Monday, March 1, 2010

Gay Disclosure and ‘Queer Realism’: A Critique and a Re-reading of Bhupen Khakhar - Shivaji K Panikkar

(Presentation for the Seminar Intervisuality: imitations/ innovations, 14th, 15th and 16th of January2010, RLV College of Music and Fine Arts, Thripunitura, Kochi, Kerala.)
What I am going to present is the first part of a two part presentation: it is a working paper and a tentative proposal for consideration. The term ‘queer realism’ in the title is used with a twin purpose. Firstly it point towards the elements of bizarre, strange, outlandish, incongruous or the unusual in Khakhar’s paintings, and also because they still has a potential to shock, and secondly, ‘queer’ also indicates the traditional derogatory connotations for being homosexual, and the activist context where the term assumes a positive assertion against such usages.

One of the questions that have deeply concerned me with regard to the art of Bhupen Khakhar is to understand the importance of his sexuality in the very structuring of his art. Further, I am not concerned merely about the experiential realm of a gay painter and its reflection in the art, but my intention is to elicit larger political meaning of his art. The question, in other words is whether his sexuality was merely one of the aspects of his life that could be thought of separately from other facets of his life, or was it a crucially determining factor that controlled most or all other aspects of his life. Specifically, the question I address is to ask as to what difference his gay disclosure made to his painterly language, and what meanings can that lent us. Thinking through these, I am also concerned as to how writers on his art have represented his art. It also interests me to look at how his contemporaries in the art world have represented him through memorializing and paying homage to him. Why I want to do this is to check out my contention, which is regarding the structurally ingrained homophobia; of embarrassment, of shame, of prejudice, of misrepresentation, of passing misplaced humor at him that determines much of the responses to his art. My basic assumption is that it is the structural heterosexist prejudice that rejects the sexual identity politics (not sexual experience) as the basic source, rationale and motivation of Khakhar’s art. My presentation is to test out and validate these contentions.

Framing Devices/Strategies
It is not difficult to locate structural, but generally innocuous or unselfconscious homophobia in the very frameworks used in locating the significance of Khakhar. Among the writers, foremost is Geeta Kapur, whose essay titled Bhupen Khakhar (exhibition catalogue Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, September, 2002), which was re-published as Saint Bhupen (in exhibition catalogue Bhupen Among Friends: A Tribute to Bhupen Khakhar by Friends, Gallery Chemould, Mumbai, 2005). Another essay that concerns my query is written by Ranjit Hoskote (titled The Comic Mausoleum: Atul Dodiya’s ‘Shri Khakhar Prasanna’, Chemould Presscott Road, Mumbai, exhibition catalogue, 2007). Khakhar is written about within the decisive break his work undertook in the 1960s; in breaking the modernist western internationalist hegemony, where Khakhar is pictured as one of the major figures of dissent. His significance is also the fact that he was the first Indian artist to make use of the much undervalued, hybrid visual culture of the popular art language as against the aesthetic attitude of the formalist avant-garde. This enabled him to subvert the dominant purist vales in art, particularly abstraction, through masquerade and mockery and it helped him to pictorially translate his 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. Geeta Kapur makes a very significant observation in the context of the second phase of his work of 1972 where he developed a definite representational project, she point out that “Khakhar’s emphasis now shifted from an interest in the language of popular culture to the subject appropriate to that language and, slowly, to the subjectivity that can be elicited from the depiction of that subject in the language appropriate to it.”

Importantly, in these historicizing, his sexuality and politics do not figure-in. I would argue that above all these, what deserves special attention from the point of view of minoritarian political movement is the fact that he became the first Indian artist to have disclosed his identity as a homosexual and this is crucially absent in framing the significance of Khakhar both by Kapur and Hoskote, although both the writers engage with his sexuality in terms of description and interpretation of his paintings. I see this as an anomaly. Framing him within the ‘crisis’ of modernism, from the premise of third world cultural politics and for up-fronting popular, narrative, locale and the middleclass although is not incorrect; however these do not take into consideration the significance of his art within the politics of gay liberation movement.

