Saturday, May 23, 2009

On Bhupen Khakhar: Waiting for the Two, not Godot – Inder Salim

(Note: Friends it is a matter of great pleasure to read through the thoughts of Inder Salim, who has noted down his personal responses to some of the works of Bhupen Khakhar. Please read on and it will be wonderful to receive comments on his points.)
“He caught my hand. Involvement, allurement, attraction haddisappeared from my heart. I was thinking of paintings”. (Pages FromDiary by Bhupen Khakhar) Contemporary Gallery Specific Art rarely moves me, and even if itdoes, it evaporates soon, but the moment I saw Bhupen Khakhar’scomposition in ceramics “WAITING FOR THE TWO”. I felt instantlytransformed into another space. Nearly, two decades after I saw thepiece at a private gallery in Delhi I still feel the vibration of thatinside. Within the bulk of works in the exhibition, there was a smalldrawing in the show titled “CROSSING VAITARNI”. The two workstogether, if arranged innovatively in a single space could have reallybrought out the hidden mysterious delightful demon out the two, but aswe know, most of the shows are meant to hang the works, merely to sellas much as possible. But that is another matter.Sufi-Bhakti traditional poetry is overwhelmingly full of this desirefor the union of the Two. Its proponents yearn for a long term fusionto realize the God-like one ness, which has often a male-female,yum-yab, yin-yang like pre-condition to realize the Two, with someexceptions in Sufi tradition where Male-Male relationship aspired tofor a spiritual union. This union, once processed during Life canendure Death even, and can shine as a unique distant star in the wideopen cosmos. But Bhupen’s two never aspire to become a star, and aredown to earth entities, almost animal like, who have an earthly urgeto realize the other space without abandoning the physical form. Thequantum of sensuality hidden under the skin, in the formas-a-bag-as-a-body is almost absolute in the mind of this artist,Bhupen Khakhar.Again, in a Momin-Khan-Momin couplet, either there is oneness afterthe union of the two, or only one out of the two if the gazepenetrates the lovers, sitting face to face. This phenomenon of ‘theTwo aiming for One’ has almost a monopoly in Indian spiritualunderstanding, both in practice and in literary traditions as well.Great saint-poet-feminist like Meera, too aimed to submit her entirebeing to the concept of a sublime merger with the Blue God Krishana.Quite extraordinarily executed in words and action by a range ofsaints and poets in the past, but with Bhupen it is radicallydifferent.In Sufi conceptual thought we have Ishq-e-Majazi (love’s empiricalside, two as two), which follows the lasting realization of lovebetween the two as Ishq-e-Hakiki.( divine love’s oneness ). But Bhupennever seems to touch this over hyped or exaggerated ‘divine’ in love,although he mysteriously discovers the same, but magically, without atrace or a possibility to conceptualize a shrine, unlike in theformer.Before going into dynamics of this ‘two’, we have a highly valuedexistential one from Samuel Beckett. Waiting for Godot is about acharacter in absentia, perhaps, someone who is God and Idiot blendedas one. Some mundane, routine, and familiar characters are waitingunder the tree for this character called Godot. But he never arrives.Here also, the merger of the two into one never happens. Again, poetMomin says, Tum meray kisi tarah na huya, warna duyna mein kya nahinhota (I tried my best, but if you and I had become one in love, theworld would have radically changed). Translated roughly.Again, in the Backett’s one, there is some sinister air about thenon-arrival of Godot. Needless to remind, that Godot was born in thebeing of nothingness of World War II. There was pain in the air, somehope too. In Backet’s own words, he wrote: “just to escape my awfulprose writing those days”. In Sufi-Bhakti poetry it is again, the onlymeans to escape the mundane of the stark temporality heavy upon themind. But with Bhupen it is the mundane which reproduces its own kindof fish to swim within the mundane itself.In a Rene Magritte painting, two half-fish-half-human are in a deepembrace on the sea shore with a sailing ship in the back ground, aship made up of water is a profound desire to fill our consciousnesswith the idea of a beginning of our love life which emerged from sealife. But as we know we have lost that