by Shivaji K. Panikkar
Bhupen Khakhar was the first Indian artist to make creative use of India’s much undervalued, hybrid visual culture, enabling him to subvert the dominant purist trends, particularly abstraction. Simultaneously, it helped him to translate his inner urges and voices, intimate relationships, and concerns with the common people onto canvas and paper. He came to represent and to narrate the life of the common milieu through painting and printing thereby defining the quest for modern Indian identity from a totally unexplored premise. What deserves special attention is the fact that he became the first Indian artist to disclose his homosexual orientation through his work.(1)
Throughout his relatively short career Khakhar flaunted the established mainstream through playful, often surprising and unusual, if not odd, pictorial delineations and narrative incidents. His disarming honesty, sensitivity and directness in his personal life and artistic expressions constantly threatened the limits set by the canons. Creating so much – from writing short stories and dramas to painting, printmaking, sculpture and installations – he nonetheless lived an ordinary life of an ordinary person quietly undermining aura and greatness. His honesty and care in representing the nuances of his experiences lent a transparency to all his forms of expression. Khakhar’s art enabled him to play between the apparent irreconcilability of the lived and the imagined. Mundane activities and the imaginary worked hand in hand to create a holistic experience of life. The irreverence and the transgressive potential of being a gay man became with time a central strategy, his strength, and his extraordinary ability to maintain his differences among his contemporaries.
Khakhar’s artistic persona is close to the 19th century company/bazaar painter whose work was hybrid, inadequate, funny and odd at times. This enabled him to overcome his technical limitations and inadequacies of an untrained visual artist.
A major influence from outside India was the Pop movement in Europe and the USA encouraging his interest in the mundane and so-called debased taste. Although Khakhar was seemingly one of the most western-oriented artists in the 1960s, he was in fact only taking cues from it, all the while searching for a true modern Indian expression with an acute sense of middle class Indian reflexivity. With an uncanny sensitivity he brought to the fore an indigenous popular visual culture disdained by elites. Meek voices from the margins of history filtered and re-configured through the mundane realities in his paintings and prints indeed did have the strength to overturn the puritanical culture postures of the established bastions of art-making.
As a result, J. Swaminathan, who led the important 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 painting You Can’t Please All (1981) and Celebration of Guru Jayanti, (1980) he was already an established artist, if not canonized. The pre-eminent art critic Geeta Kapur recognized him as an avant-garde painter with great historical significance. (2)
Inspired by hybrid mixtures of ‘native’ and European pictorial elements, Khakhar began working out a combination of popular realism and dramatic, romantic, picturesque ways of painting and printmaking. The results were Parsi Family in 1968 and Barber Shop in 1972. He developed an elaborate representational strategy: in paintings 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 infuse an iconic presence to the protagonists. Sharp, dramatic contrasts of bright and dark colors inspired by popular art and the stiff, sharp tonal gradations and the smoothened floating shiny surface of these paintings still look vacant and somber. The mood is sad. Portrait of Shri Shankarbhai Patel Near Red Fort (1971) is painted rather flatly in the Indian miniaturist style within the norms of the indigenist turn of the period. In this oil on canvas the stern profile of the old man, the object of the artist’s desire (Patel was Khakhar’s partner until Patel’s death), is juxtaposed with an inviting still-life of fruits that are laid-out on a table over a carpet in front of a garden. By the coded language of such works he could represent a gay man’s desires and sad loneliness.
Perhaps it was the confidence derived from the coded messages of such works which gave him the language to represent a gay man’s desires and loneliness more overtly in paintings such as Man Eating Jalebee (1974) and Man With A Bouquet of Plastic Flowers (1976) The yearning for the loving companionship of the young for the older mate is treated obviously in Ranchodbhai Relaxing in Bed (1975). Khakhar still deflected hidden gay desires in somewhat political or mundane themes in Factory Strike (1972), 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.
His stable friendship with Vallabhdas Shah helped him to come to terms with his sexuality, but his trip to England in 1979 where he saw gay men living openly together and where he got to know David Hockney’s work gave him the courage to express his sexuality freely through art and in his public statements about his creations. Truly ambitious and outspoken are Two Men in Banaras (1982) and Yayati (1987) which he painted with exuberant, subversive sexual strength and confidence. Here, the theme is the virile male in relation to the passive partner with Khakhar representing himself as the effeminate, desiring and submissive lover. In Yayati the painter celebrates the resurrection of the old man by his youthful and angelic younger lover.
