The Past and Present of Queer Art in India through Bhupen Khakhar’s Paintings
This article was originally published August 2020 in Mezosfera.org, and appears here courtesy of the author.
In June 2019, Business Review put up the headliner “Bhupen Khakhar sets new record as painting fetches over 22 cr at Sotheby’s sale.”This painting here refers to Khakhar’s 1982 oil on canvas titled Two Men in Benares. The painting has broken records as being one of the biggest sweep for the auction house during the London’s South Asia art week, as one of the costliest painting by an Indian artist, and the highest when it comes to Bhupen Khakhar’s body of work. The superlatives for Khakhar’s painting do not end in its commercial acclaim but can readily describe its cultural impact. Its initial exhibition in 1986 created so much uproar—as it is also referenced on Sotheby’s—that the owners of the Chemould Gallery, Mumbai had to put it away in their storeroom owing to the protest from the Cottage Industries authorities on whose premises the exhibition was held. This ensured that there was less media coverage on the topic theme of the work that Khakhar had presented. However, the painting found itself an audience in Paris where it was a part of 1985-86 Festival of India exhibition at Palais de Chaillot. The uproar was timely given that the exhibition took place during a point in Indian cultural and political makeup when queerness was very intentionally made inconspicuous. However, this will not be an examination of one of Khakhar’s painting or for that matter that of his oeuvre—which has already been done extensively by art critics like Timothy Hyman, Geeta Kapur, Jyoti Dhar, Karin Zitzewitz, Nada Raza, to name a few. This is a probe into the way queerness has been treated in the Indian art scene by understanding the development of Khakhar’s queerness through the way he painted his sexuality and the context in which it was painted and garnered appeal.
The Audacity of Two Men in Benares
Bhupen Khakhar published a self-written exhibition catalog Truth is Beauty And Beauty is God, where he provided a detailed autobiographical notes on himself as well insights into some of his works. In the title itself there are the most important themes that Khakhar tackles in his art— truth, beauty, and God. One way to connect these three themes is the story he put at the very beginning about his rebirth. He recounts the story that a meeting with a shadow reader told him about his past life when he was a manager to a feudal lord. He ended up falling in love with his lord’s daughter and they made love whilst he was married to his wife. This resulted in him being slain by the father. But in this story the most poignant response is from his wife who said “if you are so timid why did you fall in love.” It almost feels as though Khakhar has been, in this life at least, been at best trying to ensure that he remains courageous as a lover.
Khakhar’s Two Men in Benares portrays two brown bodies in the forefront but only with one visible face in embrace. The other face which is hidden features a halo of white hair and the shade of earthy brown that made it possible for many art writers to point it out as Khakhar himself. This led many, including the British artist and writer Timothy Hyman, who promoted Khakhar extensively and has set the standard for Bhupen Khakhar’s retrospective, as one of his coming out paintings. The five feet tall painting very clearly placed that it was not only the subject of the painting but also the subjectivity that was queer in nature. This is remarkable even for the polity in India today, let alone in the 1980s when it was unveiled.
This controversial painting portrayed two naked bodies in embrace with the Indian city of Benares (Varanasi) as the backdrop. Both of them engage in a private act but the walls of their private room seem to have dissolved—open to the world but unaffected by it. The outside world, namely the city of Benares, bustled with quotidian activities. But this outside world becomes jarring owing to the city’s reputation as a holy city in Hinduism. The bodies in embrace seamlessly fit into the daily entanglements of the quotidian represented by the people of Benares. Such harmonic congruence with the daily routine makes it seem that the act of sex and especially that of homo-sex one is an everyday activity like praying or the river flowing—activities taking place in the background. This evocation was perverse as it forced the normalization of two pursuits that have been demarcated as vile and ungodly. It seems that the uproar by the authorities in Chemould Galley, came from the inability to let contradictory elements like the holy city of Benares exit with the unholy act of gay sex.
The painting included the depiction of desire as a unique function. The penises of the two men rather than standing together like a pyramid lay parallel to each other; one erect and the other flaccid making an equal sign. The bodies are striving for a union and a fusion of two different bodies. This symbolism of the equal sign within the act of two male bodies in embrace gives an impish suggestion that the act of sex has the power to dissolve subjectivity and bring one to a point of absolution. This is possible when one identifies oneself in their lovers which is the anxiety that queerness poses in the first place—the desire for similarity. Khakhar reflected on this power of sexuality in many of his work creating a tapestry that elaborately knitted together the scared and the profane, albeit crudely.
