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BHUPEN KHAKHAR | Preparatory Study for The Celebration of Guru Jayanti

2,000,000 - 3,000,000 INR
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  • Bhupen Khakhar
  • Preparatory Study for The Celebration of Guru Jayanti
  • Signed in Gujarati lower right
  • Watercolour, dry pastel and pencil on paper laid on canvas
  • 149.9 x 221 cm. (59 x 87 in.)
  • Executed circa 1980


T. Hyman, Bhupen Khakhar, Chemould Publications and Arts, Bombay, 1998, illustration p. 57


Staining, large creases, losses and tears to the paper throughout. Yellowing and spots of foxing are present due to the work's age and medium. Accretions and light surface dirt are also visible upon close inspection. This work has recently been cleaned, consolidated, reinforced and flattened by a professional restorer and is currently in stable condition. Please note this work has not been inspected outside its frame by Sotheby's.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.


‘In this large drawing, many small ones are fused… The wedding-couple are placed far back, in front of the garlanded porch, which garlanded car awaiting. They seem curiously isolated; around them stretches a blank terrain before we reach the musicians on the right, and the cooks below them. The real emotional focus of the drawing is the left margin, with its array of lounging men, and in the foreground, the large unobstructed figure of a bespectacled man in white kurta-pyjama, who could be the artist himself.’ (T. Hyman, Bhupen Khakhar, Chemould Publications and Arts, Bombay, 1998, p. 57) In England in 1979, during his stay at Howard Hodgkin’s Wiltshire home, Bhupen Khakhar and his fellow artist discussed the modest scale of their works. Artist, writer, curator and friend of Khakhar, Timothy Hyman, notes the significance of this exchange: ‘Half-humourously, they challenged one another to create an eight-footer. In Khakhar’s case, the result would be The Celebration of Guru Jayanti, his largest and possibly his finest picture so far.’ (ibid, p. 56) This famous and vast oil on canvas, the colourful vignettes of which took almost eight months to complete, has tragically been lost. The current lot, an exquisite brush and ink study of the finished piece, is therefore of immense consequence to Khakhar’s surviving body of work.

In Italy, during Khakhar’s first trip abroad in 1976, the artist travelled to the Ducal Palace in Mantua, to see Andrea Mantegna’s fifteenth-century frescoed chamber, the Camera degli Sposi. The walls of the hall, also known as the Bridal Chamber, show a collection of illusionistic scenes of Ludovico III Gonzaga’s family and court. Mantegna’s multitude of figures, the theme of celebration, and the disjointed nature of the vignettes, were to influence Khakhar in the development of the present work and subsequent Guru Jayanti.

There is a wealth of compositional similarities between the current lot and the final painting. Both depict clearly demarcated scenes of human activity, all separated by a wide area of sparse, flat space, against a backdrop of a composite townscape. The difference is what is being celebrated. In line with the Bridal Chamber of Mantua’s Ducal Palace, the celebration of the preliminary study is the marriage of the couple seated before the distant central building, whereas in Guru Jayanti, as indicated by the title, it is the visit of the eponymous guru, seated to the right of the composition. These celebrations are, however, the same, in not really being celebrations at all. Indeed, in comparing the two works, Hyman notes ‘while the subject of celebration switched… from marriage-pair to Guru’s Nameday, the essential perspective remained; from the beginning, it was not the isolated protagonist, but the “inconsequential” crowd that was the real concern’. (ibid, p. 57)

Discussing his vast canvas of Guru Jayanti, Khakhar later recalled “I was thinking about Isaac Babel’s story, about the crucifixion of Christ; one person who is watching the event, and all the time complains about his toothache! Now here I am painting a guru, who carries out this important ceremony in this little town, but the people take hardly any notice of him… The ground in front of him is covered with flower petals… but the people are not aware of him.” (B. Khakhar quoted in ibid, p. 57-8) Similarly, the small and remote figures of the wedding-couple are alone but for their waiting wedding car. The everyday life of ordinary people continues around them; in the foreground, men laze obliviously on the left, whilst a group of figures busily cook on the right.

“Right from the beginning I was interested in… the place I live, the people with whom I move, my friends… the exotic thing in the painting… doesn’t interest me that much because the novelty… wares out very easily. While our day-to-day things... the person sitting on the chair talking or combing his hair… totally unaware… is what interests me –  how they look in their own surroundings”. (B. Khakhar in T. Ali, ‘Rear Window – Bhupen Khakhar – An Indian Painter in Paris’, https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2gfs36, 5:51-6:45)

Guru Jayanti was finished in 1980 and is the precursor to Khakhar’s much-celebrated works, You Can’t Please All (1981) and Two Men in Benares (1982). The former was the namesake and centrepiece of the artist’s major retrospective at Tate Modern, London, in 2016. In this canvas, despite the dominance of man who stands nude on his balcony (widely believed to be the artist himself), the smaller figures he looks out upon – riding a donkey, fixing a car, or even constructing a building in the far distance – are of equal importance in the composition.  ‘Here, figure and setting, the individual and society, are brought together with equal status, and in such a way as to enhance one another’s meaning’. (Hyman, Bhupen Khakhar, p. 68) Thus, the chronicles of daily existence seen in Guru Jayanti are again a subject of close attention.

Hyman concludes that ‘Guru Jayanti and its successor You Can’t Please All might be seen as the fulfilment of the Baroda “project”’, in which artists were driven by a rediscovery ‘of deep space, of narrative, of the world and its depictions’. (ibid, p. 60) This project was pursued by Khakhar and Nilima and Gulam Mohammed Sheikh in Baroda, and, more widely, by Sudhir Patwardhan, Nalini Malani and Gieve Patel in Bombay, and Vivan Sundaram and Jogen Chowdhury in Delhi. A painter whose influence is readily seen in Guru Jayanti, is the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance master, Peter Breughel the Elder. His densely populated paintings depict throngs of people individually absorbed in their own activity, a centuries-old model for Khakhar’s own vignettes.

Discussing Khakhar’s Tate retrospective, Geeta Kapur powerfully summarised the artistic motivations of the painter. ‘Bhupen Khakhar followed a simple credo: that art-and-life must remain hyphenated. As a result, his drawings, paintings and stories are diversely populated… He stages allegories in his great… paintings: The Celebration of Guru Jayanti 1980… You Can’t Please All 1981…. and The Goldsmith 1997…’ (G. Kapur, ‘Mortality Morbidity Masquerade’, C. Dercon and N. Raza, Bhupen Khakhar: You Can't Please All, Tate Publishing, London, 2016, p. 159) As with many of his greatest works, the current lot and its charming figural details demonstrate Khakhar’s exceptional skill as both a painter and storyteller. Reminiscing about his former career as a writer, Khakhar reflects “… now I’m including my stories in painting and I’m quite happy about it… what one misses in one direction, one gains in another one…” (Khakhar quoted in Ali, ‘Rear Window – Bhupen Khakhar – An Indian Painter in Paris’, 4:02-4:15 min.)