If there is anything that the Jonathan Jones review of Khakhar shows, it is that we in India do not have high quality art reviewing and critiqui
The small and somewhat cozy world of Indian art is agog – angry would be an apposite word too – at a review of an exhibition of Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar at the Tate Modern in London. For an Indian to be shown at the highly prestigious gallery was considered an accolade and there was much celebration when the show opened, but that mood has soured after the piece appeared in the Guardian.
Titled ‘Bhupen Khakhar review – Mumbai’s Answer to Beryl Cook’, the review by Jonathan Jones eviscerates the Tate for holding an exhibition of “this old-fashioned, second rate artist whose paintings are stuck in a timewarp of 1980s neo-figurative cliché.” Jones’s ire is mostly directed at the gallery, a “grandstanding institution in its proclamations on the future of art.”
In the hallowed world of Indian art, where rude reviews are conspicuous by their absence and where Khakhar is a much-revered figure, such comments have been brushed off as ignorant and even racist. The first might have some merit – Jones may not fully grasp Khakhar’s standing in the Indian art constellation or indeed appreciate the boldness of examining his gay identity in the 1980s (though he does refer to it in his review.) But the second charge, of racism, seems somewhat misplaced. There is not a whiff of racist comment in the piece unless one questions the very premise of a sharply critical piece on an artist who is not white – but that would by itself justify Jones’s assertion that Khakhar is getting a soft ride.
Simmering over Jones’s review – a sharp and wittily written one, by the way – is thus wholly unnecessary because he is entitled to his views (and for the record, the Guardian had also published another piece on the artist – a much warmer one – by Amit Chaudhuri.)
What is about foreign approval or criticism that seems to bother us so much? We glow when we are acknowledged in the salons of the west and get bitter and angry when faced with critical scrutiny or even a stray remark that may not be intended as a slight.
During the recent contretemps about the Snapchat video by Tanmay Bhat making fun of Sachin Tendulkar and Lata Mangeshkar, a report in the New York Times mentioned her as a “so-called playback singer.” Social media went berserk claiming that she had been insulted. It was clear that the phrase “so-called” was to clarify to an American readership which did not know what a playback singer meant, but to the touchy Indian it cast aspersions on the great Bharat Ratna winning icon.