EDITORIAL: Indian Artists Community Sheds the Tolerance Mask to Defend Bhupen Khakhar / Johny ML
JohnyML, the Editor in Chief of Art Tehelka says that the Indian Art Community has willingly shown its ugly side in opposing Jonathan Jones’ article in the Guardian newspaper which critiqued Bhupen Khakhar’s retrospective in condemnatory terms. JohnyML says that we should learn to be tolerant to criticism if not there is no difference between the fundamentalists and the artists communities.
So we have a new (holy) cow now and its name is Bhupen Khakhar. In life he had never been a holy cow on the contrary he lived in one of the Indian states which has been tipped as the ‘laboratory of Hindutva’ and criticised all the holy cows including the heterosexual arrogance of Indian mainstream art. When Khakhar was not criticising either through his paintings or through his plays, he was simply laughing at all the holy cows, along with his egalitarian guests in the soirees at his Baroda residence. But today with the Guardian art critic, Jonathan Jones writing an acerbic critique on Khakhar’s ongoing retrospective, ‘You Can’t Please All’ at the Tate Modern, London, a lot of Indian artists, critics, curators, gallerists and generally some members of the ever touchy Indian community in India and elsewhere seem to have lost their level headedness and have gone into a sort of frenzy mood, clouding the critic, Jones with it. In short they all have suddenly become so ‘nationalistic’.
Khakhar whether you agree with it or not, is not a God. And even if he is that, no God is beyond a re-look and re-assessment. Nationalists in India could go on a rampage and a killing spree if Gods are touched. In India cow is a goddess and ultimately beef eating can cost your life here. Speak against cow or any Hindu god, even mildly, they will take up arms and butcher you. They say that they butcher the critics for protecting Hinduism (read Hindutva) from degenerating as well as for protecting the ‘Indian’ (read Hindu) culture. That means, the very idea of Hindu itself should go un-criticised. They do not see the fact that an ‘un-criticised life is not worth living’. Those people who take up cudgels against Jonathan Jones for speaking ill of Bhupen Khakhar and his works, almost become ‘nationalists’ therefore fundamentalists of both the nation and the aesthetics that it creates.
Jonathan Jones calls Bhupen a ‘drab’ painter and he is hell bent on portraying Khakhar’s modernism as an immature modernism and the kind of art, had it been created by any British artists, it would not have crossed the threshold of the Tate Modern. I do not want to quote Jones extensively because his article is available online. What I am interested in is his article and the responses that it has gleaned during the past forty eight hours. In my view the critic, Jones and his respondents are equally culpable of the same passion which is nationalistic therefore myopic. Jones contends that there could many other artists including Howard Hodgkin, David Hockney and Frank Auerbach who could claim their retrospective space in Tate Modern (but they were relegated to more ‘historical’ Tate Britain) but the curators have a different agenda. He even goes to say that with a new wing coming up in the Tate Modern has a lot of spaces to waste and he implies that that’s what exactly the curators of ‘You Can’t Please All’ are doing.
The critical piece however is not just a-historical. Jones employs his research to locate Khakhar in the Indian context but the very same research is used for condemnation than appreciation. He at a point says that Khakhar is not even the Mumbai’s Mapplethorpe, when it comes to provocation. The artists whom he cites to compare Khakhar’s aesthetics are not so Bhupenesque but if someone is hell bent on critiquing something then anything could come of use; Jones just does that. He is almost historically correct when he speaks of R.B.Kitaj, Hodgkin, Hockney and so on in the context Khakhar not only because Khakhar knew them personally and appreciated their art but also in India these artists have been treated with respect. It was in the last year that Mumbai had a Hodgkin exhibition in the presence of the artists. Mumbai papers including the tabloids were full of praises for Hodgkin. That does not mean that the same grace should be returned when an Indian artist goes to Britain. That would be asking for too much by the culturally sophisticated people.
In 1980s, Baroda led a very significant art movement which was called the ‘Baroda Narrative Movement.’ Khakhar, being a Baroda school product naturally got attracted to it but the aesthetic gravity and the high seriousness (almost gloomy) seen in the works of other Narrative movement artists including Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and Vivan Sundaram, was not so appealing to Khakhar. He revelled in lighter and sunny colours (though there are some gloomy paintings in his oeuvre) and also breached the boundaries of high aesthetics to delve in ‘frivolous’ performances, fancy dressing, photographing and so on not in order to become at par with the Pop Art aesthetics but to enjoy the aesthetically informed pure fun. Perhaps, that was one of the reasons why Khakhar was not taken seriously for a long time by the Indian critics themselves till the post modern liberal approach about sexuality and subaltern lives upgraded Khakhar as one of the most important artists in India with the interest level growing up to the extent of younger artists like Atul Dodiya almost creating works of art inspired by the life and works of Khakhar.
