These rare and early landscapes reflect the artist’s proclivity towards the foliage, verdant imagery and flat picture planes of Indian miniature painting, in particular that of the Kangra and Kota schools. In line with the miniature tradition, in Tiger and Stag, Khakhar deploys multiple perspectives at once, depicting scenes and happenings that occur beyond a single vantage point. Behind the vicious tiger and fleeing stag spreads an extensive landscape of exaggerated hilltops replete with thick and luscious vegetation, and a rose-tinted mystical cityscape, completed by a vivid blue body of water. The predator and prey powerfully recall the dynamic hunting scenes popular in Indian miniatures.
The faux-naive perspective of Tiger and Stag – as with Khakhar’s other works from the time and indeed beyond – is also indebted to the artist’s passionate identification with the French painter, Henri Rousseau, who he had studied at the Faculty of Fine Art in Baroda. Like so many twentieth century painters before him, including Fernand Léger and Max Beckmann, Khakhar found in Rousseau a guide to a new kind of representation, which had no taint of academic naturalism. Rousseau was a largely self-taught painter and Bhupen found his art unintimidating: “I felt very much at ease with his work. Rousseau was not doing academic drawing. Because of my awkwardness I could relate to him.” (B. Khakhar quoted in T. Hyman, Bhupen Khakhar, Chemould Publications and Arts, Bombay, 1998, p. 41) Khakhar thus developed a cleanly executed and brightly colored painting style reminiscent of his French predecessor.
Khakhar’s early landscapes are evocative of Rousseau’s jungle paintings; each leaf, branch and flower is painted with a loving intensity. Tiger and Stag is best compared with Rousseau’s The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope (1905) – eponymous predator and prey are depicted in the very foreground against a crisp, stylised backdrop.
Timothy Hyman, discussing Khakhar’s debt to the French painter, asks his reader, ‘[his] pictures may be Rousseauesque in style, but should we call his imagery “innocent”?’ (Hyman, ibid, p. 45), and cites Geeta Kapur’s statement from 1978 that she found ‘more wit than innocence in [Khakhar’s] perceptions’ (G. Kapur quoted in ibid) There is indeed a clever meaning behind Khakhar’s fanciful imagery, as explained in the case of Tiger and Stag inside the artist’s 1972 self-designed exhibition catalogue Truth is beauty and beauty is God. Khakhar produced this catalogue for his 1972 exhibition at Gallery Chemould, Bombay, ‘in the form of an extremely tawdry and mean-looking diary, with a frightful flora cover. …There follows a ridiculous account of Khakhar’s life (including a previous incarnation) and philosophic convictions (“How I became an Artist? The short answer would be through God’s grace, sheer work and tragedy”); all interspersed with Khakhar posing with a European girl in feeble spoof cigarette-ads.’ (Hyman, ibid)
Khakhar offers four clues as to the possible interpretations of Tiger and Stag: “A richman attacking a poor man”; “India an undeveloped country, threatened by a developed country”; “[t]he slightest unawareness leads to death”; “Might is stronger than right”. (B. Khakhar, Truth is Beauty and Beauty is God, Gallery Chemould, Mumbai, 1972, unpaginated) These symbolic meanings are closely tied to the political upheavals taking place in India and the world at the time. Tiger and Stag was concurrent with bitter conflicts: the Vietnam War, the Portuguese Colonial War in Africa and, closer to home, the Pakistan/Bangladesh war. At home, India was on the verge of insolvency with lender countries mounting pressure; the “undeveloped country… threatened by a developed country” as Khakhar described. In contrast to the serious meanings offered by Khakhar, his entry in the catalogue goes on to note that the image of the tiger and stag was borrowed from the “[c]over of a fire cracker by Dada & Co.” (ibid) Khakhar’s playful tendency to draw inspiration from found objects, as seen in a literal sense in his collage works of the 1960s, now finds expression in painterly form.
The dream-like composition of Tiger and Stag illustrates a multitude of past influences and simultaneously indicates the origins of Khakhar’s more mature artistic style. The beauty of Bhupen Khakhar’s œuvre ultimately lies in its dual nature: his works are sophisticated and nuanced, whilst also exhibiting a simple and unaffected honesty.
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