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Bhupen Khakhar isn’t

India’s Beryl Cook. He’s
Bhupen Khakhar.
The Guardian’s review of the artist’s retrospective at the
Tate reeks of smugness and ignorance.

Posted by Deepanjana Pal | Jun 1, 2016 in Criticles | 1 Comment



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“You Can’t Please All”, Bhupen Khakhar, 1981

It’s taken 140 years, but we’ve 缠ᩪnally done it. We’ve got a
picture of the snark. On April Fools’ Day, in 1876, Lewis Carroll
published The Hunting of the Snark, an epic poem about a
mysterious creature that nine men (and a beaver) set out to
chase down. The original publication had illustrations by one
Henry Holiday. Unfazed by Carroll’s descriptions, which explain
that “the Snark was a Boojum, you see” and that it had “a
랤͌avour of Will-o’-the-wisp”, Holiday somehow managed to
come up with a drawing of the Snark. However, it was not
printed. Carroll told Holiday that he wanted the Snark to be
A little more than a century later, snark is all over the map. And
so it is that the veil of mystery that Carroll had so assiduously
kept in place, has now been removed. It pops up so often that
the secret is out: the snark is the critic-journalist in the 21st
century. Or its alter ego. Dr Bruce Banner has Hulk, the online
journalist has Snark.

Humans love naming things — it helps us with our illusion that

we’ve 缠ᩪgured it all out — and sooner rather than later, the
Tenties of the 21st century will be known as the Age of
Irreverence, the time when it became cooler to desecrate than
to idolise. There’s a lot to be said for this attitude, provided it
doesn’t come accessorised with arrogance and ignorance like
this dismissal of Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar by one of The
Guardian’s art critics, Jonathan Jones.

Jones has been with The Guardian since 1999 and was on the
Turner Prize in 2009. He’s known for being opinionated,
knowledgeable about Western art and savage in his criticism.
As the above article makes evident, we can add “ignorant
about Indian art and culture” and “obnoxious” to this list of
attributes. Giving the Tate Modern’s exhibition of Khakhar’s
paintings a one-star rating, Jones is less critic and more
rampaging snark in this artle. Here are a few choice excerpts:
Excerpt from Gujarat Files:
When Rana Ayyub met
“On the evidence of its latest Bankside exhibition, to be a truly
modern painter has (sic) to be a ham缠ᩪsted hack. Talented artists
need not apply.”

Outraged by Tanmay Bhat?

“Why are we supposed to be interested in this old-fashioned,
second-rate artist whose paintings are stuck in a timewarp of Watch Family Guy
1980s (sic) neo-缠ᩪgurative chic?” BY RAJYASREE SEN

“Whatever the thinking behind it, this show is a waste of space.” The curious case of Tanmay
Bhat on primetime
Jones’s article has everything the internet demands of writing
and journalism today. It’s short, aggressively opinionated,
written in a rush and attacking an institution. If only it had
Smriti Irani, what’s going on
another attribute that the internet o냘⇲ers to those who seek to
be enriched by it: perspective. with your ministry?

It’s not as though Jones is under any compulsion to love

Khakhar’s paintings, but to approach it from as narrow-minded NL Interviews: Rana Ayyub
and ill-informed a point of view as what’s on display in his on her new book Gujarat
review is a disservice to the exhibition, the readers and Jones’s
own reputation. Jones isn’t reviewing Khakhar’s retrospective Files
as an art critic. He’s viewing it with a Westerner’s gaze — with BY NL TEAM

all the smugness and pomposity that he can command. As a

result, all his reference points are from Western art history and
from the words that Jones has chosen, there’s evident rage at
Khakhar’s naked fakirs taking up space that Jones believes
should be occupied by British (and white) artists.

This article is made possible because of

Newslaundry's subscribers.

This is the bias and the conviction that Western culture is the
yardstick against which Others must be measured, that
postcolonial scholars have been beating their heads against
for decades. You’d think it would be unnecessary to point this
out in the 21st century, when the internet is turning the world
into a global village, but if Jones’s article is any indication, the
road is long for postcolonial theorists.