Referring to modes of writing art history of Khakhar, Ranjit Hoskote refers to three dominant schools of Bhupeneutics; first focuses on the artist’s persona, the second stresses on the artist’s genius and astute negotiations and firm rooted-ness of the local/Gujarati popular culture and the visualities and the third position is that which focuses upon his gay disclosure as India’s first artist of homoerotic life. Hoskote considers that it is limiting that Khakhar be framed “within the generic confines of gay politics…” and argues that “Critics who claim Bhupen exclusively for either pop culture or gay politics cage him in a limiting position.”

However, for the gay political activism, the primary significance of Khakhar’s life and art undoubtedly is linked to the moment of his ‘coming out of closet’ and thereafter. Historically it is significant that the development of queer identity politics in India is contemporary to that of Khakhar’s disclosure and his art practices. Today it is able to make its presence felt legally, socially and politically. The central activist pre-condition is the fact that gays are a true minority, and crucial to this is based on the choice of ones sexual preference. While other minority positions such as that of the caste is largely conferred to a person at birth and passed through family, and thus socially visible, they do not necessarily have to go through the complexity of experience specific to gays; of ‘coming-out’, or to declare ones sexual identity to the world - the yardstick of the ability of the person to ‘come out of closet’ and to engage with it, which by itself a matter considered as a major step in assuming this identity. What is often overlooked by the homophobic, as in the case of Khakhar’s biographers is the accompanying trauma, pain and embarrassment, particularly considering the event within the constraints of the Indian polity; particularly the patriarchal family system. Moreover, the gay liberational politics is hinged itself precariously upon the very restrictive conditions of the government and the legal injunctions. The legal limitations apart, the fear of social ostracism, stigma and discrimination combined with homophobia, heterosexism, heterocentrism and compulsory heterosexuality are real issues faced by homosexuals.

It is a well known fact that Khakhar ‘came out of the closet’ by gathering his strength from the international gay liberation movement, especially its manifestations in the field of art in the 1980s. His stable friendship with Vallavdas 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. It is evident that Khakhar was acutely aware that he was living a homosexual’s life surrounded by heterosexual values, including his companions and artist friends.

What Hoskote assigns as “gay politics cage him in a limiting position”, is in fact the primary condition that helped Khakhar to take his first major step towards asserting freedom from the constrains imposed by the heterosexist norms. It is the implied embarrassment originating from queerphobia that should see an artist like Khakhar within gay politics as a limiting position. As such queerphobia refers to the irrational or subliminal fear and often unsuspected aversion or intolerance of non-heterosexual orientations and practices or behavior. For varied reasons, the subconscious assumption is that heterosexuality is the only acceptable sexual orientation. In day to day life queerphobia is experienced in ways ranging from cracking jokes directed against non-hetero normative sexual identity and activity – which has a direct bearing on shows like Shri Khakhar Prasanna by Atul Dodiya - to harassment and physical violence. These are thus the interfaces; intervisuality and intertextuality, the very dynamics between queer cultural practices, queerphobia and queer activism.

Further, it is within the context of religion or more generally Indian culture that Kapur and Hoskote contextualizes Khakhar’s sexuality. This in turn is related to the way Kapur reads the ‘Indian homosexual man’. To quote Kapur, “Indeed Khakhar, like other members of the gay community today, reclaims his place in the material and spiritual universe on his own terms as an ‘outsider’. This may also be something of an Indian contribution to the gay discourse: where permissiveness flourishes in the default mode, where rights are never won, yet perhaps granted, or bestowed, by custom and a seemingly libertarian tradition. Homosexuality in India is part of the ubiquitous system of lies and deprivation, part of religious performance, part of married life, part of popular culture – especially of mass film culture where same-sex love is intricately encoded.” Drawing immediate comparison with heterosexual relations, and despite taking note of the potential transgressive shift, Kapur characterizes the gay man as degenerate, pervert, and as abject, but she never pictures them with the political power of asserting the rights. One of the major tropes Kapur uses is of religious context to understand Khakhar’s homosexuality where she says religion is a cover-up of suppressed promiscuity. Kapur asks as to why Khakhar stage sexuality in the religious setting, and provides a reading that is literal; that is as a reflection of his frequenting in such places which offer chances of touch and caress which Khakhar called “unabashedly” as ‘pick-up’ spots. She marks the paintings in religious setting as “have this shuddering ambiguity between means and ends, between piety and prostitution” Kapur links “holiness and degeneracy, sin and salvation, adoration and iconoclasm” – where god’s devotee is pictured as a ‘pervert’ and asks: is it that he hopes for redemption through openly confessing a ‘sinful’ truth? It is clear that Kapur is stressing the experiential realm of an average middleclass man’s homosexual traits and in turn misses the political implication of the radical speech-act which Khakhar engages from the premise of gay politics.