echo, even if we understand ourprimordial past scientifically. Drawing it surreally-realistically thefigures in stone gives it a vast but sad movement at the same time,although a very powerful visible form to contemplate.But with ‘waiting for the two’ we are face to face with an invisiblepresence of a set of two. For this and some other works as well,Bupen uses everything, Indian folk and Modern, Indian mythology andpopular, to realize this love’s beginning in the present. He is toointerested in what is happening to him and his lover, both imaginedand real. He sees this two everywhere, and yet he is rushing to havea ‘darshan’ of the two. They ‘the two’ are always within his reach,and yet he goes from painting to painting to verify that if the twoare still there, on the tree, in the caves, merged in a group, or in abed room.Bhupen would not have given birth to this ‘waiting for the two’ andother works if Western Modern art forms had not influenced him at MSUniversity Baroda, but his love for his present as two-as-two neverleft any space empty, neither for a traditional two-as-one or for amodern one as in Godot. He celebrates life.In his chapter Disappearance of Literature, from THE BOOK TO COME,Maurice Blanchot says “ …literature is going towards itself, towardsits essence, which is its disappearance”. Quite magically, Bhupen hasgiven form to a disappearance through an absence of the two. Theabsence of the two is ontologically posited in the composition, andhence it creates an instant possibility to deliver this special two. The two can be anything, Lord Rama Lord Laxmana in an sensualembrace (one of his water colour) , or in ‘ crossing vaitarini’ thetwo naked males holding the tail of a mythical cow who is helping ‘thetwo’ lovers without guilt to cross the hell to enter heaven. In onesense, both the hell (hell as the grotesque figures in the cow) andheaven (heaven as the two naked males holding the tail) are justvisible in a single frame. This Hindu belief that a cow if donatedduring life time can help the mortal human being to cross the hurdlesafter death, for Bhupen it becomes a vehicle to meet his loverwaiting in the apartment across the street in Baroda . The painting‘crossing vaitarni’ is breathing the same air which Bhupen isbreathing. Because he is only thinking about Two, always.This waiting for the TWO is the engine of a thought-machine whichtransported me once, and is still elevating my circularity of thoughtto understand both empirical and metaphysical reality of what hasdisappeared. That is one dimension.‘Waiting for the Two’ also reminds me a less familiar Prem Chand storyin which he shows the strange behaviour of an old lady. She is morethan hundred years old, and it was the marriage ceremony of hergrand-grand-grand children’s marriage where she just uninhibitedlyeats the food. And as we know, in India, bride grooms usually arrive alittle late in the evening, so these old women had to wait for thecouple, endlessly. The story ends with her eating the food left overby guests. No body interferes in her behaviour, not even his owngrand-children.Bhupen in his work ‘waiting for the two’ shows five old, more than 100year old women sitting in a row in front of seven plates full ofvegetarian meals. There is no one in front of the two plates, and sono one is eating. One instantly realizes that it is because of thematerial in art which makes it immobile, and hence not Life. The oldwomen are not living forms but dead forms. And if so, then the twoholding the tail of a cow are living entities, which are quiteworldly, and that is why they are not there, and these five old womenare waiting for the two. So, Bhupen celebrates Death withoutdisappearance of the two (two lovers) during his life time. Or, ifthey are they dead, holding the tail of a cow, and the set of fivewomen had to wait for the two who will arrive any moment, but when?Paradoxically, the vulnerability of an Artist is multi limbed. Thenumber of arms around his shoulders are indirectly proportional to hisinability to manage worldly commitments. The more he realizes hisfailures in life, the more he invests in Art. He becomes a Bhagwan (God) like entity ( say a deity like Vishnu ) who declares hislimitations to make love in spite of many arms available to him tohold his beloved. It is almost similar to what we can possibly see ina dream. This vulnerability of artists is universal, and the loversare not