The Art of Collecting

An American political science professor and his extraordinary fascination with Bhupen Khakhar’s works that has led him to collect over 100 of them
Canvas
Brian Weinstein (Photo: RITESH UTTAMCHANDANI)
Ceramics II
He Talks with Flowers
An etching: Intimacy

When somebody mentions the term ‘art collector’, a picture immediately springs to mind—of business tycoons with deep pockets, forever hunting for rare artworks to add to their enviable private collections. The term could just as easily be applied to dealers, galleries and museums. They all collect art, but for different reasons—dealers and galleries buy for both personal and commercial purposes, museums to boost their permanent collections.

Brian Weinstein is none of those. A professor emeritus of political science at Howard University, Washington DC, Weinstein has neither the chequebook of a businessman nor clout of a museum. But given his modest means, he has been able to amass—bit by bit—a remarkable collection of Indian paintings, particularly those of Bhupen Khakhar’s, referred to by some critics as ‘India’s first pop artist’.

Weinstein owns over 100 of Khakhar’s works, mostly watercolours, ink drawings and etchings. With the artist’s price hitting the roof after his death in 2003, Weinstein cannot afford the expensive oils and acrylics. Just to give you an idea of Khakhar’s valuation, one of his acrylic works fetched a little less than Rs 50 lakh at Saffronart’s autumn auction in September 2011. Nonetheless, Weinstein probably holds the largest privately owned Bhupen Khakhar collection outside India. And it is growing. Only recently, he added a ceramic plate, executed by the artist during his fellowship days in the Netherlands.

Weinstein was initially reluctant to speak about his collection but agreed only because he felt a responsibility to share Khakhar’s work with fellow art lovers.

“I don’t want to be famous. Am I allowed to hide behind Bhupen?” he asks. “I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, you are such a great man,’ or, ‘Gosh, you have such a remarkable collection.’ Instead of such compliments, I would be pleased to hear someone say: ‘Thank you for introducing me to Bhupen. I didn’t know about him and I think he was a great painter.’”

To encourage further discussion on Khakhar’s work, Weinstein floated a website (bhupenkhakharcollection. com) last year. The portal is neatly organised and contains interviews, clippings and pictures. In a note, he credits Khorshed Gandhy of Gallery Chemould with introducing him to Khakhar. In 1993, when Weinstein first came to Bombay, Gandhy ferreted out one of the artist’s arresting reverse paintings—“Bhupen was a master at reverse painting”—titled Lost Souls. Touched by its “narrative style and strong colours”, Weinstein offered to buy it. Unfortunately, the artist had issued strict instructions that it was not for sale. Gandhy encouraged him to call Khakhar and see if he would change his mind.

Two days later, Weinstein landed in Suvarnapur Society in Baroda, where Khakhar had found a haven after leaving Bombay. The artist agreed to sell, but only on one condition— that instead of its usual price of $600, he would have to shell out $900. Weinstein accepted without bargaining and ended up learning what he calls the first rule for any collector: “Never haggle with the artist. If he quotes a price, take it or leave it.”

Since then, Weinstein became a regular visitor to the home of his favourite artist and stayed with him, as did Khakhar when he went to Washington DC in the mid-1990s. Staying with Khakhar offered the professor a peek into the life and mind of an artist.

“Collectors should try to spend time with artists, to understand how they work and the kind of labour they put in,” he says. Though Khakhar was largely self-taught, he had mastered many mediums of expressions, including sculpting and printmaking.

“He would sit cross-legged, in the Indian style, and work steadily.”

About Khakhar’s technique, he says, “One of the paintings in my collection is that of a dhoti-clad man looking at a flower. Bhupen told me how he did it. He always carried a sketchbook with him. One day, he drew a man walking on the street. A few days later, he went through an English book of flowers. While painting, he simply combined the two.”

Born in Gulalwadi and raised in Khetwadi, Bombay, Khakhar was once a chartered accountant by profession. In 1972, he wrote in his autobiography that he was meant to be an artist. ‘Palmists say that people having long and thin fingers are born artists. If you happen to see my palm you will immediately say that this is an artist’s palm,’ he wrote. Though he could not afford a full-time art course at MSU, Baroda, he benefited by mingling with others trained formally as artists. In 1960, he met artist Gulammohammed Sheikh. It was a friendship that endured till his death. Sheikh was instrumental in helping him move to Baroda.

Predominantly a figurative painter, Khakhar painted what he felt and observed around him. “He once told an interviewer: ‘I cannot paint a violin because a violin is not a part of my life,’” says Weinstein.

