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A tailored intimacy

Giridhar Khasnis, Dec 23 2017, 22:04 IST

On October 24, 2017, Bhupen Khakhar hit the headlines when his painting De-Luxe Tailors (1972/oil on canvas/42 by 33 inch) set a new auction record. The painting, which came with a pre-sale estimate of 2,50,000-3,50,000 (Rs 2-3 crore), was sold for 1.1 million (Rs 9.5 crore) at Sotheby's in London, breaking his previous record of 4,34,500 for Night (1996), auctioned in 2014.

De-Luxe Tailors was part of the Sir Howard Hodgkin's personal collection which was sold in the much-awaited auction. It was gifted by Khakhar to Hodgkin sometime after it was painted in 1972. Evidently, Hodgkin, one of the pre-eminent contemporary British artists, treasured the painting deeply. He hung it in his home in Wiltshire where Khakhar had stayed as a guest in the 1970s; later it travelled to Hodgkin's flat in London.

The two artists' close friendship was legendary; Hodgkin often hosted Khakhar in the UK and helped him build relationships in the art world. Khakhar died on August 8, 2003, in Baroda, of prostate cancer, aged 69. Hodgkin passed away in London on March 9, 2017, aged 84, just months before the Sotheby's auction.

A keen observer

Khakhar, the chartered accountant-turned-painter, developed a unique style of miniature painting aesthetic and positioning it in contemporary settings. In the 1970s, he began illustrating the world around him, focusing extensively on the everyday life of ordinary, middle-class people - hairdressers, tailors, watchmakers, among others. "I did a whole series of 'trade' paintings or small professions. I used colours like deep pink and green, which were used in decorating the shops. But mostly I was concerned with the persons and their surrounding or the objects they were working with."

De-Luxe Tailors, which shows the interior of an ordinary tailor shop with two men immersed in their work, is a typical example. Khakhar's strategy for such works was based on a simple premise of keen observation of and deep involvement with the subject. "I do make an effort all the time to be conscious and to observe people€ One paints what one sees or what one chooses to see€ I see people in their day-to-day ordinary circumstances... say, a person combing his hair or wearing the shirt€ these things interest me. They need not be spectacular, but these are things which draw me."

He also believed that a close connection often of sexual nature was important and even necessary for his work. "When I see a person and like his attitude, I would like to subdue myself and see things through his eyes. I would also like to go to his place and see how he lives; how he decorates his house or shop; what are his requirements€ I would like that such people become part of me. I should also get emotionally attached to them. Before I paint them, they should become a kind of obsession in my mind. Only then can I paint them."

Double life

Khakhar knew of his limitations as a draughtsman but did not see it as a big deal. He believed that one's own weakness should be reflected in his/her art. "An artist must be vulnerable. His paintings must reflect all his weak points." Known for his tongue-in-cheek comments on art and life, he would say that one should never become respectable in society and one should not be good if one were to be an artist. "Yes, good taste can be very killing." And he would add: "An artist should not preach, talk philosophy, try to reform society because he constantly revels in illogicality, sensuality and vulgarity."

A largely self-taught painter whose many images quite openly featured intimate scenes revolving around sexuality, Khakhar led a double life for a large part of his life: working as an accountant during the day, and finding time to paint later. "Going to the office for two or three hours gives me the feeling that I have done my duty to society and I feel, 'now I can go and paint'."

Curiously, for an artist whose works hang in prestigious galleries and museums today, Khakhar could not secure admission in the Painting Department of M S University, Baroda. "He was deprived of formal training in art, but it served him well; or rather, he made a virtue of his lack of training to freely mould or distort the 'realism' taught in art schools," says fellow-artist Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, who mentored Khakhar initially. "Having gained such freedom, he shaped the physiognomy of the people he painted by ingenious devices - forms realised as though he had discovered them by touch."

Khakhar was probably the first modern artist in the post-Independence era to unashamedly paint homosexual themes. They were all based on his own personal experiences and imagination of situations which he rendered with poignancy and a sense of humour, and satire. "When he was painting his trade paintings - the watchmaker, the barbershop - he portrayed spaces that a gay man would naturally be drawn to," observes Nada Raza, Assistant Curator of Tate Modern. "Because they are spaces where men can meet, come into close contact."

Global attention

Over the years, Khakhar came to be regarded as one of India's foremost painters and attracted global attention. Hodgkin was, in large part, instrumental in hoisting him onto the international stage. Khakhar was the first Indian artist to be represented in the international show Documenta in 1992.

More recently, in 2016, a major retrospective titled Bhupen Khakhar “ You Can't Please All was mounted at Tate Modern, London. "Bhupen was someone that was really what they call an 'artist's artist'," said Raza, co-curator of Tate Retrospective. "In India especially, he was extremely influential for a whole generation of painters... His choice of colour, his choice of form, his source materials were very carefully considered and didn't really reflect a global or elite approach. He was basically saying: 'I don't care -I belong to the India of Gandhi. I am going to portray my world'."

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