“When I’m telling the truth, there’s no restraint”
Interview of Sadanand Menon with Bhupen Khakhar, published in The Hindu Magazine, 14 September 2003, published with the permission of Sadanand Menon and The Hindu.
Traveling to Vadodra in April this year , Sadanand Menon sat down for a chat with Bhupen Khakhar, the day his radiation treatment began. Khakhar was on a high. Later, it turned out to be the last interview he gave before his passing away on August 8.
Bhupen always got excited at the idea of an ‘interview.’
The notion of someone sitting down and asking him searching, probing questions about his self-deprecating, ironic, often ribald paintings, the answer to which would transmute those teasing, tongue-in-the-cheek canvases into a ‘serious’ enterprise, appealed to his sense of lofty intransigence. In fact, the ‘interview’ format so enchanted and fascinated him that he has to his credit several published mock-interviews he has conducted with himself.
Perhaps due to the fact that he entered the realms of ‘high art’ only in this thirties and therefore studied and worked with artists much younger to him, he displayed a sort of embarrassed discomfort with the paraphernalia of the art world – like exhibitions, catalogues, reviews, interviews – while being serious about his art itself. He also retained, till the end, the air of a litterateur (which he was) who had wandered into the halls of painting. This too contributed to a jocular attitude towards ‘painterly airs’ and the fatuous narcissism associated with it.
The self-orchestrated interview or the spuriously academic-sounding, pseudo-quotational catalogue text became Bhupen’s escape route from being fixed within the conventional frames of an objectified ‘painter-artist’. His 1969 piece in the ‘Lalit Kala Contemporary’ called ‘Notes on the Visual Sources in my Paintings’; his 1972 pastiche of a booklet for his Gallery Chemould exhibition called ‘Truth is Beauty and Beauty is God’, with a biographical sketch full of mock-pathos and mock-heroism, along with far-fetched ‘explanations’ for his paintings, all written by himself, are good examples of his playful, mischievous and unintentionally subversive approach. Into the 1980s and 1990s, he had transformed this into a genre by itself.
For example, as recently as in January this year , Bhupen, metamorphosed into a studiously droll art critic, did a mock-interview with himself as a painter with high morals and pious intent. This was published as his catalogue-text for the exhibition with three other artists (Atul and Anju Dodiya and Amit Ambalal) ‘Leela – Haridwar: World Within World Without’ at Gallery Espace, New Delhi. An excerpt will illustrate his method.
Critic Bhupen: How does the railway budget affect your painting?
Artist Bhupen: You are asking me a very important question like how does the Kargil war affect the onion crops in Gujarat or how does the knee operation of our Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee influence the making of the film ‘Lagaan’. Though the railway budget has no direct influence on my painting, the political ripple effect of increase in second-class AC fare makes me travel less, and I am forced to paint my works based on Gujarat. Also I go regularly at 9 AM to my studio to get a darshan of Lord Kirshna and create masterpieces. So bad railway budget helps me to create masterpieces.
Critic Bhupen (slyly): How does Lord Krishna react to your use of Lukas paints and foreign paper for your watercolours?
Artist Bhupen (loftily): I do not know his views on BJP’s globalization policy. He even does not like the part which menacingly favours Hindutva. Yet when he looks at good paints, he likes them. He has not yet advised me to use the earth colours as was done by traditional artists when they painted miniatures. Once he told me that Rukmini liked Gucci’s perfumes.
For Bhupen’s highly influential 1975 painting, ‘Man With Bouquet of Plastic Flowers”, now in the collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art, he queries in his ‘artist note’: ‘Why plastic flowers?’ and proceeds to supply the answer himself: ‘Real flowers fade; a bouquet of plastic flowers is an eternal joy to the eye.’
Bhupen had requested me to do a piece for a forthcoming book on his watercolours. The day we reached Vadodara in April this year , we were informed that Bhupen’s cancer had recurred after a period of dormancy and that he would need radiation therapy. He sat down for the chat with me the day his radiation treatment began. He was on a high. We talked for over two hours, and I gook some wonderful portraits. Two days later, he had lost his voice. A partial recovery a few days later raised hopes, but turned out to be deceptive. I was seeing him for the last time. It turned out to be his last interview he gave before his death on August 8 .
That he was enjoying himself through the ‘interview’ was evident by the fact that whenever the incessant phone called interrupted our conversation, he would gurgle into the phone, ‘Interview chaale che (I’m being interviewed”). The following is an except.
SADANAND MENON: There is such a predominance of the figure, the figurative, in your work. What does figure represent for you in a painting?
BHUPEN KHAKHAR: Let me think…. I have always felt that the human being is the source. Sometimes landscapes fascinate me. but I feel my paintings are incomplete without figures. Everything I see is in connection with the figure. (Shouts to his teenaged nephew: ‘Arre Dhawal, jarra Deepakno tapkaari doh – scold Deepak (his cook’s son) or he won’t study!’).
And in the landscape of the figure, your predominant allegory is sexuality?
Of course, I find that unless and until there is some truth in your work, the painting does not seem authentic. I can’t say I adhere very consistently to truth myself. We know, for example, from Gandhiji’s writings how he had the urge to sleep with his wife when he received news of his father’s death. This kind of honest confession can be made only by someone who has reached the state of a ‘mahatma’. Very few can say this in front of people. So I get very fascinated by this. Many artists, of course, find their own truth through a certain kind of madness. You have seen Goya and his ‘black’ paintings.
