Understanding Bhupen Khakhar

May 2017

UNDERSTANDING BHUPEN KHAKHAR

Earlier this year I travelled to Baroda, India to find out how the Indian painter Bhupen Khakhar had found his characteristic language.

I had seen his paintings, drawings and watercolours in the Berlin leg of his Tate retrospective at the Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle in January.

Night_f4f4f4Night, 1996, oil on canvas, 205.7 x 127 cm, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art New Delhi

Like this painting, Night (1996), most of his work was drawn from his everyday life in India. He had transformed what he witnessed on the streets of India into a means of high artistic expression. His confident aesthetic language seemed rooted in Western tradition yet these paintings were unmistakably the product of an Indian. This intrigued me.

Bhupen Khakhar began his life as an artist in India in the early 1960s. This was at a time, when the country’s newly found independence called for a comprehensive reorientation from the Indian artist. With the British no longer in power, it was time to critically re-examine the influences they had had on Indian art. The Western academic style the British had taught in India’s art schools was no longer relevant. Initially introduced so that the English could have their portraits painted in a style they knew from home, it was not a native language. On the other hand, the traditional Indian styles that had persisted during the colonial period were not suited to a globally oriented 20th century artist. Largely untouched by the artistic revolutions of modern art in the West, they seemed outdated and nostalgic. However, the Company Style, a hybrid of traditional Indian art and European influences that had evolved during the 18th and 19th centuries seemed to Bhupen Khakhar a good step towards finding a language at once Indian and modern.

Portrait_of_East_India_Company_official_f4f4f4Portrait of an East Indian Company Official by Dip Chand, 1764, watercolour, 26.2 × 22.6 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum

Tailor_f4f4f4The De-Luxe Tailors, 1972, oil on canvas, 190 × 86 cm, Howard Hodgkin Collection

The De-Luxe Tailors, painted in 1972, was one of Khakhar’s first works in his own distinct voice. If one compares it to the Company Style painting above, his achievement becomes apparent. Bhupen Khakhar had found his answer to the call for an autonomous Indian language of art that was rooted firmly in the 20th century.

But how had he evolved an artistic development of this magnitude and what were the factors that had enabled this?

I decided to explore these questions by doing a video profile on him. Bhupen Khakhar had passed away in 2003. I would not be able to talk to him. But I could immerse myself in the atmosphere that had cultivated his art by visiting Baroda, the city in the western Indian state of Gujarat, where he had lived and worked from 1962 until his death. Bhupen Khakhar had spent his evenings strolling through the city’s markets gathering impressions of vendors and market goers to weave into his paintings. I could film these market scenes. For the video’s narrative I would interview someone who could talk to me about Bhupen Khakhar from an Indian perspective.

Before I left I arranged an interview with the cultural journalist and art critic Sadanand Menon. His authoritative words on the painter combined with images of the Barodan street life Khakhar had immersed himself in would serve as the foundation of my filmic exploration.

I flew to India in February. I booked a night train to Baroda and another onwards to Mumbai for the next night; 24 hours would be enough to get a feeling for the atmosphere of the city. I arrived in the middle of the night, slept a couple of hours in a hotel and set off to film. I asked tuk-tuk drivers to take me to places characteristic of the city.

It was hot but I took my time and by lunch I felt I had captured the footage I wanted of the city itself and had identified which markets to return to later. I decided it would be best to film the markets in the evening since that was the time Khakhar had visited them. In the meantime I would visit the local gallery, Sarjan, where Bhupen’s last exhibition was held while he was still alive. An important gallery for the development of Barodan art, I figured they might have tips on additional places to film. There, I met Hitesh Rana, the owner. He asked me to sit in his beautiful office and I explained my intentions. “I saw Bhupen almost every day of my life in his later years.” – “Could we have a talk about him on camera?” – “Of course.”     

After the interview Mr. Rana gave me two numbers, one of the painter Gulammohammed Sheikh and another of Dhaval Khakhar, Bhupen’s nephew, who now lives in the Baroda house Bhupen built for himself in the 70s. By now it was 3 pm. And my train was due at 11 pm. I could not pass up these opportunities. But I had to hurry. My phone was about to die so I slipped into the lobby of a nearby hotel to charge it and called Khakhar’s nephew. I got through – we arranged to meet at his house at 7. But no luck in reaching Mr. Sheikh.