Hoskote pictures a homosexual “not as deviant or antagonistic to Indic society” but as “arising from sources within its heartland of sacred culture.” Referring to the guru-shishya relationship, emotionalism of sakhibhava, puja and such, asserts that “Bhupen doubles the sacred and the erotic as mutual tropes.” Touching up on the practice of camouflaging the pleasures of androgyny asserts that “… the central question that animates his later work is this: What, really, is normality?” In an attempt skirt and mystify Khakhar’s identity assertions Hoskote says, I quote, “… he rebutted the efforts of critics and historians to define him… He adopted and reveled in a multiplicity of personae…”

With Kapur as well as in the writings of Hoskote there is an approach to naturalize Khakhar’s minoritarian political gestures and its affect within in the Indian cultural traditions while overlooking the implication of these within the gay political activism. On the other hand I would argue as follows: Starting with Celebration of Guru Jajanti, Two Men in Banaras and paintings such Sakhibhav (1995), religion and sexuality indeed is a theme Khakhar explores centrally. One of the aspects of queer activism is searching into history for evidences and legitimacy for ones identity and its reflections in ones surroundings, and Khakhar surely locates it along with other spaces, within the popular congregational religious traditions and practices, which inherently offer certain mediated permissibility and anonymity in practicing the erotic. However, to reduce paintings merely as originating in the erotic encounters in religious or any other setting would be a reductive reading. Three points are significant here. Firstly, trying to find legitimacy for his personal experiences, Khakhar simultaneously moves away significantly from the autobiographical to such nebulous public domains as religious practices. Secondly, autobiographically, through the internalized interpersonal tensions in relation to the desire and conflicts, perhaps as indicating power relation between the himself and his sexual partners, sometimes emphasizing the superior power and sometimes the weakness of the subordinated self – he uses religion and myths metaphorically. This is significant in a work such as Two Men in Benaras (1981), How Many Hands do I Need to Declare My Love to You? (1994), and Picture Taken on Their 30th Wedding Anniversary (1998). Thirdly, Khakhar resolves to show that the caring and obedient lover can poke fun at the macho man, and in all these religious references and motifs or settings are employed, as in An Old Man from Vasad Who had Five Penises Suffered from Runny Nose, (1995). Rather than narrating or describing, what I would argue is that the intertwining of these matrices makes his art a very complex play of power positions in relation to the public/religious and private domain.

The Outburst of Bizarre in Bhupen Khakhar:
A significant difference take off in the paintings of Khakhar after mid-1980s; thematically, and particularly in the delineation of pictorial spaces. Possibly in 1987, beginning around the time he did Yayati (1987) or a little later, but definitively through early 90s with Pink City (1991) and Ghost City Night (1991) this shift over is real, and engaged the artists through 1990s, until his death. Till mid/late 1980s he had painted pictures, what he described as ‘ribbon-ed packages’, visualized with great detailing; itemized and finished to the extent possible where he aspired for an absolute fidelity with the world out there. It is evident that he self-consciously and systematically worked away from this mode. Importantly, this shift-over coincided with his gay identity disclosure. Myth disrupted the time space conjunction as in Yayati, or the specificity of the locale is problematized, and the pictorial continuity in terms of time was disrupted, so also the there-ness in narration. What was in store was an unfurling of bizarre and the fantastic, which took his art to unexpected areas of expression – significantly these had also been a pertinent aspect of his fiction writing.

It is significant to note that Kapur ignores this linguistic shift of the artist. She does takes note of the fact that the artist took a leap from representing the social class to the existential reality of the gay man where a re-classification of subjectivity is marked. However she skips to take note of the simultaneous shift the artist makes in his approach to pictorial language, and comes to 90s and reads aspects related to medium and format – from oil to watercolor on paper, drawings to graphics, which she says changed the visage and shape of image, while she links the transparency of watercolor to sexual fancy and painterly transcendence. It is significant that Kapur observers that after sexuality is included in the painting that the “modest, industriously garnered grace within and around his painting began to quiver in a disturbing way.”