Even though inappropriate for its time, it is the transgression of Khakhar’s painting that makes him stand out as an artist and a cultural icon. But his transgression takes to glory only in retrospection, especially after the numbers that Sotheby was able to amass. Since the subcontinent was so interested in delegitimizing Khakhar’s painting and his sexuality when it came out for the first time in the 1980s, what about India and the world has changed that has allowed Khakhar to garner the demand that made his painting one of the costliest till date, and beforehand a major retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern in London?
Cover of the catalog published in conjunction with Bhuphen Khakhar’s retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern in London.
Bhupen Khakhar: You Can’t Please All, eds. Chirs Dercon and Nada Raza (London: Tate Publishing, 2016)
The Marginal-Mainstream: You Can’t Please All
Unlike the rest of India in 1980s, Khakhar did not shy away from affirming his queerness. In fact, it was an important theme in his artistry and for his career post 1980s. Interestingly, Khakhar became a part of the mainstream fora of Indian artists through his works that depicted blue collar workers like tailors and factory workers, De-Luxe Tailors (1972). However, his gayness was not featured until western critics like Timothy Hyman pointed out the influence of his subjectivity in his painting. In the early 1990s, art critics in India mostly disregarded Khakhar’s sexuality, unless it was to contextualize paintings such as Two Men in Benares. This camouflage disappeared when Timonthy Hyman in 1998 explicitly foregrounded Khakhar’s sexuality as an important part of his work. Hyman even went on to declare a series of paintings from the 1980s as the coming out paintings of Khakhar. These include You Can’t Please All (1981), Two Men in Benares (1982), and Yayati (1987).
This was a change in the way Bhupen was viewed by the Indian audience as cultural taste makers geared around him. As more and more discussion opened up within the art circles about how he has been able to successfully use his painting to narrate, there was a great deal of conflict when it came to narrating his life as reporters refrained from being too prying about his private matters lest he discloses only too much. But we will see that Khakhar who so valiantly and with honesty tried to provide an account of his desires—desire which were evidently marginalized in a conservative time—eventually became a mainstream cultural icon in India. In fact, in the present times, the artworks that contain an expression of his marginalized experiences are celebrated more than ever. He did not burst into the scene as a young gay artist, in fact, most described his coming out as shy and rather slow but it gained tremendous momentum over the years.
Khakhar’s sexuality is not the only factor that has contributed and defined his trajectory as the marginal artist who took to the mainstream. It is but the very timing and context in which he began his artistic journey that adds to his marginal-mainstream narrative. In order to better understand the kind of motivation that ultimately led to a pressing need to conform and express his sexuality a resurgence of his political and personal context is required.
Born to a middle-class family in Mumbai in 1934, Bhupen was trained to become an accountant and not an artist. He kindled his interest in art diligently by taking up art classes in the evening besides his formal education in accounting. In was not until the age of 26 that he was able to invest in is artistic pursuit by moving to Baroda in 1962. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to claim that while he went to study art criticism, his peers must have had a full family to take care of. This detail elicits the fact Khakhar began pursuing his artistic career at a time in his life that was traditionally kept for setting foundations of family rather than exploration. He was an outsider to begin with, given his contemporaries like Gulam Mohammed Sheikh had a fine art education by the time he joined the same program at faculty of fine arts.
This slow turn of events evidently worked out for Bhupen who may have started late but joined the Faculty of Fine Arts at the opportune moment of the formation of the Baroda school of artists. The Baroda school distinguished themselves with figurative art that incorporated a narrative style. It was headed by K.G. Subramanyan who emphasized a juxtaposition of contemporary art with popular culture and folk art with urban trends. The time and the people around Khakhar were promoting a new found robustness and vision in regionalism. However, Khakhar himself did not undertake the regionalism until being exposed to artist like Jim Donovan who arrived at Baroda in 1962 as an exchange student.  Hyman notes this chance meeting with Donovan as the foundation of Pop art being introduced to Khakhar’s artistry. Hyman remarks it as a pivotal moment because it was through the introduction of pop that Khakhar was able to recognize “the beauty and vitality of Indian street, becom[ing] attentive to Indian popular imagery—oleographs, film posters and all the ‘debased’ genres that were like [Bhupen], ‘on the margins of art.’”
