Tuesday, 1 September 1998

Phantom Lady or Kismet catalogue I pub. Gallery Chemould, Mumbai I 1998

Robert’s Story

I was sitting behind the partition in Brabourne after Sunday Mass eating my bun maska, when I noticed a strange masked woman sitting alone at a table darting glances at me. She wore black velvet shorts, black tasseled boots, a big black cape and a black hat with a white feather in it. I thought I was in a film shooting. Her eyes rolled behind the mask and she crooked a finger at me furtively. She signaled me to join her at her table.

“I want the Don,” she said, “ I knew you were a Robert the minute I saw your gold tooth. You must know everything.” “Madam,” I said, “I used to be the Don’s right hand man once. I have now become a devout Catholic. In fact he should have finished me off long back because I know so much. But life is strange. Maybe he is waiting for me to go back because every Don needs a Robert.”

‘Robert, you must help me,” she said. “ I must expose this badmash and rescue my twin sister.” “ Madam,” I said,” I will try my best. But who are you and why are you dressed like this at 6.30 in the morning? You look as if you are going to ride off on a horse shouting ‘Hey Hey Hey!’ ”

“I am a small town girl who has had a tough life. I have nobody. I saw myself as a CID agent slipping in and out of the deep shadows of buildings, stalking and being stalked. I would wear a trench coat and a hat low over my face, chain smoking. Then I saw a picture of this costume. Satin, velvet, studded belt, armbands; tassels, feathers, jewellery. Its glamourous. I like it. And I feel free.”

“ Robert,” she said, her voice dropping, “ my twin sister and I were separated in childhood. She was lost and I remained…or maybe it is the other way around. She is bound and I am free…or maybe it is the other way around…”

She pulled her hat low over her face, glanced left and right and darted another look: “ I don’t want to be a cliché, Robert…I want to explore the whole world.”

Pushpamala N
Bangalore 1998

Friday, 1 May 1998


If you went wandering through Lohar Chawl looking for fairy lights ( like I did), turned up at the Jumma Masjid and walked through Mirza Street to buy velvet and turned back towards A-Z on Sheikh Memon Street, you would suddenly come across a row of gleaming torsos modeled on 1950s Hollywood movie goddesses hanging from the railing of the Deluxe Hanger Mart ( on the corner of Kitchen Garden Lane).

Unable to control your curiosity and excitement, you would want to buy one, (like I did). The proprietor assures you he has hundreds of them – in three colours – in his godown and he can get one in five minutes. They come from Bangalore, he says. 

Then triumphant, carrying one wrapped in a large plastic bag, its contours still titillatingly obvious to the crowd of passersby, your mind starts wandering…

You think of those early trips to Bombay from a provincial town, riding in taxies past the glittering reflections of neon signs at Haji Ali. Going to movie theatres like Eros and Regal showing only Hollywood films: Warner Bros., MGM, Paramount. And then you think of the cheap street mannequin with the gleaming body and the windblown bob. Marylin Monroe (who once said she wore only Channel 5 to bed) is even now going to imbue the bras and panties sold in small Crawford Market shops with her aura of seductive glamour.

Bombay, Hollywood and Hindi films. There would always be an uncle or a cousin who would take you to the window of his flat and pointing to the far distance, announce, “Shashi Kapoor lives there”, smiling condescendingly at your awestruck face. Or there would be an Udupi hotel in the suburbs where Raj Kapoor loved to eat masala dosas. Or a neighbour in your hometown would have told you with a worldly sneer: “ Oh people find Meena Kumari and Dharmendra lying drunk together on Juhu beach with whisky bottles in their hands.” The city was mapped by the directions of stars’ houses, studios and ‘talkies’, dead or alive.

My grandmother used to stand in front of her little mirror on the wall in her nine-yards sari and just before she put the perfectly round kumkum on her forehead through the silver kumkum stencil, she would apply Afghan Snow all over her face. Snow-powder completed the perfect ladies toilet. Afghan Snow and Cuticura powder.

Afghan Snow! The tin with its rows of snow-capped mountains was like an aphrodisiac, an elixir for instant beauty!