Embedded in his work is both a celebration of everyday themes and mythological imagery. Weinstein says when he expressed sexual intimacy, he did so with sensitivity, grace and humour. Mumbai-based artist Atul Dodiya once said in an interview that he studied Khakhar for his ‘wit’.

Despite the artist’s broad range and expertise, Weinstein feels Khakhar has remained a neglected figure in Indian art. “When people talk about the great masters, Bhupen is rarely mentioned. I think that’s a mistake because his honesty, technique and originality make him a truly great artist.”

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Weinstein first visited India in 1981. It was a fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies that brought him here, and he spent several months conducting research on the Tamil language at the Central Institute of Indian Languages in Mysore. On a trip to Madras, he discovered Tanjore paintings. He traces the beginnings of his interest in Indian art to this trip. “Though I didn’t have enough money, I managed to buy a Tanjore painting,” he recalls.

When a research project on Baghdadi Jews came along in 1993, he got a chance to visit Bombay. Doing the rounds of local galleries, he got entranced by Indian modern art. At Cymroza Art Gallery in South Mumbai, he purchased his first Khakhar print. The artist was openly homosexual, and in the bitterly conservative society that India was then, he often had to suffer for it. At first, ashamed, he had contemplated suicide. But over the years, he grew comfortable with his sexuality and learnt to express it more freely. The print that Weinstein had bought had brazen homoerotic content.

“Embarrassed, I gave it away to someone,” he says.

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According to Weinstein, who volunteers for The Phillips Collection, America’s first museum for modern art founded in 1921, collecting doesn’t simply mean casual accumulation. “First, you must understand that art is priceless. It is not about money but about passion and emotion,” he says. Why then do collectors fork out millions for a piece of art?

Weinstein answers: “Suppose you pay Rs 5 lakh for a painting and you live for 30 years after that. Do you realise for those 30 years, every day you have derived pleasure and joy from that painting? Isn’t it worth it? Then, it goes to your children, and friends, and so many people who come and see it, and the painting serves them as well.”

He tries to justify the exorbitant price artists sometimes charge by saying: “Bhupen once explained to me that artists do not get a salary. He said, ‘And we don’t sell something every day.’ They need collectors to keep them going financially.”

Weinstein is a 75-year-old bachelor. His house in Washington DC, which he shares with his dog Frank, is crammed with art. He also owns works by Gulammohammed Sheikh and Nilima Sheikh, who along with Khakhar were part of a loose grouping of artists called the Baroda School. There is art even on his ceiling. He has arranged everything thoughtfully, just like his website. He says that art-buying is chiefly governed by personal tastes and aesthetics, but there should be some thought and coherence to one’s collection.

He thinks it advisable for collectors to share their collection. “My house is open for everyone,” he says. “Every year, I host a small do for my framers. We talk about art and everytime something new comes up.”

Over the centuries, private collectors, dealers and art connoisseurs have played a significant role in the development of art. The bitter irony is that whether it was the Medici family and the Popes that commissioned Renaissance Art or promoters like Paul Durand-Ruel, Ambroise Vollard, Sergei Shchukin and Gertrude Stein who advocated modern art, collectors rarely become as famous as artists, languishing in history as mere footnotes.

But the collector is one of the lifelines for an artist. Unlike films and books, which need a certain number of adherents to make them blockbusters and bestsellers, art needs only one patron. Weinstein doesn’t quite agree.

“Bhupen has many collectors. He doesn’t need me. I need him,” he says. “But coming back to the question of whether art is different from movies or books, it actually is. You remember the treasure that was discovered in a Kerala temple? [Gold and jewels worth crores found at Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Kerala in 2011.] Art is like that. Even if nobody is buying it, it’s still a treasure. Suddenly, somebody will come along and discover it. So, yes, in that sense, one collector can do a great deal.”

He says some prominent collectors never bought art from the artists directly even if they knew them personally. “This was to ensure money doesn’t come in the way of their relationship.”

One of the hazards of collecting is the risk of being duped. Fakes float around in the market. Sometimes, even the most expert collector can be taken for a ride. “Once in a while, you do get fooled,” he says, citing the example of American art historian Bernard Berenson’s notorious 1923 Leonardo da Vinci case in which he was called in as an expert witness but his wrong attribution ended up tarnishing his reputation. “Once, I showed a new acquisition to Atul Dodiya. Atul knows Bhupen’s work well. Without waiting a second, he said it’s a fake. People in the industry know that copiers have expert skills.”

So, how does one separate an original from a fake? “Buy from known sources,” he recommends.

Asked if he will donate his works to any Indian museum someday, he says, “Praful Shah has a museum in Surat with a special focus on Bhupen.”

But that’s not where his collection is going. By Weinstein’s will, the collection is to be sold after his death. “And the money be given away in charity,” he says.