It can be thus argued that Khakhar found in Pop a synthesis of the technique that he has been able to learn through Subramanyan and the drive that was fuelled by his desire to express himself. He started his practice of using iconography that resembled wall graffiti and god pictures which made itself to a collage with enamel paint, plaster relief on board and sometimes pieces of mirrors. The works that he made in his sixties were trying to separate themselves from a dichotomous separation of the avantgarde and the kitschy, instead relying on the formation of a representational mechanism driven by a narrative form.
This surge in creating a narrative then moved towards configuring what will the form center itself around. Kapur felt that for Bhupen the “representational project shifted from language of the popular culture to the subject appropriate to that language, to subjectivity that elicited from the depiction of the subject in the language” in the 1970s. This stress on subjectivity initially did not tap on Bhupen’s sexuality during the 1970s. For the most part the key figures in his paintings of that decade were working class people or as Hyman put it “The Insignificant Man” like watch repairer, barber or factory accountant. This perhaps was a nod to his day job as an accountant which he still maintained for a long time. It was a subjectivity that was unique to him as representative of his sentiments as an outlier in the Indian art landscape.
Khakhar had begun the project of unfurling his identity through the trope of the working class man but moved toward his sexuality thereafter. The use of the narrative style and his gay subjectivity reached its masterful zenith within his 1981 painting You Can’t Please All. The painting was first exhibited as a part of a group show titled Place for People, which toured from Mumbai to New Delhi in 1981. The exhibition is marked as a turning point in the Indian art scene as it moved from symbolic and abstract imagery to contemporary and personal subjects. You Can’t Please All was acquired by the Tate in 1996. Khakhar’s painting has multiple things going within it, and for it that makes it a striking vision. Firstly, it includes a naked man with a similar top of white hair like in Two Men in Benares,but this time alone and standing in his balcony facing the hustle-bustle of the township. The sky is dark denoting night, a time for rest and recuperation. But the community is not asleep it is in fact bustling with various kinds of activities. This ranges from a man poking at mangoes in the center, construction work going on in the background to a man repairing his car. It is only the man, Bhupen himself, standing in a vulnerable state of nakedness who is in the position to view and absorb the events unfolding in front of him.
The most interesting part of the painting, which also provides the painting with its name, is the figures of a donkey and two men one in pink and the other in white attire. It registers a flow of time because the trio is seen in three different places across the painting in three different positions building on a perspective. The passage of time narratively plays out one of Aesop’s fables by the same name where a father and son duo takes their donkey to the market. The story goes that as the father and son pass through the market people remarked why they were walking when they had a donkey in the first place. Soon with each passing remark there were new alternations to the way the donkey was treated. Ultimately the father-son ended up carrying the donkey on a pole which led to dropping the poor animal in a ditch where he died. The story ends with the father remarking that “if you plan on pleasing everyone, you will please nobody.”
The story is poignant in its own right, but when viewed together with a convert attempt at coming out, it renders the painting powerful. For the most part it may not seem like a painting that has anything to do with queerness or sexuality in the first place. But as Hyman asks Khakhar who is by then approaching his fifties on why the donkey sports an erection in his second appearance, the artist remarks: “Because he is carrying two men.”
Khakhar appears in the painting in two representations; one as himself as the foregrounded spectator and then as the metaphorical donkey that might be suffer if tended to the jeering of every passing remark. As someone who views himself as both physically and politically marginal, the donkey becomes an important allegory that refers to both the unbeautified mundane and the burden of carrying the desires for men. He puts this allegory very coyly, almost hidden behind the hum-drum of busy life, within the painting whilst making it central to its meaning.
This evidently a clap back at the way society has viewed him and his sexuality as belonging in the periphery, as witness to life rather than a participant and as rendered invisible amidst the normality of life. This painting set the tone for the works that contained similar display of narrative and inclusion of a subjective lens tainted by desire. Through this painting Khakhar has been able to put a foot on the door, not only as a queer artist within the subcontinent talking about it and portraying, but it is also a foot on the door that opens him to his own liberation.
