Howard Hodgkin in India: ‘Looking for somewhere else’

In conjunction with a major exhibition of his works in Mumbai, we visited the British artist — who died in 2017 — at his studio, where he discussed childhood ambitions, the ‘very lonely’ world of the painter, and the subcontinent’s enduring influence on his practice

‘I spent my first night in India asleep on a bedding roll on the station platform,’ recalled artist Howard Hodgkin, who died on 9 March aged 84. In 1964, Hodgkin arrived in what was then known as Bombay Central station. The city would become integral to his work, as a source of inspiration and, later, as a place where he would paint and exhibit.

‘I didn’t know what I was looking for when I came, except that I was looking for something else,’ explained Hodgkin. He found India ‘captivating’, however, and remained enamoured of the country. ‘I feel at home here,’ he said, speaking from a studio in Mumbai where he created a series of paintings for an exhibition, Howard Hodgkin: Paintings 1984-2015, A Tribute, held at the city’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya museum in the spring of 2015.

The paintings exhibited in Mumbai were ‘all inspired by India’, Hodgkin explained. At the show’s opening, Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota described the unique perspective of a British artist who, at first, arrived as an outsider: ‘Strangers have a way of capturing something that perhaps others can’t see. Think of Turner going to Switzerland and painting the Alps, or Monet in London, painting the Houses of Parliament.’

‘These paintings are born of 50 years’ experience, but are as fresh as if they had been made by a young art student coming out of college,’ Serota continued, describing Hodgkin’s Mumbai paintings as ‘a remarkable feat’. That sense of youthful ambition is one Hodgkin reflected on in this video. ‘When I was a small child, it was very fashionable to ask children, "What do you want to be when you grow up?”.’ His response? ‘I couldn’t really think of what I wanted to be. But I’d just done a terrible piece of child art, and I said, “I’m going to be a painter.” And I was sort of stuck with it.’