Tuesday, December 8, 2009

BHUPEN KHAKHAR (1934-2003)

(Text for Lalit Kala Akademy's Portfolio on the artist: a bit scrapy, but can't help that: Pl. do send Comments)


The significance of Bhupen Khakhar within the history of modern Indian art is manifold. Foremost is the fact that he was the first Indian artist to make use of the much undervalued, hybrid visual culture of the popular art language. Firstly, this enabled him to subvert the dominant purist vales in art, particularly abstraction. Secondly, it helped him to pictorially translate his peculiar relationship and concern with the people of common class. From this position he became the foremost Indian artist to represent, or more accurately to narrate the life of the common milieu through painting. Art historically, Khakhar’s involvement with common people and their culture has generated an artist who is perhaps the first Indian painter who reckoned with hybridity of Indian culture, and this defined the quest for Indian identity in art from a totally unexplored premise. Above all these, what deserves special attention is the fact that he became the first Indian artist to have disclosed his homosexual orientation through paintings. He deeply explored this aspect of life which indeed determined the aesthetic and thematic of his entire oeuvre.[1](1)

Through out his career Khakar assumed strategies that could flaunt the established mainstream through playful, often surprising and unusual, if not odd, pictorial delineations and narrative incidents. Undoubtedly, he remained one of the most meaningfully outspoken artists of our times. This is so since his disarming honesty, sensitivity and directness in life and artistic expressions constantly threatened the limits set by different established canons. Doing so much – from writing short stories and dramas to painting, printmaking, installations and sculpture, he lived a life of an ordinary person among common milieu, constantly undermining aura and greatness. The major difference here is that as an artist he was utmost honest and careful in representing the nuances of his experiences that lent a transparency to all his expressions. Khakhar’s art enabled him to play between the irreconcilability of the lived and the impossible. Mundane activities, ordinary way of life and the imagined worked hand in hand and lend a totality of experience that covers almost all aspects of life. But, indeed, in all these it is the irreverence, and the transgressive potential of being a gay man that became his central strategy and the strength, and his extraordinary ability to be different among his contemporaries.

In all these, Khakhar’s artistic persona is closest to the 19th century company/bazaar painter and his art; hybrid, inadequate or even funny and odd at times. At the beginning, this enabled him to effectively overcome the technical limitations and inadequacies of an untrained painter, which however came to be canonized as the strength of his language and aesthetic. Here, two pointers offer entry into his artistic world. First is his marked difference from his contemporaries that began manifesting from the time of Group 1890 where J. Swaminathan along with other younger artists from Baroda and elsewhere came together in dealing with questions primarily related to Indian cultural identity. Significantly, these had overlooked Khakhar’s anxiety and search in the direction of a distinct self and subjectivity, and it’s lived historical reality. On the contrary, he had been keenly interested in the Pop movement in Europe and USA at least partly due to his predilection and interest in the category of popular, and for the so called debased taste. With hind sight it is possible to say that Khakhar was one of the most western oriented artists in the mid-1960s. Secondly, although he was taking cues from it, it was nevertheless his search towards a true modern Indian expression and an acute sense of middleclass Indian historical reflexivity and uncanny sensitivity, with which he painted pictures that brought to the fore the long discredited popular visual culture into use. It’s meek voices from the margins of history, filtered and re-configured through the mundane realities of the day-to-day in his paintings, indeed did have the strength to overturn the puritanical cultural postures of the established bastions of art making. He was the one who asserted this aspect of the cultural history as the most valuable historical experience, to be reckoned, to be politically worked with, and to be used against dominance within the contemporary cultural politics. Through these engagements he also made his technical limitations of an untrained artist a force and strength.