exceptional. They also die like other human beings, anddisappear from the vast visibility of our actual continuity of life inthe present. It is exactly here, that Bhupen Khakhar escapes the factof death. He and his beloved are two and want to live and cross theriver of this worldly hell unharmed.In his 1995 water colour, titled “An Old Man From Vasad Who Had FivePenises Suffered from Runny Nose” has once again given birth to a God like thing, who is alreadywalking on the earth somewhere. Here, the newspaper item, becomes asacred mantra which inspires him to illustrate the latest deity, whichis akin to the first artist who might have drawn, for example, aGanesha after reading or hearing some story about the elephant God.Here, a casually drawn human being with many penises. The figure isalmost in a hospital, waiting for a some surgery. He wants to get ridof the surplus of penises, waiting for just one functional penis, andthat may eventually heal his runny nose as well. In this work hepaints the man’s hand with six fingers, which is unusual but hiscausal drawing, almost bad drawing of hands is a universal feature inhis works.And this feature ‘Bhupen Hands’ has seduced me to no end. His baddrawing of hands are the tools, like talisman in his paintings whichinvite us for a ‘darshan’ (deedar in urdu,which means the exceptionallook of divinity, or beloved). So, in the work titled ‘Darshan’ hehas deliberately painted a pair of such two hands of two men hangingoutside the frame of a marriage event. Amazingly, there is no one looking at the main highlight inside thepainting. That means, it is almost the norm, but, here in the work itis perhaps aimed to initiate a discourse on homosexuality, therefore,political. In his work. Muslims around a Mosque, again he shows thatthe notion that non-existence of a QUEER in any community is a myth.He is not interested in the penis as a matter of fact, whether it iscircumcised or not. He is interested in the simple desire of a humanbeing, that desire which exclusive-heterosexuality has impaired. Thevictim inevitably is woman. So Bhupen is a feminist artist in thatsense as well.The two male winged human beings are about to touch their penises. Ihave read somewhere about some ancient Hindu Vedic practice that theyoung elder son is supposed to touch all the parts of his body withhis dying father to inherit all his smaskaras (wise ways of living).This practice includes touching of each others penises as well. SoBhupen in his work yayati he giftsa pair of wings to these earthly figures. There is no hit of death,nor is there any possibility of loosing any potency because of penisto penis touch. With wings, they look like representatives of Kama Dev( Love God ) to energize the homosexual world. All his wants is love,nothing but love.In his work, ‘inside Man’s heart’ he is using Lord Hanuman’s gesturethat reveals his love for Rama and Sita. Lord Hanuman rips his chestviolently to reveal what is inside his heart. But Bhupen’sprotagonist ‘man’ in his water colour reveals not two but many meninside and outside his heart. He has indeed made love with number ofmen in his life. A simple sensual male to male sex, for a simplehuman ejaculation.“ So? it is very rare to have false lovers these days” Says one ofhis characters, Savita in a Gujarati play ‘ Manjulial Manilal . Bhupenis not worried about what is true or false in love and life. For himthis world is the only reality which one needs to realize. This lifeis worth living, even a for a begger. So the mythological charactersbecome worldly ( almost ) and the real characters become mythological( almost ).Any citizen of India or a tourist can sit in the lap of a sittinglarge Gandhi Bronze, but when Bhupen (a performance) sat and gothimself photographed by Ram Rahman, he paid an erotic tribute to theFather of the Nation. By sitting in his lap, he instantly transformed into the penis of Gandhi, because of difference in scale, difference in proportion between a icon and ordinary. But, a small but living penis of agreat but dead statesman. He effortlessly executing his ideas,whether this performance or his water colour; and one keeps onwondering about the genius of this great artist without which IndianArt would have, a little peevishly, always looked a clever derivativeof what we casually call Modern Western Art.Thanks to Bhupen Khakhar, the Artist.

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