(Presentation for the Visual Culture Conference ‘See-Saw: Context of Spectatorship’, Sarojini Naidu School of Arts and Communication, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad, 25th -27th Feb. 2010.)
The question I ask is about the importance of Khakhar’s sexuality in the very structuring of his art. The answer to this is not merely in understanding the experiential realm of the gay painter and its reflection in the art, but it is in understanding the 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.
Secondly, I address the issue of how writers have represented him. And, further it 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 these 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, or in other words of privatizing Khakhar and 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 a working paper, and is to test out and validate these above contentions.
The Outburst of Bizarre in Bhupen Khakhar:
The first question I address is to ask as to what difference his gay disclosure made to his painterly language. It is significant that Khakhar came out of the closet some time in his mid career, after mid-1980s, and vital shift takes off in the paintings; thematically, and 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.
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.
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.
Framing Devices: Art Historian’s Strategies & A Critique
It is not difficult to locate structural, but generally innocuous homophobia in the very frameworks used in locating the significance of Khakhar. Among the writers, foremost is Geeta Kapur, followed by Ranjit Hoskote.
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.
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 considers that it is limiting that Khakhar be framed “within the generic confines of gay politics…” and argues that critics who claim him exclusively for 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. To ‘come out of closet’ and to engage with it, is 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. 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 homophobia refers to the irrational 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.
Privatizing a Public Value: Bhupen Khakhar, Spectatorship and the Politics of Representing
“Homophobia is usually the last oppression to be mentioned, last to be taken seriously, last to go. But it is extremely serious, sometimes to the point of fatal… Homophobia is in and of itself a verifiable oppression and in a heterosexist system, all non- heterosexuals are viewed as “deviants” and are oppressed.”
(Barbara Smith, Homophobia: Why Bring It Up?, The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, Ed. Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barle, David M. Halperin, Routledge, New York, 1993, p. 99, 101.)
Pointing to the simultaneity and interlocking of race/caste, class and sex oppressions, Barbara Smith points out that there seem a reluctantence to grasp the active resistance to homophobia in everyday life. She argues that homophobia and abuse is a tacit attitude, and seems somewhat socially sanctioned. One of the attitudes of the homophobe is not to see gay man’s life and art as a political matter, but as a private concern, which is important to the critique that I would like to think in relation to the projects of memorializing Khakhar.
Undoubtedly, Khakhar meant differently to different artists. Mostly anecdotal, or drawing attention to a detail in his painting (e.g. erect penis of the donkey in the painting You can’t Please All), his jokes and pranks, his influences on others, as a satirist, a connoisseur of popular culture, painter of common man, pop and kitsch, homosexuality, writer, traveler, his elusiveness, his shyness and flamboyance, his ingeniousness and shrewdness, as the first artist of Indian homoerotic life, Khakhar is represented in many more avatars.
The earliest such shows is A Tribute to Bhupen Khakhar, presented by Tao Art Gallery, Mumbai, 8th to 28th August 2004 with 41 artists, coordinated by Kalpana Shah and Birendra Pani. It is interesting to me that some of the artists do gesture at Khakhar’s sexuality and trivialize it in the processes, as in the case of Jitish Kallat in the work titled A Tree with Five Penises. Such misreading through displacing, become putting the irony back at Khakhar, as in the case of the work of Altaf titled Man with Five Cigarettes. It is not difficult to read the intervisuality in these works, and with his gay imaginations, Khakhar seem successful in destabilizing the normal hetero-normative expectations that men must have only one penis each. Most of these are reductive, but humorous take on homosexuality.
A year later, in August 2005 Gallery Chemould mounted a more narrowly selected show titled, Bhupen among Friends: a Tribute to Bhupen Khakhar by Friends with 14 artists, who specially created works for this occasion. Consider two artists; Vivan Sundaram and Atul Dodia who also made large bodies of works based on Khakhar for independent shows.
Vivan Sundaram’s show Bad Drawing for Dost recast, redrafts, re-craft and transcribe from some of the well known works of Khakhar. In an attempt to penetrate into the mysteries and secrecies of Khakhar’s imageries he dissembles, veils, fragment, repeat, blur and pierce them with needle and thread and layer them making the images more ambiguous and mysterious, and the viewer is left perplexed over Sundaram’s engagement with Khakhar.
The inter-textual play, their interpolation takes into view the multilayered personality of Khakhar. Reflecting Khakhar religious and mundane intermingle, which is considered as a shrewd act of Khakhar, giving a notion that homosexuality as part of a normal life and not as deviancy. Almost all the images revisited thus are Khakhar’s homoerotic of phallic imagery.
Despite Sundaram’s elaborate approach to representing Khakhar, his basic framework is writing the artist into characterizing Indian homosexual man and in the process naturalizes him. Far from contextualizing the subject’s life and work within the socio-political struggle of the queer community, the formalist engagement of Sundaram is hardly productive of meaning beyond the private realm of mystifying the minor’s struggle for survival. Sundaram stresses on the experiential realm of homosexual traits of Khakhar and in turn misses the political implication of the radical speech-act which Khakhar engages from the premise of gay politics.
Atul Dodiya’s Shri Khakhar Prasanna, an ambitious project – “a series of parodies and exaggerations, paradoxes and private jokes, fantasias and extravagances… that reflects on Bhupen’s own aesthetic of overflow, of ludic excess and abundant wackiness.” (Ranjit Hoskote). Invoked as a private family deity Khakhar, according to Hoskote, “‘Shri Khakhar Prasanna’ is as much an autobiography as it is a memorial...”, and the installation resembling a miniature city, “with each district modeled either as a fictive interior or an exterior folded back into the inside of a building” and “presses both encomium and embarrassment into service.”
The show alludes to almost all that fascinated Khakhar; shop and street signs, objects referring to middleclass men, Khakhar’s interest in folk and naïve art, quotations of thoughts, letters, SMS’s between Dodiya and Khakhar, etc the subject that is actually being remembered here is not Khakhar considered in the light of history, but it is the relationship between the two artist. Among other things is the allusion to Khakhar’s homosexuality. Among the Shri Khakhar Relics is Shri Khakhar Sock that pays homage to artist’s bold rendering of penis in his paintings.
There are a group of works titled Painting B Company – a suite of signboard paintings, where Dodiya paints these fictitious advertisements depicting the intimate, personal non-artistic friends of Khakhar; in an attempt to put out into public the private world of the artist.
What should all these privatizing of Khakhar and his art mean from the liberational political premise? My basic proposal 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. These acts of memorializing display the basic inability to align with political upsurge of the queer community, and reduce the speech act of the artist as a private matter. This overlooking of the political, I would argue is a reflection of structurally ingrained homophobia, and indicates heterosexual bias, and indicates how very acceptable are the public expression of it. Despite the fact that the queer activism has certainly made inroads, these undertakings prove that it has not made enough impact to question such deeply entrenched attitude and bias.