The guide to the Hindu temple expected my question about the erotic sculptures on the wall; his answer was immediate and simple: “Sex is part of life. We believe it should be portrayed openly and directly.” That exchange took place in 1981 during a sabbatical leave from Howard University which I spent at the Central Institute of Indian Languages in Mysore in southern India.
Thirteen years later in an uncharacteristically hushed class at the Faculty of Art of MS University, Baroda I heard Bhupen Khakhar answer the same question with the same words. He expanded this idea by saying that his portrayals of sexual intimacy, particularly between men, were not voyeuristic or pornographic because all the relationships expressed in his paintings and prints were based on love. He knew best because he was mainly portraying himself, his intimate experiences, and the lower middle class milieu of his origins in Bombay. Later he explained that the act of creating the erotic works and the paintings about disease that he suffered from released him from his inner passions and torments.
The process of meeting Bhupen, attending his lecture, beginning my collection of his works, and becoming his friend began with a kind gesture by Mrs. Khorshed Gandhy of the famous Gallery Chemould in Bombay, now Mumbai. In December 1993 Bhupen Khakhar had contributed etchings to a show called “Printmakers of Baroda” at the Cymroza Gallery in Mumbai. My prudishness prevented me from purchasing the most startling print, “Intimacy.” With a bit more “courage” I did add it to my collection about five years later. After the Cymroza I visited the Gallery Chemould. Mrs. Gandhy said they had an interesting work by Bhupen, and her assistant took it out of the storeroom: “Lost Souls,” a reverse painting, acrylic on acrylic.
Bhupen’s figurative and narrative style of strong colors, particularly blues and reds, appealed to me as did the spiritual themes – inchoate human figures floating aimlessly above temples. They conjured up many thoughts in my mind. The painting was clearly labeled “nfs” and thus unavailable. Seized by the obsession that inveterate collectors know very well, I was determined to obtain that piece of art. What to do? Mrs. Gandhy advised me to call Bhupen and see if he would be willing to receive me in Baroda. She gave me his telephone number and sat me down at her desk to call him. When I told him about my interest, he replied quietly that it was not for sale. I asked him if I could visit him anyway, and he said yes. On 6th January 1994 I took a morning flight to Baroda and hired a rickshaw to take me to Bhupen’s house in Suvarnapur Society.
Pandu, the servant every visitor to Bhupen’s house knew, served a Gujarati vegetarian breakfast. People came and went constantly through the open door of his house. The studio was an open elevated space on the ground floor. It seemed poorly lit. There was practically no art on the walls except for a spectacular collage of small portraits which he called “Gallery of Rogues.” After the meal and a casual conversation about contemporary America, Bhupen showed me some of his work. I bought a lithograph, “Restaurant in Kerala.” I also said I liked a woodcut called “Teacher.” He gave it to me as a gift explaining that he could not sell it because he had already been paid to create it for a book by his friend, Salman Rushdie. He then took me on his scooter to the university to hear his lecture and meet some artists there.
After returning to his home, Bhupen raised the issue of “Lost Souls” (my must-have painting). How much would I be willing to pay for it. At a loss for words I finally managed to say that I had no idea about how to set a price on a painting. He responded that ordinarily he would ask $600, a price based in large part on its size, but that he would charge me $900 “because I do not really want to sell it.” I felt vaguely ill because the price was a bit high for my university professor budget. He had another surprise for me, namely, that I could give him one third of the price, and I could pay another third later by purchasing some high quality French paper from an American distributor in New Jersey and sending it to him. He needed paper for his water colors. I could send him the balance when possible. I agreed. “Go to Chemould and pick up the painting. It is yours. Come again to visit me. Pandu, find a rickshaw for Brian.”
