Please and Thank You

Zehra Jumabhoy on Bhupen Khakhar at the Tate Modern

Left: Tate Modern director Frances Morris. Right: Collector Nadia Samdani, Nada Raza of Tate Modern, and collector Rajeeb Samdani.

I MET BRITISH ARTIST ANDREW LOGAN at the VIP preview of ART16. “Everyone deserves a sunny smile,” beamed the founder of Britain’s Alternative Miss World, a dazzling sun-shaped broach pinned to his crimson kurta. I wondered if Logan was a harbinger of an Indian summer. He was. Or, as Sotheby’s Yamini Mehta put it, more inclusively, “Bombay, Delhi, Lahore, and a little bit of Dhaka were out to celebrate.”

What were we toasting? In deference to the late Bhupen Khakhar—aka the “Father of Indian Pop”—Tate Modern is hosting a five-month exhibition. “A Bhupen retrospective gives credit to one of India’s most influential artists,” enthused Shireen Gandhy of Chemould Prescott Road, one of Bombay’s oldest galleries. Cheekily dubbed “You Can’t Please All,” the Tate show traces Khakhar’s career from the 1960s till his death in 2003. Starting with early collages, lingering over gay displays of affection (think Yayati, 1987, where a winged Khakhar embraces another man immersed in a sea of bright pink bliss), it ends on a dark note: In his final scatological self-portraits, Khakhar documented his battle with cancer. Among other things, Khakhar is commemorated as India’s first openly gay artist. In the titular 1981 nude self-portrait You Can’t Please All, Khakhar leans over a balcony, exposing his bare butt to passing strangers—and, on Opening Night, to some old friends.

Left: Collector Henrietta Shields. Right: Diane Bilimoria. (Photo: Kajoli Khanna)

Sir Salman Rushdie was among the latter. He prowled around, examining a book encased in a glass vitrine that had been illustrated by Khakhar and written by Rushdie himself. Khakhar’s artistic mentor Gulammohammed Sheikh was also in attendance. Meanwhile, prominent British Bhupen-lovers—Timothy Hyman and Howard Hodgkin—mingled with a new generation of globe-trotting talent, like Zarina Bhimji, Nikhil Chopra, and Sonia Khurana. Collectors Czaee Shah, Karan Grover, and Kiran Nadar (rumor has it she bankrolled the display) could be spotted. Who says Indian art has no institutional support? Debby Swallow, director of the Courtauld, Divia Patel from the Victoria & Albert, and the British Museum’s Richard Blurton wove in and out of the crowd. The leading lights of the Tate’s South Asia Acquisitions Committee—Lekha Poddar, Rajeeb and Nadia Samdani—were harder to glimpse. But new Tate Modern director Frances Morris, former director Chris Dercon, and the show’s co-curator Nada Raza composed a triumphant trio as they surveyed the scene. “I hear Bhupen loved a good party and I hope he is with us in spirit!” laughed Raza. Speaking of the supernatural, was that a goddess descending? It was a saree-clad Rashmi Poddar on the escalator, radiant as Mother India herself. “Victory!” she yelled. Was she rejoicing in the delivery of Indian art to phoren audiences?

For those mere mortals not invited to the Very Exclusive Dinner that followed, there was a We Are Not Invited bash. Wine flowed freely. Canapés were passed. Gossip made its international journey with even greater haste: “Did you know that Sudarshan Shetty has won the Rolls-Royce Art Prize?” “Did anyone see collector Poonam Bhagat?” “Er, may I have another hot potato?” I asked. Further revelry followed on the morrow, when dealers Francesca Galloway and Amrita Jhaveri benevolently hosted a Summer Party. There was Jhaveri herself, shimmering in blue, nearly matching the shades of Khakhar’s paintings. The nearby Grosvenor Gallery paid another compliment: their group show “Bhupen Khakhar’s Contemporaries: India 1960–2016” showcases Indian artists who knew, mentored, or were inspired by him. Vivan Sundaram’s sculptures of internal organs and Nalini Malani’s translucent pictures of floating intestines serve as counterpoints to Anju Dodiya’s tongue-and-cheek gouache Forgetting, 2016.

