Economy, geography, demography and even the climate – there are many reasons for the rise and fall of great cities, but when we come to remember their trajectories we do so not through the lenses of the social or physical sciences but through the art and culture they produce.
In the same way that the journals of the Goncourt brothers, Baudelaire’s essays and the urban paintings of the Impressionists now frame our vision of 19th century Paris, the works of George Grosz, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht have helped to define popular memories of early 20th century Berlin. But who will provide the images, script and soundtrack by which the great cities of the early 21st century will be judged?
If growth, density, wealth and creativity are any guide to a city’s status then Mumbai already qualifies as one of the world’s great metropolises, and if the curators of a new exhibition at London’s Tate Modern have their way then Bhupen Khakhar’s work will help to define the way future generations remember its rise.
Mumbai may not be India’s fastest growing city but it is its largest urban agglomeration as well as the country’s cultural and financial powerhouse. Not only does it boast India’s highest GDP but it is currently responsible for 25 per cent of its industrial output and 70 per cent of its maritime trade and capital transactions, and its economy is predicted to grow by a further 7.6 per cent by 2020.
Thanks to Midnight’s Children and The Moor’s Last Sigh, Salman Rushdie’s reputation as 20th century Mumbai’s laureate already seems secure and thanks to Bhupen Khakhar: You Can’t Please All, a former accountant who was once hailed as India’s first Pop Art artist looks set to be established as Rushdie’s art historical equivalent.
Curated by Tate Modern’s outgoing director Chris Dercon and assistant curator Nada Raza the show is the first international retrospective of Khakhar’s work since the artist’s death in 2003, but this is not the first time that his deeply personal and highly idiosyncratic paintings have been exhibited on London’s Bankside.
Several of Khakhar’s paintings were shown in Six Indian Painters at the Tate Gallery in 1982 and the museum acquired You Can’t Please All (1981) in 1996. In 2001, Khakhar’s work was used to illustrate Mumbai’s rise in Century City, a global survey of the great cultural capitals of the 20th century.
If this latest show aims to establish Khakhar as one of the key international figures in 20th century painting, then his reputation as a chronicler of life in post-war Bombay is already recognised and secure.
In Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, the New York-based Indian writer Suketu Mehta produced a non-fiction portrait of “the biggest, fastest, richest city in India” in which he concluded that “a city is only as thriving or sickly as your place in it” and that “each Bombayite inhabits his own Bombay”.
That same truth guides Bhupen Khakhar: You Can’t Please All, a show that is as much a portrait of a city as a life.
• Bhupen Khakhar: You Can’t Please All runs at London’s Tate Modern until November 6. Visit www.tate.org.uk for more information and tickets.
Nick Leech is a features writer at The National.
Source: art & life