The Narrative Movement aesthetics could be seen as a global project in today’s terms. It’s inspiration came from different sources; from Mughal narrative miniatures to the mural traditions in India, from the Murals in Santiniketan created by Benode Behari Mukherjee and Nandlal Bose to the Mexican murals, and importantly the immediate modern inspiration came from the constant give and take between the works of the Indian artists in Baroda and the British artists like R.B.Kitaj and David Hockney, who happened to be in Baroda through a British artist and writer namely Timothy Hyman. These multiple influences lingered on and Khakhar was a part of the aesthetical brewing and he shared a lot of affinities with these British artists. Khakhar’s relationship with Britain is not just bound by a retrospective but he is a familiar artist to the British art lovers for his portrait of Salman Rushdie has been there in the National Portrait Gallery in Britain for more than two decades. Though I have personal differences with the aesthetic appeal of this portrait, Bhupen is not just a propped up artist in the British environs. He has been loved, written about and even collected hugely by the British as well as Indian diaspora there.
However, I would say, Jonathan Jones has all the rights to say what he feels. One of the ‘nationalistic’ curators in India who happened to be the founder member of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, whose art historical credentials are doubtful as far as I am concerned, says in Firstpost.com that Jones critique on Khakhar is misplaced and by writing this he seeks self promotion. He also says that in India too we have critics who provoke to get attention. I would say, this is a fundamentalist and chauvinistic view on art criticism because art criticism is also an academically informed profession and the critics are qualified to express their views irrespective of the ‘holy’ status that the artists and gallerists attribute to each other. I firmly believe that an art critic has the right to assert his/her position when it comes to the works of an artist whoever he/she is and however great he/she is considered to be in the art scene. The same curator says that there was another positive article by an Indian writer (Amit Chowdhury) in the same newspaper a few days before Jones’ article. I do not think that Guardian has a special liking or disliking for Khakhar (which unfortunately the Indian newspapers do in the case of artists. Here nobody is less than a Michaelangelo or Da Vinci when it comes to feature writing). Its aim is to create a polemic and increase the readership of the newspaper.
In the same article in the Firstpost, another Indian critic from Mumbai opines that he always wonders why people post Jonathan Jone’s articles in their timelines. He says, “..I think he (Jones) is a blowhard doofus. This piece has settled any doubts I had on that score.” Should I feel that this Indian critic is no less than a fundamentalist nationalist (or nationalistic fundamentalist) who abuses someone for writing a critique of cow or any other gods? The statement of the Indian critic also exposes the Indian hypocrisy regarding the opinion of the western writers on Indian contemporary art. When Guardian or New York Times publishes a commendatory article on an Indian artist, say it on Tyeb Mehta, V.S.Gaitonde, Zarina Hashmi or even our Subodh Gupta, everyone likes it including the gallerists who have expressed shock at Jone’s critique. They all will post and make these articles go viral in the social media. But when they say something against Indian contemporary art (which hardly they do, not because they really appreciate it but because they just do not have time to attend Indian art) we suddenly turn against the western writers. We have to remember that we were the pack of fools who patiently sat through the marathon interviews of a British curator determined to make and break non-existing records of interviewing hundreds of art personalities in India and elsewhere a few years back (lucky that I prefer to be away from such circuses).
Jonathan Jones has all the right to criticize Bhupen Khakhar. Even if it is a result of his misunderstanding it should be seen as his views because he has earned his name by writing about art for a long time. I want to bring the attention of the Indian curator who speaks of critics provoking to earn recognition to the ‘provocative’ works promoted by him and several other Indian curators. None of those works has anything beyond the shock value (we have to do a survey to know how many of us remember the works of the first KMB in 2012). Indian critics like me overlook them because we do not have the time to waste on such works of art. Jonathan Jones may correct himself in future after knowing Khakhar a bit closer. Even if he does not, I do not have any problem and as tolerant Indians we should not have such problems at all. If recognition was the thing that Jones wanted, you have already given it to him. So let us shut up and get on with our lives. Let more and more people hammer at the idols. The stronger ones would stand the weaker ones would turn into dust. A gap in the tooth always reminds not of the gap but of the tooth which had adorned that gap once exactly the way the gaps in Bamiyan remind us of the Buddhas who stood there not of the Talibans who had destroyed them. In the side shows, yes the fundamentalists are always remembered.