A series of five exhibitions celebrating 50 years of Chemould Prescott Road
Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai
3 September - 3 October, 2013
Bhupen Khakhar, Anju Dodiya, Mehlli Gobhai, Gieve Patel, Sudhir Patwardhan, Srinivasa Prasad, Gargi Raina, Mithu Sen, Sudarshan Shetty, Aditi Singh
It’s best to anticipate the question. Why inaugurate 50 years of Chemould’s exuberant life with the motif of death? This is not some curatorial game of inversion - the reason is simple. It is the tenth death anniversary of Bhupen Khakhar, the preeminent painter of our times supported by Chemould from the start of his uncommon career. 
This is also in remembrance of Kekoo Gandhy, Chemould’s founder, who died just before the year of celebration. He was a confirmed socialist, he had Gandhian ethics, he was a fearless activist in moments of political crisis. He was an eccentric and a comrade of artists across three generations. Chemould’s 50 Years celebration is dedicated to him.
Even though it is curatorial protocol, I am disinclined to offer a concept note. There is, nonetheless, a compulsion for words. Death’s affect materializes in the body as immanent mortality but its existential meaning is speculated in philosophy, unravelled by poetics; there is rhetorical cadence in the very utterance of the word, death. The reality of death comes alive in its enunciation, as it does in image and experience; I have chosen, therefore, to embed brief texts in the exhibitory space - artists’ titles and notes, and, in a couple of instances, my annotations.
An exhibition must, however, speak through the image that is an embodiment of such poesis, knowledge, premonition. The image immortalizes absence; it promises presence as a preemptive move against nothingness. Thus the obsession with sacralization, representation, sexualization of the dead body; and, conversely, with metaphysics that abstracts the living body into soul.
Bhupen, the protagonist of this exhibition, is featured with paintings from the last two decades of his life - cut short by cancer. Here, in these paintings, he offers himself as (a) reluctant subject in the province of death. If death’s gaze shapes and marks Bhupen’s queer bodies, there is also a peculiar mimicry at work. He wrests death’s agency and struggle on the very ground of painting. More cannily, he exposes such diverse forms of subjection that are reproduced in death’s name by sacred, sovereign and aesthetic regimes.
Because death came so rapidly to Bhupen, he addressed it every which way - with rage, with pleas for compassion, with unconcealed terror. What he also confirmed is that disease ignites desire. Bhupen’s ‘late style’ releases images cathected in the figure of death and yet bestowed with such erotic power that they produce a contrarian affect: refusal and sublimation, each equally uncompromised.
The exhibition as a whole is a reticent take on (the) subject of death. It is predominantly a show of paintings and it narrativizes extinction. It seems death’s subject is the self after all… The work of Gieve Patel and Sudhir Patwardhan signify a slow surrender to mortality. Under the ruse of painting ‘family’ - of very old men who are real and possible fathers - the two artists, each in his own way, fuse affinities with estrangement to prefigure the end. In my curatorial relay, such vulnerable imagery asks to be redeemed. A senior colleague, Mehlli Gobhai, offers the protocol of erasure; his three paintings appear like panels of a chapel where the invisible supplicant kneels.
The much younger Sudarshan Shetty offers two simple objects and a line of text that spells hubris in the style of the Greeks, or, contrarily, the humblest of Buddhist monks: ‘god envies my mortality’. A form of ‘self-naughting’ (Coomaraswamy’s favoured concept, akimcanna), this is an atheistic but equally an aesthetic claim: a mere mortal mocks god and ‘his’ laws of life and death.
The Greeks feature in Gargi Raina’s work. Her glass boxes filled with feather-sprouting seeds disperse with a breath but bear a heraldic title. Words from an epitaph to Heraclitus retrieve from death her slight samples of illumined life. This object-text is curatorially framed by two more works of Gargi: the plainest of (threaded) discs annotated with the words of Akka Mahadevi valorizing her birth from a thousand wombs; and a video-still recalling unmarked graves in her beloved Kashmir. The artist’s snowed-in body is flanked by a blanched double-image of (Holbein’s) ‘son of god’ suffering death in extremis.
Beside this ensemble is placed Srinivasa Prasad’s photo-text documentation of his performing body. In one, the artist brings home ash from the cremation of an unidentified body and hand-prints with his finger a veil of ash on the walls of a room: the ‘ethics of dust’. The ritual is humbling. The reverse of the wall pictures a nomad: the artist’s journey as a black-clad ‘anarchist’ walking his dog in the woods and across streams to a utopian destination that may be death’s lair.
Anju Dodiya’s ‘diary’ pages offer a concentrated act of mourning (her own) death where each visage signals fateful stigmata. Mourning is also an act of healing the narcissistic wound, but that healing is here annotated with ‘medical’ diagrams that will, with some irony, treat ‘to the end’ her eruptive selves - always so vivaciously alive and stubbornly dead. In a fortuitous conjunction, Aditi Singh opens the wound. The paper bleeds, you see a flatbed of (what look like) poppies crumpled in the bud or full-blown with stamens in a whorl. The pollen of the oriental poppy is dark blue…
Back to the beginning of the gallery, and in a closed room occupied by Mithu Sen you see ‘shadowlines’ of the tenderest bodies in Bhupen’s oeuvre. Mithu extracts and etches on acrylic sheets Bhupen’s (now orphaned) figures; she backs these with her own minute watercolours on paper that align with the ‘master’ image by a trick of light. This is homage and play; the delicacy of Mithu’s gesture hides her claim as legatee of Bhupen’s promiscuous and perverse aesthetic. And to win her place, she adds what he ‘lacked’: virtuosity. No virtuoso himself, Bhupen is the mad ‘game master’ who puts us all on trial.
But today, here, this is Saint Bhupen hanging resplendent in his gallery and among friends.
Text by Geeta Kapur.
 See Geeta Kapur, ‘The Uncommon Universe of Bhupen Khakhar’ in Pop Art and Vernacular Culture, ed Kobena Mercer, Iniva, London, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2007