Gulammohammed Sheikh (*1937) is a master Indian painter, poet and critic. It was he who had persuaded Bhupen Khakhar to move to Baroda from Mumbai to pursue a life as a painter. The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda had just introduced a Fine Arts Faculty that attracted motivated artists and teachers from all over the country. The city’s art scene was new, exciting and forward-looking. The task of this generation was to reinvent what it meant to be an Indian artist. Gulammohammed Sheikh, Bhupen Khakhar and their circle of Barodan artist friends took this challenge on and they did so together.

So, who better to interview about Bhupen’s artistic struggles and ambitions then Mr. Sheikh? For now however, all I could do was send him an SMS on my way to the market and hope for a reply. It was already late afternoon – time to film the vendors and shops Bhupen would have taken in on his walks.

Aware of the stir my filming in the market would make I decided to film the stalls from the relative distance of a traffic island on the other side of the street. There, I found my first subject, a man selling sweets. Just as I was asking his permission to film the stall, a gentleman in a pink shirt came up, set his bag down beside my tripod, put his hands on the vendor’s shoulders and laughingly turned him towards the camera. As he playfully bossed the poor man around he told me he would take care of directing the vendors to be filmed as he knew everyone from the market. Then he asked me to take his photo – for the first of many times in the following hour. I understood that my side of the deal was to shoot portraits of him and his friends. And sure enough, we worked our way down the market alley – portrait by portrait. It turned into something of an event.

As we both hopped into a tuk-tuk to find a watch store and a tailor to film, I received an SMS from Gulammohammed Sheikh, agreeing to meet me at 5 pm. This was in three quarters of an hour. It was going to be a close call, but I could not believe my luck. We spotted the shops I needed, it was an in-and-out operation and I hopped into yet another tuk-tuk, this time headed for Sheikh’s studio. The drive was a good 20 minutes, a welcome break to catch some breath, clean my lens and change the camera batteries.

I made it on time. Mr. Sheikh wasn’t there yet, but his assistants kindly offered me a cup of coffee and I waited, gathering my thoughts. This interview would need my full focus and I had been immersed in filming since the early morning. But as soon as Gulammohammed Sheikh entered the studio, I knew I need not worry – he radiated an authority that replaced any feeling of fatigue I had with excitement for what he was going to share with me. His assistants arranged the interview setting; I outfitted him with a microphone and switched on the camera.

After the interview I was late for my appointment with Khakhar’s nephew. Another tuk-tuk ride spent cleaning my lens and switching the batteries and I was at the house Bhupen lived and worked in for the last 28 years of his life. Dhaval opened the door and asked me in. Bhupen had designed the house to be both a studio and a home. The living room adjoined the studio, and in the studio stood his bed. I remembered a video I had seen of Bhupen casually seated on this bed talking to the great British painter Sir Howard Hodgkin. The bed however seemed to be the last remnant of the studio that was once there. The house had been transformed into a living space only and there was no point in filming it. Instead I drank tea with Dhaval and we talked about Bhupen. Dhaval, 30 years old, returned to Baroda from the US to look after the house, where he now lives. He mentioned how much stress his granduncle put on the importance of a good education and recalled his humour. He told me that Bhupen would often have people over while he painted. They were not artists, yet he would actively involve them in the process. He would ask them direct questions like: “What do you think of this colour?”, “Do you think this is right?” or “Do you like the painting?” I filmed Bhupen’s collection of drawings and paintings in the living room, thanked Dhaval for his hospitality and left for the station. My train was due in two hours.

A couple of days later Sadanand Menon cancelled the interview. It would have been interesting to talk to him, but the day in Baroda had already revealed more about Bhupen Khakhar’s background than I could have hoped for. I had wanted to get a feeling for the people and places that inspired Bhupen’s creativity, and, by lucky chance, I had met three people close to him. Hitesh Rana and Gulammohammed Sheikh were enthusiastic to share their experience of Bhupen Khakhar. Their dedication to promoting the painter and their willingness to do so at such short notice revealed something about the tight-knit and supportive Baroda art scene that had nurtured Khakhar’s development.

One of the last things Hitesh Rana told me was: “Bhupen Khakhar wanted to be a great painter, not just a good one.” This was a goal he had set himself from the beginning. As a Barodan artist, he was not alone in his mission. Because to achieve greatness as an artist at that time meant to rise to the challenge facing the generation: to find an authentically Indian language of art. And it was the momentum of this challenge that had given rise to the Barodan art scene of which Khakhar was a part. It was within this atmosphere of earnest dedication that Bhupen Khakhar was able to find his expression as a modern Indian painter.

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