The small and somewhat cosy world of Indian art is agog — angry would be an apposite word too — at a review of an exhibition of Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar at the Tate Modern in London. For an Indian to be shown at the highly prestigious gallery was considered an accolade and there was much celebration when the show opened, but that mood has soured after the piece appeared in the Guardian. Titled “Bhupen Khakhar review — Mumbai’s Answer to Beryl Cook”, the review by Jonathan Jones eviscerates the Tate for holding an exhibition of “this old-fashioned, second-rate artist whose paintings are stuck in a time warp of 1980s neo-figurative cliché.”
Jones’ ire is mostly directed at the gallery, a “grandstanding institution in its proclamations on the future of art”. “These paintings belong in the Royal Academy summer show, not . They are staid. The intense colours don’t do anything on the gallery wall because they do not achieve any subtle effects or poetic contrasts. The figures are too sloppily drawn to be engaging. Only very rarely — for instance in a funny caricature of a lonely Englishman in a pub — does Khakhar raise a smile. The rest of the time my grin became fixed as my heart sank,” he writes.
There is much more in this vein, mostly rubbishing not just Khakhar’s work but also the possible politics behind holding the exhibition. “The only reason to give Khakhar a soft ride would surely be some misplaced notion that non-European art needs to be looked at with special critical generosity: that Khakhar’s political perspective on the world is more important than the merits of his art.”
In the hallowed world of Indian art, where rude reviews are conspicuous by their absence and where Khakhar is a much-revered figure, such comments have been brushed off as ignorant and even racist. The first might have some merit — Jones may not fully grasp Bhupen’s standing in the Indian art constellation or indeed appreciate the boldness of examining his gay identity in the 1980s (though he does refer to it in his review.) But the second charge, of racism, seems somewhat misplaced. There is not a whiff of racist comment in the piece unless one questions the very premise of a sharply critical piece on an artist who is not white — but that would, by itself, justify Jones’ assertion that Khakhar is getting a soft ride.
Khakhar was a mostly self-taught painter and is famous for his naïf style and lack of technical finesse. His best friends will be the first to admit that. Even so, he holds a place in the Indian art world; a nation’s art cannot but also be seen within its own social history and cultural politics. He was much loved (and promoted) by his friends and galleries and his works are in great demand. A review in the Guardian is not likely to make the slightest difference to his popularity; if anything, his show at the Tate Modern will boost his fame and demand for his works.
So then, why bother about the review? In the same vein, why get overexcited about his display at a British gallery? Both show a keen desire to be accepted and acknowledged by the Western world. Sure, showing a well-known Indian artist in a gallery in one of the art centres of the world can only be good for Indian art, but even if it hadn’t happened, Bhupen Khakhar’s fame in India would have remained unchallenged.
Simmering over Jones’ review — a sharp and wittily written one, by the way — is thus wholly unnecessary because he is entitled to his views (and for the record, the Guardian had also published another piece on the artist — a much warmer one — by Amit Chaudhuri.) What is about foreign approval or criticism that seems to bother us so much? We glow when we are acknowledged in the salons of the West and get bitter and angry when faced with critical scrutiny or even a stray remark that may not be intended as a slight.
During the recent contretemps about the Snapchat video by Tanmay Bhat making fun of Sachin Tendulkar and Lata Mangeshkar, a report in the New York Times mentioned her as a “so-called playback singer”. Social media went berserk claiming that she had been insulted. It was clear that the phrase “so-called” was to clarify to an American readership which did not know what a playback singer meant, but to the touchy Indian it cast aspersions on the great Bharat Ratna-winning icon.
This is hardly new. When the film The Party (1968) was released here, the Jan Sangh and many others had demanded it be banned because the lead character Hurundi P. Bakshi (played marvellously by Peter Sellers) spoke in a faux and exaggerated Indian accent. For a while the film was stopped, but eventually it was released and ran to packed houses. Since then, Indians have risen to become staples in American television serials and not as figures of fun.
If there is anything that the Jones review of Khakhar shows us is that we in India do not have high quality art reviewing and critiquing. Mediocre artists get away with producing mediocre work which then sells for high prices. A more evolved ecosystem of trained critics and platforms that will publish their work will make for better art in the end. In the meantime, so what if Bhupen Khakhar was dissed by a British art critic?...