On a dusky evening three years ago in Baroda, Bhupen Khakhar reads out his new story “Foreign Soap”. The perfumed pink bar sent by a nephew in Abu Dhabi “opens the gates of heaven” for Jeevanlal. When Jeevanlal finds that his neighbours Manilal and Sharada have used up his soap, he takes out his gun and is ready to kill…

Pushpamala N

May 1998

Wednesday, 1 April 1998

Art India Magazine I Book review I Bhupen Khakhar by Timothy Hyman I Chemould Publications I 1998


Description: Bhupen Khakhar’s paintings have this quality of drawing you irresistibly into his world. And there is a definiteness, a consistency and a completeness about his art and life that makes him an excellent subject for a book.

Formal Interpretation:  Timothy Hyman describes Bhupen’s life and work as being ‘both exemplary and emblematic’, and indeed everything about Bhupen seems to be the stuff of legend: it is interesting the way he creates that emblematic quality about himself. He seems to stand iconic in the centre like those saints or national leaders, while all around him are vignettes, which are told stories. Stories of his open house, Pandu the cook, his famous friendships, his lovers, his generosity, his pranks, [getting a wedding band to play for a friend’s birthday in Kasauli], his writing and his aphorisms [‘a bouquet of plastic flowers is an eternal joy to the eyes’], his early catalogues as James Bond, body builder, ridiculing himself…

Symbolic Interpretation: This puckish quality was of Khakhar the Outsider, the ‘Detective Inspector’ poking fun at the solemnity of the Indian art scene.[Hyman writes of Ram Kumar’s fury at seeing Khakhar’s work in the 1970s: this was ‘caricature and in art there is no place for caricature’]. In the process of playing the Fool, the Insignificant Man caught in the rigidities of Indian middle class life [‘I used to immediately take bath twice with cold water following thoughts about sex’]; to the Melancholy Fool who ‘takes off his clothes before the world’ to expose his weakness in a half-embarrassed, half-defiant way, Bhupen Khakhar has become a Master Painter.

Perhaps this has something to do with his ‘coming out’ as a homosexual: the more explicit the subject matter, the more structured and classical the work. Khakhar has always avoided artistic bohemia, he [unlike a Souza or a Husain] maintains a stolidly middle-class salaried man look, preferring to be Common Man rather than Camp.

Interesting Points: Hyman has in a way been an insider to the Indian art scene. He was in Baroda when the ‘Place for People’ show was being planned and sees his role as having ‘endorsed’ the Baroda project, which was interested in a more societal view of art. This tied in with his own concerns of opposing Greenbergian internationalism with another canon of forgotten figurative artists like Bonnard, Beckmann, Leger. In England it was the British Pop artists like Kitaj and Hockney who also interested Khakhar. Hyman describes Khakhar facing the prevalent formalized abstraction in the India of the 1960s, struggling to create an urban pictorial language equivalent to the hybrid Bombay Gujarati dialect that he grew up speaking. In the process, he reinvented a familiar world and made us experience it afresh.

Bhupen Khakhar has found a rare biographer who sympathizes with his concerns and can look at his work with the eye of a practicing painter. The most enjoyable thing about the book is the detailed pictorial analysis of all the important works, interwoven with anecdotes and contextualized in terms of both the artist’s life and the Indian art scene, particularly of the 1970s and 80s.

Mistakes: An unfortunate thing about the book is Hyman’s polarizing of indigenous and International, Indian and Western. This is not a problem with Hyman alone who is an Englishman writing on an Indian artist, but also the way Indian art is looked at within India by artists and critics. These dichotomies were necessary within the Nationalist movement to resist colonial dominance but each term has taken on different meanings now. We need fresh categories to rethink what we have done before and what we are doing now. Our concern is no longer with reconstructing or reinventing a tradition of our own to define ourselves against the European tradition. The notion of the European avant-garde itself has been re-examined and we have our own definitions of modernism. Even the sense of community that Khakhar wants, that comes from identifying with lower middle-class, provincial or popular, becomes difficult when his paintings become openly homosexual.

Pushpamala N

Bangalore 1998