’s true. I was jealous, because I couldn’t get an exhibition anywhere at that time. I got Bhupen a job teaching at the Bath Academy of Art, which was a very distinguished local residential art school. There were already many artists, such as William Scott, Peter Lanyon, Jack Smith, Kenneth Armitage and Gillian Ayres, teaching there. I think Bhupen liked that.
BHUPEN KHAKHAR, UNTITLED (PORTRAIT OF HOWARD HODGKIN), 1984. ESTIMATE: £8,000—12,000.
SJ: Did he tell you much about his impressions of England at that time?
HH: He hated the cold weather. He never said anything about men living with other men, but he did say he was painting an enormous picture with portraits of everybody he’d ever slept with. I was very impressed by that. He asked me, ‘Would you do the same?’ and I said, ‘Well, my picture would be much smaller than yours.’ I’d only just begun to accept that I was gay.
SJ: How do you think people in the UK reacted to his work when he first showed here? David Hockney’s pictures get mentioned when they look at Bhupen’s, but I think there is quite a difference between them – in the way they represent bodies.
HH: An enormous difference; I think it’s the homosexuality in David’s pictures that makes a link.
SJ: Bhupen's pictures are more fragile. They are about embrace and touch. They’re not about physical beauty, in the same way as Hockney’s, I feel.
HH: Yes, I think that's very good…
BHUPEN KHAKHAR, DE-LUXE TAILORS, 1972. ESTIMATE: £250,000—350,000.
SJ: If we refer back to the Indian context, Bhupen was doing something completely different from everybody in terms of painting. There were narrative painters, but the kind of subject matter he dealt with and his use of colour were distinct. His art also evolved over time. There's something very interesting in that stylistic shift from those early, meticulous pictures to the looseness that starts to arrive in his work in the late 1980s and 1990s.
HH: It’s something that makes his paintings very separate from the work of other artists, both English and Indian.
SJ: Is there a particular picture of his that has a personal significance for you?
HH: The De-Luxe Tailors, which he gave to me.
SJ: That painting is from his Tradesmen series – particularly poignant, because it depicts men doing ordinary jobs. In Indian art history they had never before been the subject of paintings. And then he treats them with such respect. They were not only the subject of the painting, but also his friends?
HH: And lovers, in some cases.
BHUPEN KHAKAR, UNTITLED, 1975. ESTIMATE: £10,000—15,000.
SJ: Why do you think there’s been such a gradual awakening to Bhupen’s practice generally, even in India? When he died he had shown at the Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, and he had reached a degree of acclaim, but it's only now, 12 years after his death, that Tate is doing a show.
HH: Because he's a very original artist. Simple as that. But I also thought how extremely sad that he didn't live long enough to see his work becoming sought after.
MAIN IMAGE: BHUPEN KHAKAR, HOWARD HODGKIN'S HOUSE ON HAND PAINTED CUSHION, 1979. ESTIMATE: £100,000—150,000.