“That must be why Howard Hodgkin, David Hockney and Frank

Auerbach have to make do with retrospectives at Tate Britain,
while the incredibly unimpressive Indian painter Bhupen
Khakhar, who died in 2003, is glori缠ᩪed as an important modern
artist in the hallowed…Tate Modern,” writes Jones at one point
in his review. Later, he likens Khakhar to RB Kitaj, Joe Tilson
and Tom Philips — all British artists. The only detail that Jones
is able to appreciate is a “funny caricature of an Englishman in
a pub”. Imagine that: in an exhibition full of scenes from Indian
lives, the one 缠ᩪgure that struck Jones was that of an
Englishman. That’s how narrow-minded Jones is while viewing
Khakhar’s retrospective.

Jones’s idea of broadening his perspective is to look to

Scotland (“Khakhar’s paintings made me think particularly of
the Scottish artist Stephen Campbell, whose narrative pictures
are similarly big and boring.”) and America (“…the Robert
Mapplethorpe of Mumbai he ain’t. More like the Beryl Cook.”).

Because heaven forbid Jones see Khakhar as a distinctive artist

who has nothing to do with Western art and therefore doesn’t
need to be squished to 缠ᩪt the moulds created by the likes of
Campbell, Mapplethorpe and Cook. Why bother to look at
Indian art history and the society that Khakhar was responding
to and the conventions he rejected, with everything from his
stature as a self-taught artist to his homosexual identity and
his cheekiness? Best to dismiss all this. To keep any of it in
mind, Jones would have to look a little beyond the West that is
at the centre of the art world as Jones sees it. Only, according
to Jones, that would display “some misplaced notion that non-
European art needs to be looked at with special critical
generosity”. So Jones casually casts Khakhar, a towering 缠ᩪgure
in the history of modern Indian art, as a two-bit artist, hovering
on the periphery, inching towards the centre through the
gateway that is Tate Modern in London. Rule, Britannia!

There’s a certain illiteracy that some Western critics and

publications show towards India and the non-West that’s
astounding. Take this review of the same show, for example.
It’s full of praise, but if you scroll down, you’ll see that there’s a
reference to “Ghandi”. Much like The Guardian, which let
Jones’s article be published despite missing words and dodgy
syntax, The Telegraph too couldn’t be bothered to do a basic
copy edit of the review.

If Jones had published the article that’s masquerading as a

review on The Guardian as a personal blog post, it wouldn’t be
worth much more than a couple of tsks. To his claim that
Khakhar is a “second-rate artist”, one could easily lob the
counter-claim that Jones has no taste. Or that he should make
an appointment with a neurologist because anyone who
describes Khakhar’s paintings as “staid” either doesn’t know
the meaning of the word or is brain-damaged. (One would
assume Jones knows the meaning of the word; hence the

But Jones’s article is not a personal blog post. It’s an article by a

writer who is on the sta냘⇲ of a reputed newspaper. From him,
one expects critical perspective and insight, rather than just

Khakhar’s paintings are not pretty, as Jones as observed.

They’re awkward, dazzling, con랤͌icted and crowded with
colours, stories and ideas. They don’t conform to conventions,
artistic or social. They’re teeming with details that have been
lovingly and meticulously painted. Tableaux that seem
haphazard are actually carefully choreographed. Colours that
seem to bleed spontaneously highlight very particular aspects
of the scene being depicted. The curve of the arm, the
direction of a gaze, the intensity of a shade — everything adds
a layer to the story being told. A story that’s as real as it is
imaginary, because Khakhar, with his amazing empathy and
ability to make friends, was a collector of stories.

Khakhar’s paintings are revelations about us as a society, the

role of the artist, and the emotional tangle that tautens when
an artist chooses his own life as his subject. His paintings show
an India that doesn’t exist any more — the India before
globalisation — and Khakhar recorded its details with an
accountant’s eye before representing with the colourful
irreverence of his artist self. Often, Khakhar’s India is exotic,
but it’s exotica that glints with self-awareness and rarely has
any hint of prettiness. Yet, it’s beautiful, for all its chaos,
ugliness and weird alignments.

Perhaps because he had to grapple with having multiple

identities as a gay man in the 1980s, Khakhar was keenly
aware of the hybrid that is India. That’s what makes his
paintings special, whether or not one ‘likes’ them. And here’s
the real shame. Jones, with his stubborn refusal to allow the
centre to perhaps shift a few steps east of Britannia, can only
see an artist who doesn’t belong in the British artist canon.

Khakhar isn’t either the Beryl Cook of Bombay or the

Mapplethorpe of Mumbai or a parallel to any other artist. He’s
Bhupen Khakhar and that Jones can’t unblinker himself to
appreciate that is a shame.

The author can be contacted on Twitter @dpanjana

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