Significantly, in 1961 Bhupen Khakhar migrated to Baroda from Bombay at the suggestion of his painter colleague Gulammuhammed Sheikh. This was after he began practicing a full-fledged Chattered Accountant’s career, which he continued simultaneously along with making art till late in his life. It is in Baroda that he began doing art with historical reflexivity, which he did along with a course in Art Criticism (1962-‘64) in the Dept of Art History of the Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University of Baroda. Using ‘god pictures’ in calendar and posters, and deploying graffiti, his earliest set of works in the mid-1960s were in paper collage mode combined with enamel paint, which gained him the reputation of India’s first ‘Pop artist’. His contact with the young English artist, Jim Donavan, who lived in Baroda at that point in time, enabled him to take serious interest in Pop art movement. As a result, J. Swaminathan who led the Group 1890 excluded Khakhar from its 1963 exhibition on the grounds that he indulged in outlandish kitsch. However, by the time he participated in the group exhibition Place for People in 1981 with his celebrated paintings You Can’t Please All (1981) and Celebration of Guru Jayanti (1980), he was already an established painter, if not canonized, and was recognized as an avant-garde painter attributed with great historical significance.[2](2)

Since the late 1960s, linking to the nineteen and early twentieth century hybrid style of Indian painting which demonstrate hybrid mixtures of ‘native’ and European pictorial elements, Khakhar began working out a combination of popular realism and dramatic, romantic, picturesque way of painting pictures. It is through the genre pictorial themes Khakhar systematically began portraying the world of common man. Themes and titles such as Parsi Family (1968) and Barber’s Shop (1972), and using oil on canvas, these developed a definitive and elaborate representational strategy by the later part of 1970s. In painting such as Janata Watch Repairing (1972), Factory Strike (1972) and Man with Bouquet of Plastic Flowers (1975), the totally un-academic treatment of the figures, particularly the large heads and the stiff, thin, yet heavily clothed limbs however infuse an iconic presence to the protagonists. Sharp, dramatic contrasts of bright and dark colors inspired by the popular art, and the stiff, sharp tonal gradations and the smoothened floating shiny surface of these paintings still look empty and vacant, and a somber and sad mood too is obvious in these. Further, paintings such as Portrait of Shankarbhai V. Patel Near Red Fort (1971) offer the viewer various possibilities for interpreting the artist’s subjective persona through allegorical and metaphorical readings.

Khakhar eventually ‘came out of the closet’ by gathering his strength for a gradual disclosure from the international gay liberation movement, especially its manifestations in the field of art in the 1980s. His stable friendship with Vallabhdas Shah helped him to do so, and simultaneously his mother’s death also freed him from familial restrictions. Khakhar’s 1979 visit to England had been significant for him where he saw homosexual men living together, and also, gay exposure in art particularly that of David Hockney’s life and works had been instrumental in his ‘coming out’. While it actually happened frontally, at this time, one can not ignore a certain earlier modes of disclosures and expression through which he communicated his insuppressible desires. The unique portrayal of closeted gay desires in the 1970s takes expression in a painting such as Portrait of Shri. Shankarbhai Patel Near Red Fort. Painted rather flatly in the Indian miniaturist style within the norms of indigenist turn of the period, in this work the stern profile of the old man, the object of artist’s desire, is juxtaposed with an inviting still-life of fruits that are laid-out over a carpet in front of a garden. Perhaps, it is the confidence that is derived from the coded messages of such works which gave him the language to represent a gay man’s desires and sad loneliness more overtly in his other paintings of those early years. Bolder are the paintings such as Man Eating Jalebee (1974) and Man with Bouquet of Plastic Flowers. Certain experiences of loneliness, anxiety and alienation are manifest also in an oblige way in works such as the Factory Strike and in the Man Wearing Red Scarf (1981). In most other paintings of the 1970s where men are alone, or when the central character is presented within a context, what looms large is the silent and tensed uneasiness – which he suggests through the peculiarities of figurative disposition, such as the facial or gesturel delineation. However, the yearning for the loving companionship of the young for the older mates is treated more obviously in Ranchodbhai Relaxing in Bed, (1975). Yet, concealed gay desires are revealed only in hindsight. At the same time, as he was representing hidden gay desires, Khakhar also deflected them by painting ‘serious’ themes such as Factory Strike, Assistant Accountant – Mr. I.M. Patel (1972) and Mukti Bahini Soldier (1972). The gay orientation of such works is much more subtle and can go unrecognized. But it is important because the desire and the absence of the object of desire are suggested only gesturing them. Apart from the overt signs of homosexuality - gestures suggesting holding of genitals, and protagonist’s gaze that indicate uneasiness, murky sadness and confusion is surely of a gay persona who resist disclosure.

