Reflecting on the portrait of Professor Dinesh Bhugra

Professor Dinesh BhugraWe join many other medical Royal Colleges in displaying portraits of past presidents; a mark of esteem of their leadership of their professional organisation.recent project sought to better understand our portraits by speaking to the sitters and the artists. 

Professor Dinesh Bhugra, President 2008–2011
Date of interview: December 2022
Interviewer: Dr Immanuel Rhema
: Dr Immanuel Rhema 

Artist: Mark Roscoe
Written comments: supplied by the artist, 2022

Dinesh Bhugra reflecting on the portrait

When I stood for President, I was the only candidate so was elected unopposed, which created feelings of: do they know something that I don't know? People had been feeling very dejected because of Modernizing Medical Careers and other political shenanigans of the time. Was it because morale was so low that nobody bothered to stand? One of the things I wanted to do was improve morale. That’s why I set up College awards, President’s medals etc which I am delighted to see are still going on very successfully.

Valuing membership

The College is a membership organisation, so collegiality and engagement are absolutely crucial. Yes, it's academic. Yes, it's about training. Yes, it's about standards and having a safe space where you can step back. But at the core, it's a membership organisation. And membership has certain privileges. It’s a very big and important thing that you've got membership with the Royal College of Psychiatrists, particularly for a large number of international medical graduates. Individuals work hard for it and therefore value it.

'Speaking up'

A week before I took up office, I had an interview with a journalist from the Observer. While being interviewed, I was very frank that many psychiatric wards (not all by any means) were so dreadful that I would not want to get admitted there and I wouldn't want anybody from my family or friends to be admitted there. I had not realised that that Sunday was the 60th anniversary of the NHS, and the interview made the Observer front page and there were two centre pages full of what I had said and what others had said and supported me as well as an editorial. I got a phone call from the Department of Health saying: what are you doing? I said this was the issue and I was not making it up. What was fascinating, was that from that day onwards, I got a lot of messages from patients saying: good on you, thanks for speaking up. 

Leadership is both professional and political. We need to learn from examples of good practice. How do we spread that message rather than reinventing the wheel? I think part of the tragedy of any institution is that people move on, and institutional memory gets lost. We just come along, the College officers get voted in, for all kinds of right or wrong reasons. We are like politicians, where the civil service holds that institutional memory. Once the memory gets lost, it is difficult to bring back.  

The first South Asian president

As far as the portrait is concerned towards the end of my term, there were two things: firstly, I wanted a three-quarter length portrait, and secondly, being the first South Asian president, I wanted the portrait to be in Indian formal clothes. I’ve never possessed a black tie, so throughout my career in the College and elsewhere, I’ve always worn Indian clothes, either Jodhpur or coat or a Sherwani, right from my inauguration to leaving. 

I’m not sure what I’ll do next. I’ve done the World Psychiatric Association. I’ve done the BMA. So Intergalactic Psychiatric Association?!

Mark Roscoe reflecting on the portrait

My portraits are always a collaboration between myself and the sitter, so the planning tends to happen naturally. I might arrive with a preconceived plan but quickly realise that some things work well and some not. I remember meeting Dinesh at his office and then his home in South London where I tasted some of his authentic home baked treats. I remember him to be very warm and easy to talk to. I thought he looked most comfortable at home, and suggested setting the portrait there, but he felt it would be more appropriate to have his office as a backdrop to keep things more formal. During the sittings I made some drawings and took some photos which I used to create some composition options for Dinesh to choose from. I then returned to my studio, drew the plan onto a bespoke made to order canvas and completed the portrait in oils. 

'A great big smile'

I thought Professor Bhugra had a wonderful dry and witty sense of humour and it often took me a little while to get the joke. While I was catching up, he would hold a straight face with a very subtle glint in his eye. I felt honoured to get to know Dinesh in this way and attempted to capture this part of his personality on canvas but in retrospect I may have been too subtle. If I were to have another opportunity, I’d likely portray him with a great big smile full of teeth.

I like to make portraits look real in a way that they represent reality, and as life is never perfect, I like to paint those imperfections as I see them as unique and precious.  Of course, I’m always more than happy to smooth over some wrinkles or add more hair to a receding hairline if required. We all want to be remembered in the best light after all.


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