The glimpse of truth in one’s work is more important for me than whether you use colour well or other such technical virtuosities. Truth and…a certain kind of confession. In our situation, there are hardly any other painters touching these sexual subjects. I guess people only want to hide. Toh usmey maja nahin aata hai (There’s no fun in that). I don’t know whether I’m clear….?
The question, really, is how does one stay consistently honest to oneself in a medium that is in the public domain, without it becoming like a posture?
That is why I like Chandra (dancer/choreographer Chandralekha). She too explores sexuality, eroticism. No other dancer will even dare to go near this. Then whether you have done you bharatanatyam a little better than someone else is not that important. I always tell Sunil (Kothari, the dance critic) this. Not that he agrees with me. I tell him that everyone else only wants to play ‘safe’.
Is there an equivalent to ‘playing safe’ in painting?
I believe the concern in every art is you must do what you think and what you feel and what you like. Not what others expect you to do. Not just shock…. Sometimes we have a feeling that artists are unconventional because of the way they wear their clothes or the way they live. That is not the right criteria. The amount of risk he or she takes, that is important. I think that way Chandra has taken so many risks. Otherwise, unconventionality has its own limits; you gain some kind of recognition without ever being in danger.
But when you do it, do you know you are taking a risk? Is it a conscious decision or enterprise?
Sometimes, even as I start the painting, I know that I’m taking a risk and that people are not going to like it and so on. But not all the time.
Sometimes I also do it in jest or as humour. I’m not so sure whether people take that very seriously. Sometimes I also choose to be deliberately flippant. Say, when I did that ‘Man With Five Penises’ (‘An Old Man From Vasad Who Had Five Penises Suffered From Runny Nose” -watercolour 1995), 1995, I was quite happy. But when I did the one of Rama embracing Hanuman (‘Ram Embracing Hanuman’ – watercolour, 1998), then I was quite serious. Because there is a certain kind of relation I feel may have existed between them – animal and man – but I have not made it very explicit or I would not have been able to exhibit it anywhere.
What kind of emotions do you feel when you know you are taking a risk? Does it give a thrill or is there a voice that says be cautious, be safe, censor yourself?
No, when I feel I’m telling the truth, then there is no restraint. Usmey mujhe majaa bhi aata hai (I enjoy it too). It also relates to my larger body of work. It is not propaganda, or something. Personally, I have distaste for propaganda. This is a part of the change in my work regarding human relationships…. I also responded to a beautiful passage in Virginia Woolf where she says you can’t have art that only has a male voice. She says art needs an androgynous voice.
What do you think are the impediments to ‘truth-telling’ in art? Is it lack of technique, lack of a method in which to say it and make it work?
I think it is social. We are plain scared.
But we do have a historic lineage of ‘artists’ who spoke out fearlessly – the chaarans, bhands, the Sufis, the Bhakti poets and such. They told the truth?
Even up to Mughal art we can see that. I think it is the influence of the British Raj and the Victorian inheritance that has made us timid. At a certain stage in our history, the British made us feel ashamed of our own sexuality and made us feel inferior because of our society’s traditionally more open approach to body and sex. This has now made us into a nation of hypocrites and we don’t want to be who we are. It will take many years to outgrow this.
Would you say art has lost a certain agency at the moment? It is not able to engage with our context or contribute in a social sense?
I wouldn’t say that. One good thing today is that even younger artists are able to sell their work. They don’t have to depend on other modes of survival like I had to do, for so many years, on chartered accountancy. There are also many scholarships and travel opportunities these days. but, unlike in the West where they live alone from a young age, we are more dependent on our family structures here. The close-knit family also makes you – not just servile – but timid in many ways because you are answerable to a larger network of people for whom you care. This prevents you often from taking individualist positions so important to art.
(Phone rings. Someone at the other end enquiring how he’s feeling.)
Bhupen (in a testy voice): Abhi my feelings are not all that important. Sab abhi merey haath mein sey nikal gayaa hai. It is in the hands of the doctors here, with the oncologists, with the doctors in Bombay. It is in the hands of all these people. No, no. I did not go to Bombay. I can’t go anywhere. I can’t walk, bhai. This happened some 10 days ago. There are some four to five doctors involved. They advise me. Final report has not come yet. Yes, I’m supposed to rest. Atyare interview chaale che (Now interview is going on). No, no, of course I continue to drink. Ab itma bhi torture mat karo yaar.
Yes, there are friends around.
Many changes in your life now?
That is a constant in life. My mother died. Then my brother died. Then bhabhi and all came here. On my side, I had cancer. In this state, the experience level is constantly changing. What has happened to me during the treatment for cancer is that they have removed my testes. So my whole life has changed. The strong urge for sex has disappeared since the last two years. The only thing I can feel now is through memory. The drug they give is very strong. You can lose hair and develop breasts. What I have (cancer of the prostate) happens only to males, not females. So they feel that if you develop female characteristics, the cancer might go. And when they remove the testes, it’s like the final act.
Like a gender transformation? The kind of emotional and physical acts like cross-dressing or transvestitism you have painted so often?
Yes, yes, exactly.
Does that also affect your emotional attitudes?
Who toh hai. Sometimes I feel I should not have got it done. It is not necessary that one should live long. But then, the temptation is there. And it is a totally different kind of experience.
(Phone rings. Bhupen (sardonically): Later, later…. Now interview is going on.