East Goes West

Bepen Bhana at Te Uru


While Indian New Zealanders often are not thought of as one of the key demographics of our multicultural society, there is a long-standing history of Indian migration. Those from the subcontinent first settledin New Zealand in the late 1800s. They were mostly men, mostly temporary labourers and mostly from the Gujarat region, in the north-west of India, near the border with Pakistan. Migration increased until the 1920s when restrictions were implemented, focusing on Asian immigration.(1) At the same time the White New Zealand League(2) was set up in Pukekohe to further restrict Asian immigration and rights.

BEPEN BHANA Ko Salman Raua ko Jacqueline I Te Waonui- A-Tiriwa / Salman Aur Jacqueline Waitakere Jalaashay Par (Salman And Jacqueline at Waitakere Reservoir) 2016
Oil on canvas, split canvas diptych, 1200 x 3600 mm.
(Photograph: Sam Hartnett)

The 2013 Census revealed Hindi as the fourth most spoken language in New Zealand (after English, Te Reo Maori and Samoan). While Chinese is the largest Asian population, those of Indian extraction make up the fastest growing. And India is the most common place of birth for New Zealanders born overseas. Simply put, New Zealand’s Indian diaspora is quickly growing and establishing itself as one of the country’s more significant populations.

BEPEN BHANA Ko Ranveer Rāua Ko Deepika I Piha / Ranveer Aur Deepika Piha Par (Ranveer And Deepika At Piha) 2016
Oil on canvas, split canvas diptych, 1200 x 3600 mm.
(Photograph: Sam Hartnett)

Bepen Bhana’s latest solo exhibition Frankie Goes to Bollywood at Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery highlights this long-standing migrant history. This series of eight painted diptychs, titled in Te Reo Maori and Hindi with English translations, places Bollywood stars in loving embrace in uninhabited West Auckland landscapes.

Frankie Goes to Bollywood continues Bhana’s exploration of popular media across cultures. The focus on celebrities and the use of humour offer an allegory of cultural discourses. As Peter Shand noted, ‘Bhana’s practice both provides the audiences with imagery that is familiar yet critically offset’.(3) Using a cultural visual language is smart; it allows for instant engagement. Displaying celebrities, actors or characters allows Bhana to draw out the audience’s own personal narratives, ‘. . . that time I watched this television programme’. In this case, the employment of Bollywood re-presents ideas of diaspora.

BEPEN BHANA Ko Katrina Rāua Ko Salman I Ōtakamiro, Muriwai / Katrina Aur Salman Gainet Cattaan, Muriwai Par (Katrina And Salman At Gannett Rock, Muriwai) 2016
Oil on canvas, split canvas diptych, 1200 x 3600 mm.
(Photograph: Sam Hartnett)

Beginning with digital processes of collage, Bhana sees his practice as multidisciplinary image-making as opposed to painting. The inherent strangeness of the juxtaposed image draws on both dialogues of New Zealand landscape painting as well as traditional billboard painting. This practice was commonly used for promoting Bollywood films in India. The painter would grid up the surface and create an enlarged image of the Bollywood stars from a postcard-sized photograph. While this is becoming less common in the digital age due to financial and time pressures, there are still graphicwallahs(4) who practise this type of painting. It may be more financially viable to digitally produce these hoardings; however, the painted versions offer an exaggerated sense of soul, character and mood.

Like the graphicwallahs, Bhana’s source imagery for these paintings comes from postcards produced in India, sourced from online auction site eBay. Bollywood is the largest film industry in the world; commonly referred to as Indian film, it is more accurately Hindi film. It employs more people than Hollywood; it also has much higher ticket sales, and it produces almost double the number of movies that Hollywood does in a single year.

Bollywood is popular in certain suburban pockets of Auckland, such as Mt Roskill, Sandringham and Papatoetoe, yet the industry has a low profile in mainstream New Zealand, despite its size at home. Components of Bollywood did break through with the 2004 hit Bride & Prejudice; while not technically a Bollywood film per se, it did expose Western audiences to Bollywood-style song and dance numbers and representations of Indian culture. The successful crossover was in part due to the lead roles of two male Kiwi actors: Martin Henderson and Daniel Gillies, the use of English and the titular reference to Jane Austen’s novel. Apart from that single example, Bollywood is perhaps an unrecognised area of film-making for many New Zealanders.