Truly ambitious and outspoken are Two Men in Banaras (1982) and Yayati (1987) which he painted with exuberant, subversive sexual strength and confidence while frontally disclosing his sexual identity. Here, the virile male in relation to the passive partner was a major theme, and Khakhar continuously represented himself as the effeminate, desiring and submissive lover. His painting You Can’t Please All (1981) already asserted his power as a gay man in public disclosure. But, the illustration of the power relation is seen first in the painting Two Men in Banaras where he represents himself with a certain shame (note the hidden face) as the older lover (the persona of the artist is marked without doubt), subordinated by the young, macho and aggressive partner. Soon enough, with Yayati he celebrates this mode of subordination through a mythical allegory of the resurrection of the old man by his youthful and angelic, younger lover.

Starting with his early collages (1965) through Celebration of Guru Jajanti, Two Men in Banaras and paintings such Sakhibhav (1995), religion and sexuality is a theme Khakhar explores centrally. Searching into history for evidences and legitimacy for ones identity and its reflections in ones surroundings, he locates it within the popular congregational Hindu religious traditions and practices, which allows certain mediated permissibility and anonymity in practicing erotic play. Three points are significant here. Firstly, trying to find legitimacy for his personal experiences within the spaces offered by his religious background, Khakhar simultaneously also moves away significantly from the private/autobiographical to such nebulous public domains as religious practices. Secondly, through the internalized clashes in relation to the desire and conflicts, and subversions that manifest in paintings as a consequence, perhaps as a desired transgression of power relation, these sometimes emphasize the superior power and sometimes the weakness of the subordinated self. Thirdly, and more definitively, Khakhar resolves to show that the caring and obedient lover can poke fun at the macho man, yet they sooner short-circuit into the ambivalence of the thematic of his paintings and in linguistic terms of their visualization. The intertwining of these matrices makes his art a very complex play of power positions in relation to the public domain and the contemporary religious politics. Although his imagery is neutered of specificity in terms of above, indeed they are associated with the broader nebulous category of religion and myth, but it was not religion per se that excited his imagination. It is the specific play of sexuality that underlay the Hindu myths, stories and icons that he constantly explored.

And from the mid-1980s onwards, Khakhar at times celebrates or at times speaks of the tragic fate of both partners. The power of disclosure in such works are in stark contrast to his early works of 1970s which have certain timid finality because they pretend the detachment of an observer-voyeur, and inhabit a space between the observer and observed, and surely feared to be a participant. From the very first painting of definitive disclosure, You Can’t Please All, all the paintings Khakhar painted until the late-1980s, he showed some ambivalence in specifying the flow of power within in narrative. Instead, he deployed the symbolic, metaphoric and allegorical modes, to heighten this ambivalence and these works become multi-edged.

By the late 1980s and early 90s, his works begin to become open-ended and enigmatic. He devised new pictorial ways, often to subvert and ridicule the stronger companion by exposing the tragedy of his much desired and sexualized partner through a language that objectifies the ambivalence and the bizarreness in such encounters found in paintings such as Ghost City (1992) and An Old Man from Vasad Who had Five Penises Suffered from Runny Nose, (1995). In these works, he moved away self-consciously from the question of power relations, a theme with which he had been working earlier. The enigma of real life experiences, the moments of belief and disbelief, decisions about fighting or ignoring a hostile world, whether to take the encounters with the partner seriously or otherwise are also elements that are present both in his literary narration[3](3) of this time as well as in his paintings. In paintings these, questions are translated into painterly disjunctions, unfinished conjunctions of pictorial spaces or through various modes of collage. Towards the end of his career he painted human bodies that were violated by disease, war and violence, interspersed with the experiences of tender, fearless calm. Paintings such as Beauty is Skin Deep Only (2001), Bullet Short in the Stomach (2001) and paintings such as Gray Buddha (2001), and Golden Curtain (2001) points to such an oscillation between violation of body and meditative calmness.

