Newness has it easy. It commands the attention of dissidents and sovereigns alike. Repair, on the other hand, usually survives as an afterthought, as a practice of maintenance that dovetails everything new, provided that on some level what is new also remains vulnerable. Hidden behind a language of warranties and small prints, repair has an almost secret relationship with the marketplace. It plots its care work away from the excitement and economic chaos of capitalist production.
Louis Bourgeois, whose tapestry repairer parents are admitted into her work through the figure of the eternal mender, spider, celebrates this practice like no other artist. Bourgeois’ spider recognises hurt, it exists in intimacy with the wound, before attempting to heal the loss. The genealogy of such repair work can only be speculative—it is forgettable, elusive, barely leaving its traces in history, certainly not as many as the thing it repairs.
I keep returning to a single painting of Bhupen Khakar, ‘Janta Watch Repairing’ (1972), having encountered it for the first time in Tate’s 2016 catalogue, You Can’t Please All. Each viewing takes me closer to the emotional turbulence involved in any labour of repair. I keep returning to the Khakar’s repair man—in his touch I notice the postponement of grasp, the antithesis of a grip, both of which seem to otherwise dominate the haptics of our everyday. There is a lightness to how the hand hovers over the broken watch that is both beholden to the labour of repair but also removed from the claims of manufacturing, ownership, time spent. As the painting focusses on a repair shop somewhere in Gujarat—the shop sign is in Gujarati—the viewer is placed on the pavement, watching clocks, some broken, others twisted, all different from each other.
At the centre of the painting the hunched repairman sits adjacent, side on to the street, the customary pose of north Indian shopkeepers working in low-cost repair. His body and the little glass box full of watches awaiting diagnosis, demarcate the shop from the street. The two larger-than-life wrist watches flanking him occupy the threshold space alongside him, existing both as painted objects and in life, brandished on the wall as part of the signifier of commercial activity. The very act of repair extends this visual scheme as the repair person advertises his services to the people by looking away from them, absorbed in the very commodity that is on sale. This kind of set-up is not unusual on an Indian high-street where the repair person is also the proprietor of the shop, sandwiched between flashy multi-brand watch stores.
Khakar gives the shop a narrow and unoccupied waiting bench pushed against the wall at the end of the room, suggesting a loneliness surrounding the repair person and a slew of wall and table clocks, either waiting for repair or collection. Limiting the colour scheme, Khakar creates strange symmetries within the painting—between the repairer’s shirt and the waiting bench, between the inspection light, the roof and repairer’s face, between the floor and the lighter shade on his hand. Neat shapes erupt throughout in watch-faces painted meticulously, in the blades of a static fan, in labouring fingers. Nothing melts or fades. Yet, trapped in the flat dimensions of an Edwin Abbott world, these shapes sit at odds with each other, disrupting angularity through the unreal angles created. The perspective of walls and floor make the space appear narrow, the inspection light hovers untethered creating its own invisible support system within the frame. The man’s piercing gaze and concentration as a fixer falls on an unseen inner mechanism—the painting does not show its actual state of disrepair. Only the room is skewed and disproportionate. In ‘Janta Watch Repairing’, and in almost every Khakar painting involving lonely men, an inherent enduring brokenness spreads from an intimate space through the cityscape. Khakar’s is not an art of revelation or recuperation, more, it sets the stage for how we are forever beholden to what is broken, how we can offer it our touch, our examination, our endless commitment.
I keep returning to ‘Janta Watch Repairing’ with newer questions: is the loneliness of the scene a motif of the poorly paid nature of repair economy? Is the splintered room a doppelgänger of the watches it shelters—distinct parts working well together until they don’t? Or, perhaps the most obvious, are we witnessing the crisis of time itself along with its attendant grand-narratives? In all of this, is Khakar demanding a final reparative gaze from his viewers?
Looking at this painting over the course of several months makes me think of hands in Khakar’s other works. While subjects often have their hands folded around things—bouquets, fruits, penises, railings, bayonets—the landscape around them unspools and is unruly. One of Khakar’s late minimalist work is titled, ‘How Many Hands Do I Need To Declare My Love To You?’. There is a tenderness to how various things are held in these paintings, a sensitivity, even an embarrassment sometimes. The shame of touching things and touching people is evident—this man though with a cigarette hanging, eschews human contact, lost in his work. The absorption of his gaze on the innards of a watch, into the life of time, separates him from his own life, his own existence. The repairer’s body, although exposed to every passer-by and viewer, simultaneously enjoys intense privacy, both avoiding and inviting the direct gaze of his potential customers, hiding in plain sight. Derived from the old English word ‘hydan’ and the German ‘haut’, hide possesses a dual meaning where it is both an act of concealment and the skin of any large animal. Although the etymology makes perfect sense, given that the skin hides the flesh it sits upon and is thus synonymous to the very act of hiding, the skin is only one kind of hide, in other words, skin, like an urn, can also announces the very fact that something is hidden.
When surgical gloves first started showing up on the pavements of rural Warwickshire after the first wave of covid, I began photographing them forensically: when in use, they shielded one’s touch from surfaces of public use, such as the handles of grocery carts, and when discarded, these gloves bore the trace of their owner’s defensive impulse.
Obsessed with hands in Khakar’s paintings at the time, I was amused by every discarded glove I saw out there. They were a sign of hands being afraid of touch and of hands discarding their touch. The prosthetic touch people had found in the gloves was ephemeral. I became witness to this collective ritual of shedding. In wearing the covid gloves, hands acknowledged danger. One can only speculate on the short life of these discarded gloves. Among Khakar’s many hands, none are disembodied in this way, but they all seem to be commonly invested in hiding, repairing, and strategising in the face of a dangerous world.
As time passed, covid debris of various kinds, including cautionary posters and floor markings, masks and more gloves, became stuck to the concrete and tar of the town. Broken masks flew with an autumnal flourish, and early in the year I kicked away a mask covering a blooming daffodil. Khakar’s repairer, hunched over broken time, heals it as best as he can, but even he must know that no object, let alone the repaired object, is ever without a wound. To some repair brings a forgetting, to others a return to business-as-usual, but upon none it bestows imperishability. ‘Janta Watch Repairer’ becomes a plea for a specific kind of touch, a touch that repairs without adding, without manufacture, without disposal, but also without renewal. Is such a repair possible? Perhaps Khakar is aware that repair will never be enough, but that it is our vulnerability, our openness to repair, that will ultimately redeem us.
Mantra Mukim is a poet and essayist from Raipur, India. He is currently a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at UMR Héritages, Paris.