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For British painter Howard Hodgkin, India was muse and escape

The British Council closed its 70th anniversary celebrations with a talk about a perfectly chosen landmark, its own headquarters in Delhi.

mumbai Updated: Nov 24, 2018 00:21 IST
Rachel Lopez
Rachel Lopez
Hindustan Times
Howard Hodgkin,Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj,Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation
Howard Hodgkin

The British Council closed its 70th anniversary celebrations with a talk about a perfectly chosen landmark, its own headquarters in Delhi. The building was designed by Indian architect Charles Correa in 1992 and features a gigantic stone-and-marble mural by Howard Hodgkin, perhaps Britain’s most important contemporary artist, who made several trips to India from the 1960s on, and died last year at the age of 84. He created his last works in Mumbai, painting five unconnected canvases in six weeks despite ill health and limited mobility.

At Friday’s talk, organised by the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj museum and the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation, music writer Antony Peattie, Hodgkin’s partner for more than three decades, focused on the mural at the British Council HQ — a banyan tree whose many branches seem to embrace the building’s facade.

“The great thing about the mural is that you can’t see all it from any one point,” Peattie said. Stone and marble were meticulously cut and joined to create a seamless wraparound installation.

Peattie offered several other examples of Hodgkin’s abstract work across half a century, including works created in and inspired by his extensive trips around India. It made for an interesting new view of the artist’s work. Critics who look at Hodgkin’s paintings on canvas, khadi-paper and eventually salvaged wood, usually note the Matisse-like vividness, calligraphic smears and interplay of textures.

Mughal and Rajput miniatures from Hodgkin’s famed personal collection, which kickstarted his interest in India and are regarded as some of the world’s best, were also part of the talk.

For those in the audience, the talk was a bittersweet event. Many, like art photographer Ketaki Sheth and her mother Asha, knew Hodgkin well. The artist travelled with Asha Sheth to Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in the 1970s, staying in dak bungalows, and painted her on two occasions.

For Ketaki it was a “triple privilege” to have known Hodgkin and Peattie and “have him talk about the artist and his work”.

To others in the audience, like scientist Parijat Shukla, who have only recently discovered Hodgkin’s work, the idea of his deeply layered abstracts was a revelation in itself. “Hodgkin is gone, but his paintings speak for him,” Shukla said. “As a scientist, you tend to look at contemporary art using logic: ‘Even a child could do this’. But the talk showed me how deeply thought-out the works are and how different people can derive different meanings from them.”

First Published: Nov 24, 2018 00:21 IST