Bhupen Khakhar (India, 1934-2003) Man in Pub Man in Pub

Love in a cold climate

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 49, Winter 2016

Page 8

Love in a cold climate

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 49, Winter 2016

Page 8

Even in bleak 1970s Britain, Bhupen Khakhar found color and light. Amit Chaudhuri applauds his painterly inventions

Bhupen Khakhar first visited Britain in 1976. It wasn't a good time for Britain; its economy had long been hovering around breaking point, and it had emerged only two years earlier from the three-day week, a period of extreme austerity, curtailed electricity usage, and cold and darkness. Asians were suddenly 'everywhere', many of them displaced from Uganda – running corner shops, incarnated as the neighborhood newsagent. The neo-fascist National Front was not only active, it had reached a new peak in enrolment. Khakhar found the milieu – to put it in his mild, forgiving terminology – 'cold'.

He had English admirers, though: the artist and critic Timothy Hyman and that great and visionary user of color Howard Hodgkin. It was Hodgkin that Khakhar stayed with in Wiltshire when he revisited England in 1979. Another bad year: Britain was on an awkward cusp, between the catastrophic rule of trade unions, the streets strewn with uncollected rubbish bags because of the strike during the 'winter of discontent', and the triumphal advent of Margaret Thatcher. By now, Khakhar had found something valuable in England – the leeway given there to homosexual relationships; the warmth between men in an otherwise cold climate – the same sort of reasons (except they were expressed more dramatically) that had drawn Christopher Isherwood and W H Auden to Berlin 50 years before.

Khakhar, of course, was gay; as is Hodgkin. This, besides Khakhar's unique painterly idiom, forms the background to the 1979 painting Man in Pub, which is being offered at the Bonhams Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art sale in November.

Khakhar was born in 1934 and raised in a Gujarati family in Bombay, in an area called Khetwadi. His father, an engineer, died when Bhupen was still a child. I grew up in Bombay, and my impression of Khetwadi from the visits I made there as a boy was that it was firmly removed from the Bombay renowned for its skyline, sea, and the Marine Drive; from the tall buildings and art deco houses of what is today called South Bombay; from even the Christian and 'East Indian' ethos of Bandra. Khetwadi, beyond Nana Chowk and Grant Road, represented a confluence between old, often mercantile, settlements and the bazaar. The Gujaratis are a close-knit, ingenious, hardworking, mostly business-oriented community, though they have consistently produced mavericks – Gandhi being one, Khakhar another.

Khakhar became a chartered accountant in 1956, but the painter Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh sensed his inchoate but powerful urge to be an artist and took him to the MS University in Baroda, from which he got an MA in Art Criticism in 1964.

The autobiographical artist does not turn to their own life for their material because they one day begin to believe that the life is important. They do so precisely in recognition of the fact that the unimportance of who they are and what formed them exercises a greater compulsion for them than canonical experiences and themes.

They realize that their life comprises the very opposite of what they presumed to be the 'proper' material for art or literature, and it is addressing this paradox that energizes their creativity. As a result, the autobiographical artist has no 'themes', because 'themes' belong to a domain that's already recognized; all they have is a cluster of moments and scenes.

The sui generis, and endlessly absorbing, quality of Khakhar's work from the late 1960s onward comes from the way he grapples, painting after painting, with the luminous unimportance of Khetwadi and Baroda – the byways, façades, terraces, balconies, walls, and windows of the semi-urban or provincial microcosm; the clothes drying or arranged on a table, folded; the watch being repaired by the watch repairer; the barber in De-Luxe Saloon; the tailor with the tape measure falling from either side of his neck; the funnel of fluorescent light. There's nothing in this subject matter that says it is worthy of art, yet Khakhar returns to it obsessively. It would be a mistake to insist that homosexuality was in some way Khakhar's true subject: sex has the same mix of small-town dailiness and magical unexpectedness in his work as everything else does. Both clothes and bodies recur in his work, and resemble each other in their softness and tactility.

From his formative years in Khetwadi, with its confluence of town and bazaar, comes Khakhar's memory of kitsch. For the post-Independence Hindu Indian conversant with the bazaar, the sacred is often cherished as kitsch (a figure or calendar print of Ganesh or Shiva, say, or a bathroom tile imprinted with a god), and, for a painter, it needn't be an arduous journey, imaginatively, to go in the opposite direction, towards a place where kitsch is sacred.

With Khakhar's paintings, you don't stand and look into a scene that recedes from you because of perspective and depth (though the pictures don't lack perspective); nor do you look across, from left to right, at figures arrayed as if during a curtain call. Instead, even if there's a dominant figure, you look from bottom to top, top to bottom, and then rotate your vision clockwise and anti-clockwise, to take in figures, material objects, windows, terraces, streets.

Each painting has a peculiar cosmology. Many of the canvases have narrative elements – sometimes using panels, as in Man in Pub, but even here what we're presented with is not so much a story as a constellation, and our gaze must rotate, searching, studying, and finding coherence, rather than simply looking in and appraising. The antecedents of these figurative works lie not in the 19th-century European portrait, but in cosmological depictions of the spiritual progress of gods and saints, whose offshoots in modern India are pilgrimage charts and calendars.

Even in Man in Pub, in which Khakhar attempts to distil the character and loneliness of Britain in 1979, we notice this eccentric cosmological urge, this ambition of creating a quasi-universe that's at once provincial, banal, and spiritual. Khakhar's fascination with the essential yieldingness of both bodies and clothes – the flaccidity of the jacket's collar, of the gloves, of the unworn trousers draped on the chair, of the man leaning on a sofa – is present here, as it would be in his 'Indian' paintings. In his preoccupation with softness and with the unresisting, Khakhar – like some of the most gifted modern Indian figurative painters, such as Amrita Sher-Gil and K G Subramanyan – is rebelling against the finality of form that realism gives us, and is furtively exploring the formless. This explains, too, his fascination in this painting, as in Janata Watch Repairing, with that funnel of electric light, as well as the way he notes steam rising from a kettle. And to his preference for looseness over rigidity we can also relate his love of Sienese painting, with its Byzantine lineage and its lack of interest in the psychological realism of the Renaissance.

Hodgkin realized as early as 1968, when he visited Delhi to attend the first Triennale-India, that here was a painter he'd never heard of but whose originality and "authenticity shone out like the sound of a bell". It's now almost 50 years from that moment, and a good time to give Khakhar's exceptional, unselfconscious and completely independent-minded response to the problem of being a modern figurative painter its due. It is time, maybe, also to begin to engage with the modernity – consisting of Khetwadi, Bombay, MS University, Baroda, the Indian miniature, the paraphernalia of middle-class domestic life, the Indian poets and writers who adored Khakhar's work – that created both the painter and his reputation, long before the world's gaze began to focus on it.

Amit Chaudhuri is a novelist and professor at the University of East Anglia.

Sale: Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art
Tuesday 22 November at 2pm
Enquiries: Tahmina Ghaffar +44 (0) 20 7468 8382

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