It would be a mistake to misconstrue Khakhar as a fringe artist. He is but an artist who has emerged into the mainstream with a noteworthy appeal of being an underdog with more than ample talent and perspective to influence and benefit the mainstream especially after his death. He embodies the realpolitik of representation that has gained steam as a political force in the 21st century thereby cementing his relevance in the present.
The Man in the Myth: Yayati
If You Can’t Please All (1981) is about sexual liberation and Two Men in Benares (1982) is the contextualization of his desire, Yayati (1987) is about the reality of the fantasy that desire posits. Unlike the previous two paintings, Yayati depicts two men in embrace no longer as an allegory or clasped within the quotidian instead it is in front of a bright pink screen which exaggerates the already naked bodies. This time the two penises are erect and point towards each other seeking beyond an embrace or a union a fulfilment that sexuality promises.
Yayati which comes last in his coming out series is important for two important details; firstly, the weaving in of an India myth into the narrative form that Khakhar espouses; secondly, it puts into display explicitly the desire for older men which was again a tabooed sexual choice. The story of Yayati appears in the chapter from the Hindu text called Bhagavata Purana. The myth is famous for depicting King Yayati as a father who, in order to lift the curse of old age, asked one of his sons, Puru, to exchange his youth for Yayati’s old age. Puru later on becomes the heir to his father’s kingdom owing to the devotion to his father and starts the lineage for the Kuru dynasty that would take center stage in the epic called Mahabharata.
Yayati’s story has been repurposed before as the fiction behind the psycho-analytic understanding of the Yayati complex. This was an added dimension and an eastern response to the Freudian Oedipus complex. If the Oedipus conflict was about the conflict with the father for the affection with the mother, Yayati upturned this by proposing the conflict that arises from an acute devotion to the patriarchal figure. The use of Yayati by Khakhar checks many boxes in his itinerary if there were any. As explained above, it checks in as an indigenous storyline that has its roots within the public psyche of the subcontinent. It provides the narrative structure for Khakhar to feature his perspective by inserting himself in the myth. But mostly it widens the scope of social issues and themes Khakhar will be able to tackle and expound on in his succeeding work.
At the end of the story, Yayati gives his youth away to his son after having realized that while his youth remained, he would always be on the conquest for something even when he has reached satiation physically and materially. Yayati, therefore, is the story of rejoicing, not desiring to satisfy the older man, but also desiring the state of maturity that punching years provides. Khakhar imprints this in his painting by creating a moment of tenderness depicted in the angelic form that has white wings and a golden halo on top. This tenderness is like grace from above that does not lend itself to conquest but devotion and fulfilment in a sacred way, the way Puru is devoted and Yayati is fulfilled.
This idea round fulfilment and devotion segues into the crucial treatment of religion that is on display in two of his coming out series. In Two Men in Benares, religion was used to demarcate the exterior conflict that sacral order poses—the expulsion of the physical pleasures in order to attain spiritual realization. It is a painting that shows that conflicting themes of repugnance and consecrated is in reality within one frame. But Khakhar does not go outside the subcontinent to look into this conflict as he finds the answers in within the spiritual movements in India itself.
In many Indian spiritual movements, one being the Bhakti movement, Hindu mystic poets often played with notions around gender and bodies often complicating it to express desire and devotion for god. The movement had adopted a form of transvestism where the lord, usually Krishna, takes on the male form, and in order to seduce him, the poet or the bhakt takes on, temporarily but expressedly, a female form. It also used the feeling of ecstasy, marked by sudden and overpowering feeling that denotes a body that is moving out of itself—a body as ex-stasis. This was the spiritual fulfilment attained from a body in rapturous hold of desire has led to the exoticization of the east in many ways as well as the alternative to the abstinent form of devotion of the Abrahamic religions. Yayati pushes the notion put further from Two Men by no longer stressing on the conflict but claiming that it is within our bodies where we will find a way into our soul.
