You Can’t Please All

Somak Ghoshal is an editor and writer based in Bengaluru
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A recent storm raised in a teacup points to contemporary India’s uneasy relationship with a culture of reviewing

WHEN WAS THE last time you read a review of an art exhibition in the Indian media? And I don’t mean a column (such as this one), where you are more likely to come across opinions on the state of contemporary art than a structured critique of specific artists and their work. Nor do I refer to the forgettable artist profiles and tittle-tattle from opening nights of art exhibitions that occasionally grace the society pages of various publications. What I’m thinking of is a full-blooded review: an impassioned declaration of love for an artist or as much hatred for another’s work. Chances of such encounters in Indian cultural journalism—or rather whatever activities go by that name—are woefully slim.

A couple of weeks back, though, Indians were jolted by that rarest of things: an art review. We took collective umbrage at a commentary on a show of one of our very own artists, written by a foreign critic. And for good reasons too. Jonathan Jones, an art critic with the British newspaper Guardian, demolished a retrospective of the late Bhupen Khakhar’s paintings at the Tate Modern in London in a handful of succinct paragraphs. Comparing Khakhar’s work with Beryl Cook’s, he found nearly nothing redeeming about his style or legacy. Jones was unaffected by Khakhar’s humour, he was unhappy with what he felt was amateurish use of colours and was generally of the opinion that his work was unworthy of being displayed at a prestigious gallery like the Tate Modern. (These are not exactly his words, but Jones wouldn’t possibly disagree with the drift of my summary.)

All hell broke loose, as readers, both from India and elsewhere (Jones has a sizeable number of haters in England too) poured out their scorn on various platforms, deploring his ill-informed review. There were insinuations, and in some instances upfront accusations, of racism. Curiously, Jones’ colleague, Laura Cumming, also reviewed the show in the Observer, and felt as much distaste, though she was more restrained in her dismissal of the Indian artist.

While not finding much to recommend in Khakhar’s style (‘He has no fluency or touch with the brush; he moves the paint around with laborious difficulty’), she did concede that unimaginative curating may have played a major role in the less than satisfactory presentation of such an important artist. More strikingly, both she and Jones found common ground not only in their palpable dislike of Khakhar, almost for the same reasons, but they also liked only one, and the same painting, depicting an Englishman drinking in a bar.

Bhupen Khakhar happens to be one of my favourite artists. Not only do I find him an exceptional colourist for someone who was largely self-taught, I am also charmed by the wit, charisma and the sheer flamboyance with which he approached his subjects. He was among the earliest and one of the few Indian artists to express his homosexuality candidly in his stories and paintings. (His literary output, mostly in Gujarati, is less-known than his paintings.) But the most fascinating aspect of his sensibility, perhaps, was his gift for locating the axis of his queerness within the squarely middle- class suburban milieu he inhabited all his life.

Being aware of the context that shaped his life and work, and also being more familiar with the value system within which he produced his most controversial paintings, I am more keenly appreciative of the very qualities in Khakhar that critics like Jones or Cumming miss in his art. There is, therefore, a fair complaint to be made about the less than imaginative curating of a show ostensibly intended to introduce one of the pioneers of Indian modernism to a largely uninformed Anglo-Saxon audience.

Having said that, both Jones and Cumming are seasoned art writers and critics, part of whose job is to inform themselves as much as they can about the subject they are going to write about. They have to be thorough with their homework not only for the sake of factual accuracy, but to be also able to approach the work with some degree of fairness and empathy. When critics look at an artwork going far back from their immediate geographical and temporal context, it is their duty to familiarise their readers, as well as themselves, with the specificities of the moment in which it was created. If one doesn’t approach a work, be it a painting or a book or a piece of music, through this ‘frame’, one is quite likely to end up ‘misreading’ it.

If, for example, you suddenly thrust Francis Bacon on viewers in India, many who may have never been exposed to the history of modern European art, their reaction to his work could be just as damning as Jones’ or Cumming’s to Khakhar. It is, of course, likely, and probable, that in the global hierarchy of cultures, the reactions of Indian viewers to Western art won’t count for much. Even if one of our critics got it wrong—this is, of course, assuming that Bacon’s work, were it to travel to India, would be deemed worthy of coverage here—it would be hard to imagine the Guardian writing incensed editorials because one of their national icons had been misunderstood and sullied by an Indian critic.

When I look back on the outrage poured at the Khakhar reviews, I do not feel any part of it was unjustified or unwarranted. But I do feel much of it was excessive and uncalled for. It is possible to counter criticism without getting angry, anxious and defensive, without reading conspiracy theories in the judgments offered by the critics or labelling them racists. Regrettably, all of the above were associated with many of the rebuttals to Jones and Cumming.

The brouhaha certainly did bring attention to the problems of presenting Indian art to a culture outside of the Subcontinent without sufficiently preparing the grounds for its reception. Thanks to the whims of the market, the perception of Indian art in the West has been profoundly influenced over the years by its material value. It was the staggering price of one of his paintings at a Christie’s auction that brought VS Gaitonde into the limelight—though he had belonged with the greats for many years—leading to the posthumous show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2014. Although the exhibition could hardly be called representative of Gaitonde’s oeuvre—it even featured a number of damaged work—critics abroad were largely impressed by his genius. This was probably made possible by the curatorial effort surrounding the show. So perhaps there is a case to be made for not judging an iconic artist only by what one sees at a show—forgetting the social, political and cultural forces that forged his sensibility, or the fact that a curator can hope to convey just a glimpse of a complex mind at work.

The most telling aspect of this episode, for me, concerns a matter that goes beyond the immediate worry of a couple of ill-judged reviews. The storm raised in the teacup really points to contemporary India’s uneasy relationship with a culture of reviewing. While media outlets in India still carry regular film and some book reviews, art gets little attention in that form, if at all. We are more comfortable paying homage to our masters, as well as to contemporary artists, than looking at their art dispassionately.

From having a robust tradition of reviewing art, fostered by critics extraordinaire like Richard Bartholomew, we have settled into a state of intellectual poverty and inertia. The bulk of what goes by the name of ‘reviews’, of films or books or art, anyway tends to be summaries of the work under survey, with little attempt to historicise it or open it out in other directions. More often than not, reviews become an exercise to forge new alliances, strengthen existing friendships or settle scores with foes. No wonder when we stumble on a rare honest opinion, even one that had got everything wrong, we are left red in the face, writing irate protest pieces to control the damage.

(This is the concluding column of Eye Witness)