The Dominating role Bhupen Khakhar’s sexuality has had on his work is often underplayed by those who write about him and his paintings.
by Dibyendu Ganguly
Published in INDIAN EXPRESS SUNDAY MAGAZINE, 1992, printed here with permission of the author
Bhupen Khakhar has never tried to hide his homosexuality. The theme has appeared in his paintings a number of times over the past decade. In well-known works like “Yayati” (1987) and “Two Men in Benares” (1985) for example, he has painted male nudes in close embrace. In terms of sheer boldness these paintings were comparable with anything that was being produced in the West at that time. Timothy Hyman says, “Bhupen” nudes signify a “coming out” unprecedented in Indian culture. There are millions of practicing homosexuals in the subcontinent, but they leave virtually no trace in film or literature, let alone painting.”
Art critics in India, however, have tended to gloss over this aspect of Bhupen’s work. He has been the subject of a mini-biography, numerous articles and countless brochures, but none has written of this crucial aspect of the eminent artist’s life. “I guess people have just been embarrassed to ask me about it,” says Bhupen. “But then, it has all been there in my paintings.”
Bhupen’s sexuality has had a dominating role to play in his lifestyle and his psyche and thus in his work. It is impossible to ignore it. Growing up gay in the ‘40s and ‘50s in a joint-family household in the Khetwadi area of Bombay could not have been easy. Talking about the way things have changed since then, Bhupen reflects, “Now that organizations like Bombay Dost have established themselves, there is more openness on the subject and things are better for young men who are gay. At least they know that they are not the only ones, they can find friends with whom they can talk about it. Otherwise it can be lonely and frightening.”
Bhupen graduated with a degree in Commerce from Sydenham College, passed the Chartered Accountancy exams and took up a job with A. F. Fergusons at Bombay. ‘Till this point, he was the examplar middle-class boy, the pride of his family. Meanwhile, he had been taking part-time courses in art at the J.J. School of Art and a few other places, but he found these to be badly taught. He had also been having occasional affairs with people he met at work, though he admits these were half-hearted and unemotional.
Bhupen was 27 when he came to terms with himself and decided the life of an executive was not for him. In 1962 he decided to quit his job and join his friend Gulam Sheikh at the Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University in Baroda. “I told myself that I would give it two years and if it didn’t work out, I could always come back to accountancy.” But living independently in Baroda, free from family pressures, Bhupen found what he was looking for and he never went back.
“By this time, I had decided I would not get married,” he recalls, “though the family continued to talk about it for several more years.” In the small town of Baroda, Bhupen also found someone he could have a steady relationship with, because, as he says, promiscuity was never part of his nature and he was not the type to cruise for one-night stands. Did he come into the world of art because of the bohemian lifestyle it offered? “Not really,” he says “ I was genuinely interested in painting. I thought I could be good at it. Maybe gay people are naturally creative and hence drawn to the arts.”
Bhupen’s arrival in Baroda coincided with the formation of what has come to be called the “Baroda School” of painting and it was an exciting time. Some of the best painters the country has produced were working in Baroda at that time and their narrative style of painting influenced others in far-flung places like Shantiniketan. Bhupen initially lived off the savings from his job in Bombay, and later took up a part-time job with the Jyoti group of companies in Baroda, auditing their accounts in the afternoons.
This duality in his career was partly responsible for the empathy he has with middle-class life, reflected in his brilliant series of ‘trade’ paintings of tailors, cobblers, watch repairers, all painting in myriad colours, giving them a poster-like quality. This depiction of the common man, usually so far removed from an artist’s life, was also influenced by the fact that his gay lifestyle broke all barriers of class, caste and religion.
Bhupen has been close to several older men with sagging bodies, white hair and all.
Recognition for his work came gradually and from abroad initially. In 1979 he exhibited three works at an international exhibition of “narrative paintings” in London. Since then he has exhibited all over the world and was one of the six representative Indian painters to be shown at the Tate Gallery London along with Rabindranath Tagore, Jamini Roy, Amrita Sher-Gil and others. This year, he was the first painter from the subcontinent to be invited to exhibit at the prestigious Documenta exhibition held every five years at Kassel, Germany.
Today, the large canvases he paints sell for a whopping Rs 2 lakh. His output is slow, sending as he does four to five months over each piece, working at his studio, which is an extension of the drawing room at his bungalow in Baroda.
Does he enjoy small-town life? “I would prefer living in Bombay, but I just cannot afford to live there the way I do here,” he admits candidly. At home, he is looked after by a servant, Pandu, who used to look after Bhupen’s mother earlier and has been in Baroda with Bhupen ever since she passed away. Pandu is married and has several children, who are quite a dominating presence in the small house. The neighbours largely leave the world famous artist alone, though they did get together and gift him a shawl when he was awarded a Padmashree in 1984. Bhupen too prefers it this way since he values his privacy. “Though I have never tried to hide my sexuality, I have not gone out of my way to announce it either. I am not a gay activist and the depiction of the man-to-man intimacy in paintings was not really meant to be a social statement.”
All the same, the gay theme has been a very important one. As he says, “It took me time to find the language in which to paint it. But today, it is the central theme of my paintings.” At 58, with eyes badly damaged by cataract, Bhupen’s output has been reduced drastically. He has had operations done on both his eyes, but his vision remains very hazy still. Till he goes in for laser therapy, Bhupen works with dark glasses to protect his eyes and is under strict instructions from his doctor not to read, write, and watch television or paint. But Bhupen is a man of many creative outlets. He also sings and has written several short stories in Gujarati, besides a successfully produced play. It is possible that he might turn to writing if painting becomes physically difficult. Listening to audio recordings of Shakespeare plays and spending time with friends, Bhupen tries to plan ahead for what he knows would be a period of adjustment.