Religion and sexuality figure importantly in his early collages and in Celebration of Guru Jayanti. Khakhar locates legitimacy within the popular congregational Hindu religious traditions and practices which allow a certain anonymity in practicing erotic play. The artist thereby moves away from the private/
autobiographical to nebulous public domains such as religious practices. Such works permit him to show that the caring and obedient lover can poke fun at the macho man. Put another way, it was not religion per se that excited his imagination, but, rather, the specific play of sexuality that he perceived underlay Hindu myths, stories and icons that he constantly explored.
In works such as Ghost City (1992) and An Old Man from Vasad Who Had Five Penises Suffered From Runny Nose (1995) he moved away from the question of power relations. The enigmas of real life experiences, the moments of belief and disbelief, decisions about fighting or ignoring a hostile world, whether to take the encounters with a partner seriously or otherwise are also an element in his literary works. (3) Toward the end of his career as he fought against prostate cancer he painted human bodies that were violated by disease, war and violence, intersperse with the experiences of tender, fearless calm. Painting such as Beauty is Skin Deep Only (2001), Bullet Shot in the Stomach (2001) and others such as Grey Buddha (2003) and Golden Curtain (2001) point to an oscillation between violation of the body and a meditative calmness.
In his sketching, a practice he maintained throughout his career, Khakhar showed his untutored, candid best. His drawings which filled many sketch books functioned as a ready pool of visual notations which he sometimes used discreetly while visualizing his more ambitious creative endeavors in figurative oil and watercolor works as well as in prints. Often sketched in total abandon in the spirit of a stranger-traveler-voyeur, peopled or not, these sketches also served the immediate purpose of pleasure and visual experience for Khakhar.
His openness to the life of the people around him lent an authenticity of the sketches. A few of them reveal the playful imagination of indulgent sexual self- seeing reveries; often they seem too real to be in reality. Drawn while day-dreaming while sitting in his home studio or while on his many travels, particularly to small pilgrimage towns and country sides he exposes best his vulnerabilities. With their disarming simplicity and directness, they are closest to his watercolors and prints. While his many oil paintings are passionately labored and anxiety ridden, worked-over for long periods of time, the sketching and watercolors eased him, often lending them an uninhibited disarming wit, spontaneity and even an uncanny quirkiness and bizarre realness.
Khakhar surely imagined a language of ambivalence and lived an open-ended life; his language of life and art were born from meekness, unsure commitments and 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, maintained a certain continuity and consistency. His art could also be seen as a compensation of a special kind for the absence of a dearest friend.
Without a beloved companion for most of his life he recorded, commented on and humored himself. Few artists in our time have drawn resources from themselves as effectively and melodramatically and as intriguingly as Khakhar. To that extent, Bhupen Khakhar’s art is a true testimony to his self and to his life.
1. For a detailed reading of the life and works of Bhupen Khakhar see Gulammohammed Sheikh (ed.), Contemporary Art in Baroda, New Delhi, Tulika, 1997; Timothy Hyman, Bhupen Khakhar, Mumbai, Chemould Publications and Arts, 1998; Geeta Kapur, “Bhupen Khakhar”, catalogue essay in Bhupen Khakhar, Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, September 2002, pp. 26-48.
2. See Geeta Kapur, “View from the Teashop: Bhupen Khakhar,” in Contemporary Indian Artists, New Delhi, Vikas Publications, 1978.
3. Among his most interesting and bizarre writings are Phoren Soap (1998), Bhupen Khakhar (2001).
Professor Shivaji K. Panikkar has been the Head, Department of Art History and Aestherics, M.S. University of Baroda. His research and publications are in the areas of pre-modern and modern Indian art. His many books include Saptamatrka Worship and Sculpture: An Iconological Interpretation of Conflicts and Resolution in the ‘Storied’ Brahmanical Icons (1997). He has coordinated six national conferences around the theme of ‘New Art History’. He is currently engaged in setting up an institution named ARQ: Archive, Research and Queer Cultural Practices.