It is necessary to look at the subjective break the artist makes with a critical insight in relation to his gay identity disclosure. By mid 80s most of the artistic influences were absorbed by Khakhar. Within what were brewing on the Baroda scene; the figurative-narrative, culturalist discourses (in the 1970s and till early or mid 80s) and the exhibition Place for People (1981) symptomatically assert itself as avant-garde, and also closes its project for the artists involved; Nalini Malani, Vivan Sundaram, and Khakhar significantly move away from the narrative project quickly, harping-on to undertake a much larger subjective and expressive linguistic search and with different political concerns. Epistemically, this is an important shift and my attempt is to ask as to why and how the elements of fantasy, myth and hearsay are resorted by Khkhar for a radically new affect.

I would like to think through the possibly that the bizarre in Khakhar’s art derives from his unresolved perceptions of being a gay subject – moment of wonderment and un-believability about ones own sexuality in disclosure. Khakhar’s radical speech-act is from the premises of marginality, one from a gay identitarian politics, and that of playing out a thorny subjectivity. The bizarre is also to be seen in terms of the deliberateness in attempting to destabilize the established conventions, the very unease and corruption of the ‘normal’ sensibilities that his art could throw-up. Overt subversive-ness is one of the characteristics, and non-conformism and questioning itself and the world coincides. It is clear that Khakhar was making an ontological argument while creating a larger epistemic shift – figuring out a possibility of an engagement with a new kind of realism, quite unlike the ones one is used to; the nationalist, classical realism of various kinds.

Although the artist definitively maintained his interest in real life scenes till the end of his career, once the bizarre and the fantastic begins to enter into paintings, the works are allowed to become eccentric, obscure, idiosyncratic, bizarre and even anachronistic. My proposition is that this shift-over is primarily related to the imaginative renegotiations he had to make in picture making having ‘come out of closet’. Subjectivity of Khakhar thus is different in the 80s and since; beginning of a tremendous freedom marks with the title and thematic of the painting You Can’t Please All (1881). However, in any case the newly acquired freedom had not been a comfortable zone of finality. The un-decidability of the experience – of belonging or not belonging totally to the available homosexual life, confusions in the moments of belief in the loved one and the disbelief in ones own reality, the decision to fight or to ignore ones companionship, to take ones own desires and the gay experiences seriously or otherwise; or in short the very fluidity of being gay, its unsystematic and non-institutionalized practices are some of the elements that are present both in his fictional narrations, and as experienced from the lives of other homosexual people around him – including his life companions. In paintings these are translated as spatial disjunctions and irrelations - through unfinished conjunction of spaces. He used various collage techniques too, like framing small pictures into a large image collection. However, it is the definite fantasy and the bizarre such as in the paintings; How Many Hands do I Need to Declare My Love to You? (1994), Picture Taken on Their 30th Wedding Anniversary (1998) Yagnya-Marriage (1999), Next Morning (1999) or “They loved each other so much that they wore the suit of the same design” that are exceptional.

Michel Foucault’s quote makes my overall contention clearer: “Sexuality is a part of our behavior. It is part of our world freedom… It is our own creation, and much more than the discovery of a secret side of our desire… Sex is not a fatality; it is a possibility for creative life.” (Quoted from Altered States: Creativity Under the Influence, James Huges, the Ivy Press limited, 1999, p. 147.). It is to Khakhar’s credit that he pictured the experiential realms of gay men with freedom and irony, while his art refrained from becoming overtly political in terms slogan mongering. But, Khakhar surely imagined a language; a language of indeterminate ambivalence and this language surely is born out of meekness, the very indeterminacy and marginality and its repressed cavernous secret practices. Although his various artistic engagements allowed him to relentlessly engage with multilayered potential of persona in play with the unacceptable self in the world, and through his various works filtered and re-configured the life he and friends lived mundanely – to that extent his queer realism is an authentic testimony of a gay man in our times.

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