Khakhar’s untutored, candid best as an artist is preeminently are also exemplified in his sketches; a practice he maintained throughout his career as a matter of discipline. These, on one end functioned as a ready pool of visual notations, which he sometimes used discreetly in instances while visualizing his more ambitious creative endeavors. However, often sketched out in total abandon in the spirit of a stranger-traveler-voyeur in sightseeing; peopled or not, these sketches served the immediate purpose of sheer pleasure and visual experience to the painter. This, in fact, is physically manifest in the way he candidly and casually drew, arranged, or shaded the scenery. And significantly, such sketched-in locales often functioned as fertile site-memories in their reuse, or in their role in devising metaphoric scenarios that often background his largely figurative oil and watercolor painting and print output.

Real to life figuration, the very tangible aspect of the personas and distinct “characters”, does occupy a central iconic presence throughout his oeuvre. Sketching primarily served the function of recording his keen observations. His susceptibility to the life of people at large lent an authenticity to these; at times a few of them reveal the playful imaginations of indulgent sexual self seeing reveries, often they seem too real to be in reality. Drawn while day-dreaming sitting in his studio/home, or while in his many travels, particularly to small pilgrimage towns and country sides, it is in sketches that Khakhar’s vulnerabilities are best exposed. With their disarming simplicity and directness, they are the closest to his watercolors and prints. While oil paintings are passionately labored and are even anxiety ridden, worked-over for long periods of time, the occasional travel and sketching, and watercolors eased him, often lending them an uninhibited disarming wit, spontaneity, even an uncanny quirkiness and bizarre realness.

Khakhar surely imagined a language of ambivalence and lived an open-ended life; a language of life and art that were born from meekness and unsure commitments and its repressed cavernous secret practices. An adventurous thinker, Khakhar the radical, who remained one of the most challenging artists of our times in a global context, his art in fact enabled him maintaining certain continuity and consistency; a thread that linked his various other endowers. In this sense his art, particularly the pages of his sketchbooks could be also seen in the light of a compensation of a special kind; the lack of a dearest friend, for it is in the absence of a beloved companion, he recorded, commented, and humored himself. In that sense, only a very few other artists in our time have drawn resources from one’s self as effectively, and melodramatically, and as intriguingly as Khakhar. To that extent, his art is a true testimony to his self and his life.


Shivaji K Panikkar


[1] For a detailed reading of life and works of the artist see, (1) Gulammohammed Sheikh (ed.), Contemporary Art in Baroda, Tulika, New Delhi, 1997, pp. 166 to 170, (2) Timothy Hyman, Bhupen Khakhar, Chemould Publications and Arts, Mumbai, 1998, (3) retrospective exhibition catalogue essay by Geeta Kapur, Bhupen Khakhar, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, September, 2002, pp. 26-48.

[2] See the chapter titled, ‘View from the Teashop: Bhupen Khakhar’, Geeta Kapur, Contemporary Indian Artists, Vikas Publications, New Delhi, 1978.

[3] Seen across in all Khakhar’s short stories/play (as in ‘Pages From a Diary’, Ref: Yarana: Gay Writing from India, (ed), Hoshang Merchant, Penguin Books India (P) Ltd., New Delhi, 1999, pp. 34-36), the aspect of bizarre in his fiction writing helps to read his paintings; where the painterly disjunctions and discontinuities he narrates in paintings in his fiction becomes a parallel to the middle classes irrationality, passion and craziness he narrates. Khakhar’s short stories/play are also published as an anthology in English, Bhupen Khakhar, Katha, 2001, and in Ruth Vanita Saleem Kidwai (ed) Same-Sex Love in India, Macmillan India Ltd., Delhi, 2001, (first published in 2000, St. Martin’s Press, Palgrave), A Story, pp. 294-297.

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