After that initial meeting in 1994 I returned to India every year and sometimes twice a year. A wonderful routine began. Bhupen invited me, and I began to purchase other works from him or from galleries to which he had committed his work for a show. They were mainly water colors and etchings. He never offered an oil painting, and I do not think I could have afforded one anyway. Aside from financial restrictions, there were no limits to my collecting guidelines. Bhupen tried every medium – including the written word – and I wished to collect examples of each one as a mirror of his virtuosity. He permitted the reproduction of some works as posters, not a very prestigious form, but it allowed people with limited budgets to purchase copies of his paintings. Only that way was I able to purchase a small copy of his brilliant “Man with a Bouquet of Plastic Flowers” which belongs to the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi.
After some time he let me go through his flat files, closets and cabinets where I found his sketch books, etchings, drawings and numerous paintings he said he would not sell. The most brilliant, called “Seva”, now hangs in the museum of Praful Shah in Surat. He explained his methods, and I sat for hours watching him work.. For “A man talks with flowers” he sketched a man he saw walking along the lane; later Bhupen found a flowering plant in a English garden book and combined the two in a water color. He gave me some etchings and his book Phoren Soap as gifts. (His friend and biographer, the artist Timothy Hyman, told me that if he would admire something such as a shoulder bag, Bhupen would immediately offer it to him.)
My collection grew quickly, and I filled the walls of my living room and bedroom so I could look at all the works every day. I now feel surrounded by provocative beauty. Because I lie on the floor every morning while I do my stretching, I put one poster, “Dambulla,” on the ceiling. As nature abhors a vacuum, I abhor a vacant wall.
During the brief ten years I knew Bhupen we met in London when the Tate added his painting “You Can’t Please All” to its collection; he visited me in Washington; and I spent a week with him behind the scenes at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid which was preparing a retrospective on his life and work in June 2002.
Through all these experiences I learned a small bit about the artist’s mind and process of creativity – how he portrayed erotic love and the non-beautiful people he liked best; how he depicted his pain and the pain of others undergoing chemotherapy. The door to a new world opened even wider for me as I met Bhupen’s friends, such as Gulammohammed Sheikh, Nilima Sheikh, Vivan Sundaram, Pankaj and Parul Masher, the art critic Geeta Kapur, Nalini Malani, Timothy Hyman, Amit Ambalal, Sunil Kothari, scholar of Indian dance, Atul and Anju Dodiya, the Dhumals, Jyoti Bhatt, Vijay Bagodi, Zarina Hashmi, Ram Rahman as well as gallerists. such as Hitesh Rana of Sarjan Art Gallery in Baroda, Puneet Shah, Shalini and Renuka Sawhney who invited me to show my collection in their New York gallery.
Archival Art Services, which frames all my art, is one of my favorite hang-out places in Washington; Baroda has become my favorite destination in India – second only to Mumbai – because of the vibrant art scene there. A younger generation of artists – Heeral Trivedi, Arunanshu Chowdhury, Sajal Sarkar and others – have become my friends. A logical outcome of my magnificent obsession is that now I volunteer in two Washington art museums.
Bhupen died in 2003 as the prices for contemporary Indian art were surging. Although I believe his income increased substantially from 1993, he never benefited from the high prices his works now fetch. I still have no large oil work, and doubt I shall be able to afford one. Every small work that I do manage to find reminds me of the words of the temple guide and of the man who, firmly rooted in Indian culture and well aware of modern artistic trends in the outside world, honestly expressed his emotions and ideas for all to see and feel. In so doing he helped me expand and transcend the limits of my own feelings and imagination..
Bhupen’s ideas have guided me in the organization of the catalogue I published in 2007 and this website. I arrange the art thematically according to five of his titles: “Plastic Flowers” which stands for his sensitivity to beauty and meaning in the mundane; “Intimacy” signifying for him the many ways of expressing affection and love; “Rogues” referring to his many self-portraits and portraits of others; “Souls” standing for spirituality. For a fifth and last category, “My Friend ‘K’”, I chose paintings, photographs, and drawings of Bhupen by a few of his many artist friends. I also arrange the works according to medium and “states” which, for printmakers means different stages in the development of an image or different forms of the image.
My purpose in starting this website is to encourage further discussion of Bhupen Khakhar’s contributions. No work in my collection is for sale.
Brian Weinstein – March 2007/2011