& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Truly, you can't please all

Rushdie by Khakhar
The London Guardian has given a bad review of Bhupen Khakhar’s (1935-2003) exhibition (You can’t please all at Tate Modern), and it has expectedly given heartburns to the art fraternity in India.


A stray bad review by an art critic will not make or destroy the monumental reputation that Bhupen Khakhar justifiably enjoys.  

I’m reading Anton Joseph, Salman Rushdie’s memoir of his harrowing days in the hiding from the Iranian fatwa following the publication of the Satanic Verses.

Rushdie and Khakhar shared close bonds, and Khakhar also features as a character in The Moor’s Last Sigh. Although they were friends, and even if we agree that the author’s opinion about the painter’s greatness would be biased, the memoir gives a keen insight into Khakhar’s significance to Indian art.

Rushdie says, “Finding an Indian idiom that was neither folkloric nor derivative had not been easy, and Bhupen had been one of the first to succeed, looking at the street art of India, the movie posters, the painted shop fronts, and at the figurative and narrative traditions of Indian painting, and creating out of that visual environment an oeuvre of idiosyncrasy, originality and wit.”

Read the passage from the book for a better understanding of Khakhar, and Rushdie’s endearing narrative skills.

The BBC made a documentary about The Moor’s Last Sigh and commissioned his friend the Indian painter Bhupen Khakhar to paint his portrait for the film. It was a novel about his painters and painting and his friendships with a generation of gifted Indian artists – with Bhupen himself above all – had allowed him to think of writing it. They had first met in the early 1980s and each of them had at once seen himself in the other and they had quickly become friends. Soon after their first meeting he went to Bhupen’s show at the Kasmin Knoedler gallery in London. In his pocket was a check (cheque) for a story he had just sold to The Atlantic Monthly. At the show he fell in love with Bhupen’s Second Class Railway Compartment and when he discovered that the price tag was exactly the same as the figure on the check in his pocket (Indian art was cheaper then) he had happily turned his story into his friend’s painting, and it had remained one of his most prized possessions ever since. It was hard for contemporary Indian artists to escape the influence of the West (in an earlier generation M. F. Husain’s famous horses had leaped straight out of Picasso’s Guernica, and the work of many of the other big names – Souza, Raza, Gaitonde – was too deeply indebted for his liking to modernism and Western developments in the abstraction). Finding an Indian idiom that was neither folkloric nor derivative had not been easy, and Bhupen had been one of the first to succeed, looking at the street art of India, the movie posters, the painted shop fronts, and at the figurative and narrative traditions of Indian painting, and creating out of that visual environment an oeuvre of idiosyncrasy, originality and wit.

At the heart of The Moor’s Last Sigh was the idea of the palimpsest, a picture concealed beneath another picture, a world hidden beneath another world. Before he was born his parents had hired a young Bombay painter to decorate his future nursery with fairy-tale and cartoon animals and the impoverished artist Krishen Khanna had accepted the commission. He had also painted a portrait of the unborn Salman’s beautiful young mother, Negin, but her husband, Anis, hadn’t like it and refused to buy it. Khanna stored his rejected canvas at his friend Husain’s studio and one day Husain painted a picture on his own over it, and sold it. So somewhere in Bombay there was a portrait of Negin Rushdie by Krishen, who of course, grew up to be one of the leading artists of his generation, concealed beneath a picture by Husain. Krishen said, “Husain knows where every picture of his has ended up, but won’t say.” The BBC tried to get him to say, ut the old man angrily tapped his cane on the floor and denied that the story was true. “Of course it’s true,” Krishen said. “He’s just worried that you want to destroy his painting to find your mother’s portrait, and he’s offended that you’re looking for my picture and you don’t care about his.” In the end he had come to think that the portrait was more evocative lost than found – lost, it was a beautiful mystery; found, it might have proved that Anis Rushdie’s artistic judgement had been correct, and that then apprentice Khanna hadn’t done a very good job – and he called off the search.

He sat for Bhupen in a studio in Edwardes Square, Kensington, and told him the story of the lost picture. Bhupen giggled delightedly and worked away. His portrait was being painted hi profile in the tradition of Indian court portraits, and like a good nawab he wore a see-through shirt, only his, painted by Bhupen, looked more like nylon than sheer cotton. Bhupen began drawing in a single movement, a charcoal profile that caught an exact likeness with effortless skill. The painting that covered this single charcoal line looked in some ways less like its subject and more like the character of Moor Zogoiby in the novel. “It’s a painting of you both,” Bhupen said. “You as the Moor and the Moor as you.” So there was a lost portrait beneath this portrait too.

The completed painting was eventually acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, and Bhupen became the first Indian artist to have a work hanging there. Bhupen died on August 6, 2003, on the same day as Negin Rushdie. There was no escape from coincidence, though the meaning of such synchronicity remained elusive. He lost a friend and a mother on the same day. That was meaning enough.

Read the Jonathan Jones’s review in The Guardian here: Mumbai’s answer to Beryl Cook

Read Amit Chaudhuri’s essay on Bhupen Khakhar also in The Guardian here: Bombay dreams: how painter Bhupen Khakhar captured the city spirit

Read Indian art fraternity’s reaction to Jones’s negative review here: Indian Artists Respond to Review Mocking Bhupen Khakhar Show at Tate

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