BEPEN BHANA Ko Amir Raua Ko Asin I Otitori, Titirangi / Amir Aur Asin Phrenc Khaaree Par (Amir and Asin at French Bay, Titirangi) 2016
Oil on canvas, split canvas diptych, 1200 x 3600 mm.
(Photograph: Sam Hartnett)

Because of this, our shallow understanding of the industry perhaps leads to a tokenistic framework around Indian visual culture. With seemingly fair skin and great physiques, Bhana’s figures speak directly to Indian caste systems. The current system of social stratification, existent for centuries, was implemented under the British Raj(5) and in contemporary India directly correlates to employment and skin colour. The first Indian settlers to New Zealand were a labour force or Shruda,(6) the fourth-ranked varna or caste, and only above the untouchables. This is a stark contrast to the lovers on the beach in Frankie Goes to Bollywood. Through the painted romanticised figures in stylised landscapes, Bhana skews the realities of the Indian migrant experience, instead crafting tourist advertisements of sorts.

The West Auckland scenery Bhana has employed (French Bay, Muriwai, Maori Bay, Te Henga, Karekare and Piha) comes from popular coastal destinations. The painterly treatment of the land is idyllic and the figures idealised. The images exaggerate West Auckland on a good day, setting the mood for a lovers’ embrace. On closer inspection, apart from each imposed Bollywood pair, these landscapes have been completely stripped of any form of human life or habitation. No people, no footprints, no roads, no buildings. This digital erasure of the signs of life shows Bhana creating a direct relationship between the diaspora community and tangata whenua, separate from any existing colonial discourse; a relationship which too is idealised. Turangawaewae, a place to stand, is an underlying strand in Frankie Goes to Bollywood.

Within New Zealand dialogues around biculturalism, multiculturalism is a key factor. Bhana is pointing out that some of our key settler communities do not have a place to stand. While the history of Indian migration to New Zealand is long-standing and ongoing, Bhana highlights our tokenistic views of Indian visual culture today, 136 years after the first Indians came to New Zealand. Other labour forces which New Zealand has imported―those from the Pacific, for example, with a much shorter history in this land, spanning back to World War II―have a far more obvious place to stand.

This is also evident in the titles that Bhana uses. The choice to name each work in Te Reo Maori and Hindi, then accompanied by an English translation, shows a prioritising of indigenous languages. The use of Hindi directly refers to the Bollywood-inspired imagery. Bhana’s family originates from the region of Gujarat, where Gujarati is spoken. So while Hindi is not his tongue, he is picking up the dominance of the language, both in New Zealand and Bollywood. For a nation of astonishing diversity in religions, cultures, languages and dialects, without knowing these specifics, it is easy to homogenise an ‘Indian’ experience as one―the same experience for Bhana, and supposedly the Bollywood stars.

Frankie Goes to Bollywood is laced with nuanced commentary on the multiplicity of the Indian and wider migrant narrative. These diptychs attract an audience through their scale, humour and familiarity: a token familiarity that is likely to be questioned once we dig below the surface. Complicating rather than simplifying our understanding of what it is to be a multicultural country, in these works we see Bhana sharpening his critical sword.

1. There were fewer than 200 Indians in New Zealand at the time of World War I, yet they were still met with hostility and considered to be ‘hawkers’. The Immigration Restriction Act 1899 required those not of ‘British parentage’ to make their immigration application in a European language, to counter the protection Indians received under the Crown. Immediately after World War I, Indian migration increased. The Immigration Restriction Amendment Act 1920 required all those not of British parentage to apply for a permit. Indians were specifically excluded from this definition, despite being British subjects.
2. By 1921 there were only 671 Indians in New Zealand, attracting growing antagonism. In 1926 the White New Zealand League was set up in Pukekohe to restrict Asian immigration and rights. The League wrote to all 200 local bodies in New Zealand, asking them to endorse a ‘white New Zealand’ policy, largely because of the supposed low morals of Asians. They received positive responses from 160 of the local bodies and strong support from the media. Prime Ministers, including William Massey and Gordon Coates, were also supportive. Indians, like Chinese, could not receive state pensions until 1936. In Pukekohe they continued to be excluded from barbers’ shops, private bars and balcony seats in the local cinema until the 1950s.
3. Peter Shand, The Curry Bunch, Mangere Arts Centre Nga Tohu o Uenuku, Auckland 2013, p. 10.
4. Graphicwallah is the title given the artist who creates these traditional hoarding paintings as well as other types of artists.
5. The British Raj is the period that India was under the rule of the British Empire which lasted from 1858 to 1947.
6. Varna (Sanskrit for colour) was the framework which classified the castes. There were four classes in the Indian caste system which were Brahmins (priestly people), the Kshatriyas (who were rulers, administrators and warriors), the Vaishyas (artisans, merchants, tradesmen and farmers), and Shudras (labouring classes). There was also an implicit fifth class which was those people deemed to be entirely outside its scope, such as tribal people and the untouchables.