20 June, 2016Issue 31.2Visual Arts

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Khetwadi Hush

William Ghosh

Bhupen Khakhar
You Can’t Please All

Until 6 November
Tate Modern, Bankside

In a 1962 New Yorker profile of R.K. Narayan, the essayist Ved Mehta coined the phrase “Malgudi hush”. “Malgudi” – the setting for each of Narayan’s novels – was a small, fictional town in South India: “an infinitely simple place” whose “landmarks – the Albert Mission College, the Regal Haircutting Saloon, the railway station, the temple […] – all, from book to book, chaotically change position.” The “hush” referred to the quietness of these provincial towns: between the silence of the village and the cacophony of the city. For Narayan, this “halfway house between a static village and an anonymous industrial city’ was the ‘birthplace of a good novel.”

Bhupen Khakhar was born in Khetwadi, in Maharashtra, in 1934. Like Narayan, a Tamil who lived in Mysore, Karnataka, Khakhar – from a Gujarati family – did not grow up in his ancestral or linguistic homeland. Also like Narayan, he was (in Mehta’s words) an ‘homme de ville’, “happily urbanized,” yet more at home in a provincial than in a metropolitan setting. “Although it was notionally in South Bombay,” Amit Chaudhuri writes, Khetwadi was “distinct from it […] a small town in a big city, one of the many provincial settlements in a Bombay that made claims to be a great cosmopolitan metropolis.”

After initially training as an accountant, Khakhar studied art criticism at the Baroda School of Art, again (at that time) a small provincial town. Baroda provided the source material for some of his first mature works, his “trade paintings” (as he called them) of the early 1970s. These portraits – of a barber’s shop, a tailor, a watchmaker – recall the simplified landmarks Mehta picked out in Malgudi. Painted as if from the street, the square canvas of Barber’s Shop (1973) shows the barber, tall and rigid, staring out at the viewer, while the customer looks away, absorbed by his own image in the mirror. The “WEL-COM” and “Good-Luck” signs over the door and in the doormat suggest transience and traffic, but the barber here is isolated from the customer, from the street and from the viewer. Depicting contiguity but not closeness, loneliness but not anonymity, it is an arresting portrayal of the melancholy of the provincial high-street.

The title-piece of a major new retrospective – which runs at the Tate Modern until November 6th – develops this theme. You Can’t Please All (1981) shows a single, nude man, in the foreground on a raised balcony, looking down on a provincial street scene below him. A man’s torso disappears under the bonnet of a broken-down car; two men talk; two sit on a donkey; through a window a group can be seen at prayer; a child is seen trying to beat down an orange from a tree. The title of the painting is taken from one of Aesop’s fables, in which two men are successively ridiculed and censored for walking beside, then riding, a donkey. The moral, Khakhar concludes in a video accompanying the picture, is that “if you can’t please all you might as well please yourself.” In one sense, the man at the front of the picture does please himself: he is naked and at leisure. But he is also detached from the life of the village, high up on his balcony, leant behind a grey-stone balcony to hide his nakedness from the public gaze.

Dovetailing their interest in townscapes and the provincial, the curators give similar emphasis to the homosexuality of the artist. If small-town life is generically lonely, it can be singularly lonely – or so these paintings suggest – for gay people. Khakhar was openly homosexual and male figures dominate throughout his work, but his portrayals of same-sex love become more explicit in his middle age. Khakhar’s fascination with the penis becomes an object of self-satire in his An Old Man from Vasad who had Five Penises Suffered from Running Nose (1995), whilst Two Men in Benares (1985) and Yayati (1987) are more serious, tender paintings.

Khakar’s unusual way of drawing human figures – the limbs are long and rubbery, the hands and feet enormous – preclude these works from being erotic (the nude in You Can’t Please All, my friend noted in the gallery, looks like he is made up of sausage meat or yoghurt). Instead – for example in Yayati – what is prominent is the urgent attention the two men pay each other. Here, unlike for example in Barber Shop – the two men do not just occupy the same space but look into each other’s eyes. The Yayati legend, in the Mahabharata concerns the contrast of age and youth: King Yayati, sentenced to old age in the prime of his life, allows his son to take on this premature age in his place. Khakhar was interested in mixed-age relationships, and in his version a middle-aged man with silver hair (evidently a self-portrait) descents – with angelic wings – to embrace a blurred, disintegrating figure, gaunt with age. Here, as in many of his pictures, Khakhar includes a doorsein – public scenes in the background of his canvas: two men walking on the river front, three at prayer by a temple – but here, unlike in earlier works, the two central figures have no awareness of the outside world.

In 1998 Khakhar was diagnosed with prostate cancer, succumbing to the illness in 2003. The work of his final years shows a further development on his earlier style. Now, genitalia and anatomical fluidity become grotesque. At the End of the Day the Iron Ingots Came Out (1999), He Took Enema Five Times a Day (1999) and his last painting Idiot (2003) each show the body – and in particular, the penis – draining. In this last painting, the stream flowing from the penis becomes a third limb, running into a shoe, whist a second figure winks at the audience, mocking the grimacing man.

There has been some controversy in the British press about the quality of Khakhar’s painterly technique, and the organisation of the retrospective. The collection, which includes some juvenilia, is not of a uniform quality. The best pieces – some of which I have described here – do sit alongside experiments, fragments, and some less successful works. Moreover, the contexts of some of the later, more explicitly political work such as Bullet Shot in the Stomach (2001) was not always sufficiently explained. Nonetheless, Bhupen Khakhar: You Can’t Please All offers a glimpse into the mind of a fascinating, mercurial artist, and of the provincial, urban world he inhabited. Khakhar’s provincial “hush” is not the same as “quietness” – to hush implies constraint, the suppression of noise, a murmur rather than a silence – and the retrospective, accordingly, is not silent but has an understated story to tell. His canvases offer vistas of a now-vanishing mid-century landscape and milieu, and make difficult, sad suggestions about loneliness, constraint, and old age

William Ghosh is a DPhil candidate in English at Exeter College, Oxford.