By Tishani Doshi
As the author engages with the late Bhupen Khakhar's art, she finds a clear and strident message serving as a warning for those being peddled nostalgia into supporting Britain's estrangement from Europe
Some days ago I visited the Tate Modern in London to see the Bhupen Khakhar retrospective “You Can’t Please All”. I went with an agenda: to love the show. My friend and teacher, the choreographer Chandralekha, had shared many stories with me about Bhupen. When I began dancing with her in 2001 she told me about his incomparable wit. She said that he was a homosexual with a toothy smile, that they were always laughing together and that his paintings were marvellous and playful and ribald. She must have said more, but this is what I remember.
When he died in August 2003, after a battle with prostate cancer, I found Chandra sitting outside her house in Madras, staring into space. “They’re all going,” she said. She was 74 then, losing friends steadily. I had only ever seen Bhupen’s work in catalogues but I already relished their wicked titles —“Tree with Flowers Grows from His Arse,” “He Took Enema Five Times a Day.” I knew when I saw them in the flesh I’d be drawn to them because they’d been spoken about so lovingly by someone I loved. The other reason I went prepared to love the show was because I’d read a snarky review in the Guardian, where the critic, Jonathan Jones, called the work “emotionally inert” and compared him to Beryl Cook. Snark, I believe, can only be countered with anti-snark.
When I entered the gallery I went straight into the second room where there was a film playing — Messages from Bhupen Khakhar, by Judy Marle. I sat and watched as this man from the past spoke to me. Being a somewhat sentimental type, I imagined that I saw my own loved one hovering there. Surely, at some point Chandra must have been in that room in Vadodara with the fan whirring. She must have sat with him at a roadside stall, maybe even with Ranchodbhai, not drinking chai because she never drank tea, but eating something, maybe a jalebi? I listened as he spoke of how an artist cannot be a respectable gentleman, how he must be sexually obsessed, how he cannot be ruled by the dictum of morality. “In life,” he was saying, “we all the time make social adjustments to please people around us, we forget our duty towards ourselves. What we should do in life and art is to do exactly what one likes. The difficulty, maybe, is to find out what one likes.”
There’s a scene in the film where Khakhar is leaning over a crocodile enclosure, watching as a man in a dhotistrides out with a steel dish full of raw meat. Two crocodiles charge towards the meat, banging their snouts against the steel, while the man scolds them in Gujarati as though they were stray dogs. The man keeps calling, “Manorama,” until this giant beast of a crocodile saunters up to him while the other two scurry away. It was an absurd, funny-sad moment, which almost made me weep, because there was something innocent about it, and it made me think of home. I’d been away from India for over three months, so to sit in a gallery in London and watch this man beating crocodiles on their snouts, shouting in Gujarati, filled with me what? Nostalgia, I think.
And nostalgia made me think of Brexit. Before going to the Tate I’d read an article by the columnist AA Gill about the Brexit debate. All anyone was talking about in the days I was in London was this referendum. On June 23, the UK will decide whether it wants to stay or leave the European Union. At dinners, complicated theories were being put forth which tied the outcome to weather forecasts or football results. Almost everyone I met was vehemently for staying in the union, but then a taxi driver told me that almost everyone he met — bankers, property people, theatre-goers (the “Mayfair mob,” he called them) wanted out.
Of all the articles I’d read on the matter, AA Gill’s was the most convincing. He pinpointed the emotion on which the entire Brexit campaign was being fuelled: nostalgia. “Wanting the country back is the constant mantra of all the outies,” he wrote. “Farage slurs it, Gove insinuates it. Of course, I know what they mean. We all know what they mean. They mean back from Johnny Foreigner, back from the brink….We all know what ‘getting our country back’ means. It’s snorting a line of the most pernicious and debilitating Little English drug, nostalgia. The warm, crumbly, honey-coloured, collective ‘yesterday’ with its fond belief that everything was better back then, that Britain (England, really) is a worse place now than it was at some foggy point in the past where we achieved peak Blighty….”
Gill being Gill (an established and sometimes unbearable toff) pokes fun at middle-class, middle-aged, middle-brow morals, at their desire for “warm beer” and “cars called Morris” and “gooseberries not avocados”. And this, in turn, made me think of Bhupen Khakhar and his complicated relationship with the middle-class. One can’t say that they’re the heroes of his paintings exactly, but certainly, they take centre stage. “De-Lux Tailors”, “Janata Watch-Repairing,” and “Barber’s Shop” are among my favourite works in the exhibition, and all of these extend a kind of adoration towards the middle-class Indian male.
And yet, Khakhar clearly had misgivings about the moral codes of middle-class India. He joked about how you don’t see kissing in Hindi films, rather the man and woman dance around and “tickle” one another. He believed they had inherited a sense of prudishness from the English with their Victorian values. But ironically, it was in England where Khakhar experienced his own sexual freedom as a gay man. He described it as a release. He first visited the UK in 1976, and returned a few times over the years. The only painting that brought a smile to the snarky Guardian reviewer was “Man in Pub,” and it shows an English man sitting alone at a pub, alone in his room, and alone in his car. Essentially: alone. The painting at the Tate is accompanied by this quote from Bhupen — “About England: Season | Winter You are not allowed to smile during this season which lasts for ten months of the year. If you are sensible then try to look as grumpy as possible. English people appreciate sulk.”
Perhaps it’s a bit of a reach to try and connect a contemporary political debate to the paintings and words of a dead man (a Johnny Foreigner to boot), but walking around that gallery I felt like I was receiving my own personal message from Bhupen and he was saying, “Safety is the word you should all hate” (actually, that was from the film). What he was whispering only to me was, “‘Man in Pub’ is the prototype of a Brexiteer. Look at him, sitting there with his drink, with his sad old gloves crumpled in his crotch, thinking how jolly things are, and how he’s getting along just fine without the company of anyone else.”
To Brexiteers, there’s pride in isolation, in a cheddar cheesy kind of Britannia patriotism. Pooh pooh to the single market, they say; just make sure to build those walls high enough. To me, it feels like an Enid Blyton story gone wrong. Hello, Mr Brexotic, what’s going on? Don’t you know you need the gang? You need Europe; otherwise you’re not going to get the secret password and you’re going to be left out in the cold.
I left the museum perplexed and walked into a classic scene of English rain. I crossed the Blackfriars Bridge, wondering whether my personal agenda had tarnished my viewing of the paintings. Had my own insufferable nostalgia elevated them unnecessarily? Was I being a squishy git with all that talk of jalebis? Did I really enjoy “An Old Man from Vasad who had Five Penises Suffered from Runny Nose,” or did I just like the idea of it, and was I secretly thinking, perhaps there had been one too many penises in this exhibition?
When I returned to India it was less snout-beating crocodiles with bansuri soundtrack, more relearning how to avoid getting agitated at the sight of every public defecation. Like so, should the Brexiteers achieve their dream they’ll find that getting their country back will also involve learning to fix their own pipes again, looking after their elderly and possibly letting go of Scotland.
The beauty of art is that even if it doesn’t initially please you, there’s always chance for re-entry. In politics the borders are more complete.