Bhupen Khakhar's Contemporaries, India 1960-2016: Grosvenor Vadehra

26 May - 17 June 2016

This modest sampling of recent work to come out of India allows us to glimpse some of the directions in which Bhupen Khakhar's artist-contemporaries have travelled- in many cases , away from their "indigenist" beginnings.


It was in the late 1970s that people began to speak of a "Baroda School" of painters, within which the art of Bhupen Khakhar (1934-2003) was one very distinctive component. (Khakhar's retrospective will open at Tate Modern just a few days after the present show.) When India's first post-independence art school took shape in Baroda, the founders broke with British colonial traditions, looking instead both to Modernism and to Tagore's visionary university at Santiniketan. Baroda's guiding teacher, K G Subramanyan (b.1924 - my 2010 drawing is included here) had been the young assistant on the great mural painted at Santiniketan in 1947 by Benodebehari Mukherjee (who was mentor also to the filmmaker Satyajit Ray).


But by 1980 "Baroda" had a looser sense, summoning up a wider collective identity: a range of painters working in several Indian cities who were making a shared rediscovery - in full awareness of Modernist taboos - of deep space, of narrative complexity, of the world and its depiction. It meant challenging the mindset which saw Indian tradition as devoted only to the transcendent and "timeless"- the ethos that had merged in the previous three decades with Western painting's dominant abstraction and formalism. In the words of Gulammohammed Sheikh (b.1937) 


"We are returning to a world of specifics, denied to us when we were at art school by a bunch of faceless modernists, in rhetorical Esperanto of styles…. The specifics have come to us from our life experiences, hence the confessional content and narrational tenor…"


Sheikh was writing in 1969, in the Baroda-based "little magazine" VRISCHIK [scorpion] which he and Khakhar edited together; and where Geeta Kapur, the outstanding critical voice of her generation, first published. What might it now mean, to be an "Indian" artist? "Internationalism and formalism have accompanied each other", she wrote. "My point of view is that internationalism as a cult imposes upon the individual artist…a set of false imperatives that must be examined." By 1978, Khakhar was able to proclaim: "Human beings in their local environment, climate, and provincial society: this should be the ultimate goal of the artist."


  I'd met Bhupen in 1976, and first visited Baroda in 1981. I became a participant in the debate that shaped the following 20 years. Almost all the artists assembled here were at some point touched by that "Baroda" ferment. The most consistent has been the Bombay-based Sudhir Patwardhan (b.1949), who wrote in 1986: " A group of painters has given a new direction and impetus to the unbroken Indian tradition of figuration …What is new in their work is their depiction of our everyday environment in a matter-of-fact but quietly intense manner."  Patwardhan's recent watercolour here, with its gentle exploration of pictorial space, room by room, might be described as "quietly intense". But an older painter such as Arpita Singh (b.1937) in Delhi , was always as much about fantasy and archetype as about "reality" ; while Nalini Malani (b. 1946) has pursued a weightless , floating imagery that has led her away from oil on canvas towards  often transparent, or kinetic , installations. The long collaboration in 1988-9 between Nalini, Bhupen and Vivan Sunderam (b. 1943) on an enormous glass mural was significant for all three, and her triptych here, Connections, beautifully conveys her continuing stream-of- thought.


Sunderam was the most experimental of these artists, moving away from painting to multi-media installation- though nothing in his previous work had prepared me for the little phallic bombshell of Pocket Rocket.  Atul Dodiya (b. 1959) was the most brilliantly talented late recruit to the "Baroda" project; in recent years he has often made explicit homage to Bhupen. Amit Ambalal (b. 1943), essentially self-taught and based in Ahmedabad, also took Bhupen as his mentor. The network was wider than can be covered in this small selection - I would want to mention, for example, Nilima Sheikh, Gieve Patel, and the sculptor Mrinalini Mukherjee. (I've inserted my own 2007 drawing of " Dillu" , as memento of her tragic death last year.)  The late development of Gulammohammed Sheikh into a digital image-maker is represented here by his Thinking About Bhupen, deftly combining Khakhar with, say, Masaccio and Mantegna. Years earlier, he'd written of "the geography of thought", and his multicultural appropriations feel not just unforced, but necessary, in the current Indian monocultural political dispensation. 


Timothy Hyman, 2016, London