Left: Artist Francesca Souza. Right: Amrita Jhaveri of Jhaveri Contemporary. (Photos: Wenny Teo)

During “Bhupen Week” parties occurred with such frequency that it was easy to forget their order: At Christie’s South Asian Sale Preview bankers rubbed shoulders with socialites and bumped into Christie’s elegant Amin Jaffer. Champagne was guzzled as everyone crowded around the “prawn fountain” (almost as deliciously phallic as Khakhar’s kitschy creations). A few days later, collectors Kito and Jane de Boer also served up refined helpings of Indian and Pakistani art: an early painting by F.N. Souza of a burning red sun in a menacing landscape battled for attention with one of S.H. Raza’s early orange-and-vermillion abstracts, in which the outline of a black Bindu stealthily emerged. Next, Saffronart’s auction preview offered more Modern delights—an impressively charred-looking painted Head by M.F. Husain, Akbar Padamsee’s unusually shadowy abstract, and some mysteriously cloudy cocktails. Subodh Gupta’s obligatory shiny bartans constructed a triumphant silver arc at the gallery’s entrance. (The Untitled sculpture sold for $168,000.) Toasting British artist Rasheed Araeen’s retrospective at Eindhoven’s Van Abbemuseum—slated for 2017—was an excuse for yet another shindig. Held at collector Taimur Hassan’s lovely house, a lecture by curator Nick Aitkins was accompanied by champagne, masala peanuts, and lashings of South Asian art.

Unfortunately, desi flavors are not to everyone’s taste. Writer Jonathan Jones couldn’t be pleased. Khakhar was “a second-rate artist,” who should never have been “let through” Tate Modern’s doors, he grumbled in The Guardian. The reaction was immediate. “The critic’s eyes are dull, his judgment embarrassing, and his language vulgar,” art historian Geeta Kapur raged in an Open Letter that raced through the Indian art world’s inboxes. Bombay dealer Ranjana Steinruecke challenged the premise of Jones’s attack: The Tate show was not Khakhar’s first retrospective; other institutions have paid homage too. “Where is J.J. coming from? Where has he been these many years?” echoed Helen Barbier, who lent a painting to the Tate extravaganza. Conor Macklin of Grosvenor was covertly enjoying the commotion. “I loved reading the comments!” he admitted.

However, a presentation by Jesse Darling and Raju Rage—part of the Block Universe Performance Festival 2016 (which happened to be running simultaneously)—provided food for thought. With Let Them Eat Cake! pastry-chef Darling and caterer Rage sought to polish off the legacy of colonialism. To make up for the sugar trade’s erstwhile dependence on slavery, guests were invited to decimate ornate cakes, laden with white icing and titled such things as “Colonial Sandwich,” “Qu'ils Mangent de la Brioche,” and “Calvary”. As I watched the confectionary carnage, I recalled that the Tate was founded by a “philanthropic” sugar merchant: Henry Tate. Is the British establishment still having their cake and eating it too? I wondered. Did our reactions to Jones’s review demonstrate that it actually matters what our erstwhile colonizers think? Contrariwise, was Jones’s diatribe the last stand of the Old Guard on its way out? At the end of “Bhupen Week,” the question remains: Who is making chutney out of who?

Left: Artist Paresh Maity. Right: Artist Andrew Logan.

Left: Artist Sudarshan Shetty, director of the 2017 Kochi Biennale. Right: Dealer Kajoli Khanna of Grosvenor Gallery.

Left: Artists Jesse Darling and Raju Rage. (Photo: Block Universe) Right: Curator Alnoor Mitha and artist Faiza Butt.

Left: Artists The Singh Twins. Right: Artist Nilima Sheikh and Kiran Nadar.

Left: Collector Deepak Shahdadpuri and Conor Macklin of Grosvenor Gallery. Right: Nour Aslam of Lahore Biennale 2017, collector Timur Hassan, and Charlie Moore of Grosvenor Gallery.

Left: Dealer Shireen Gandhy of Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai. Right: Elena Araeen and artist Rasheed Araeen. (Photos: Kajoli Khanna)

Left: Writer Salman Rushdie. Right: Artist Gulammohammed Sheikh. (Photos: Wenny Teo)

Left: Olga Shelkovnikova of Gaia Art Foundation and artist Niv Acosta. Right: Collectors Lekha Poddar and Czaee Shah. (Photo: Kajoli Khanna)

Left: Louise O'Kelly, director of Block Universe Performance Festival, and Maria Bukhtoyarova, Gaia Art Foundation. Right: Art historians Renate Dohmen and Virginia Whiles. (Photo: Wenny Teo)