Kapur has identified that Khakhar’s use of religion is to assert that “homosexuality in India is a part of the ubiquitous system of lies and deprivation, part of religious performance, part of married life, part of popular culture. Yayati is explicitly a grounding of the self within the Indian art scene, within the public psyche and within his own mind as an individual not in the margins but representing a community whose desires—though not accepted—are real and valid.
Post 1980s, and till his death, Khakhar still explored his sexuality as a consistent theme but moved to water colors mostly giving his paintings a levity as if it was always in progress rather than unfinished. The titles of the paintings also grew longer like How Many Hands do I Need to Declare My Love to You (1994) and An Old Man From Vasad Who Had Five Penises Suffered From Runny Nose (1995). In some, sexuality took a back seat, like in Morning Civitella (2000), which displayed a background painted entirely in crimson and foregrounded by a blue cushion sofa with intricate blue details centered in the middle. The subject matter of the painting at first glance seemed to be the sofa that was placed so centrally and detailed so delicately. Until one notices at one corner two naked male bodies in the middle of a mundane chore. His oeuvre also boasted paintings like Hell (1992) which was a gory depiction of hell brimming with an excess of different kind of sexuality. Khakhar had in his way made queerness a mainstream phenomenon within the narrative art form he espoused.
One question that persists is whether Khakhar has been the most indigenous product from India. The simple answer is no. An exposure to the west played a fundamental role in Khakhar accepting his own sexuality when he went to England in the 1970s. Since homosexuality was legalized in England in 1967, Khakhar was able to witness the freedom and socialization of a part of his identity that he had to repress back home. His trip abroad was facilitated by an exchange program by the Indian government which took him to the UK via then Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Italy. Khakhar befriended British artists like Sir Howard Hodgkin who would introduced him to David Hockney, the Pop artist Khakhar would be described as the Indian equivalent of. Therefore, Khakhar was very much impacted by the ideas and issues that the West was dealing with.
Even though he was strongly influenced by the West, Khakhar was very persistent about the way he differed from his Western peers. On being compared to Hockney, Khakhar would remark that “Hockney is concerned with physical beauty. I am more concerned with other aspects, like warmth, pity, vulnerability, touch.” His desire to an artistic selfhood coupled with his desire to come to light with his sexuality makes him a rare indigenist who created a place for those coming after him without imposing the conflict of a Western universal, even when he was influenced by it.
There are multiple reasons why Khakhar has the appeals to people. He has changed the Indian art landscape along with his contemporaries through works that stitch together an Indian identity suffused in artistic practices that have been inspired and inspire people across the board. Out of all these specifics and generics, Bhupen Khakhar stands out as a queer artist with insurmountable desire to express his perceptions on desire. He talks about desire by putting them within a tapestry of the reincarnated, the fabled, the divine, and the quotidian. He does so without pursing any queer agenda to represent or to recover. Instead, what Khakhar does as a part of his legacy, is give a real, at the same time, fantastic presentation of queer life in India. It is by and large understood that queer politics is no longer simple, it is in every possible way complex. But he puts a foot at the door when no one even wanted to look at it, and his ever rising popularity is a hint at the possibility that conversations around the various ideas Khakhar displayed are ready to be engaged with more. In many ways, such honesty will be the trajectory forward for the queer artists to follow him.
Mayookh Barua is a New Delhi based writer. He is a contributing writer to the US-based art house Ginnava and has been published as a fiction writer in magazines such as Crooked Magazine. His areas of focus mainly lie in and around art, queerness, cinema, and the politics of a family.
 Press Trust of India, “Bhupen Khakhar Sets New Record as Painting Fetches Over 22 Cr At Sotheby’s Sale,” Business Insider, June 11, 2019., https://www.business-standard.com/article/pti-stories/bhupen-khakhar-sets-new-record-as-painting-fetches-over-22-cr-at-sotheby-s-sale-119061100612_1.html.
 Press Trust of India, “Bhupen Khakhar.”
 Sunil Mehra, “An Accountant Of Alternate Reality” Outlook India. December 13, 1995, quoted in “Bhupen Khakhar, Two Men in Benares, Catalogue Note,” Sotheby’s, https://www.sothebys.com/en/buy/auction/2019/coups-de-coeur/bhupen-khakhar-two-men-in-benares.
 “Bhupen Khakhar, Two Men in Benares, Catalogue Note,” Sotheby’s.
 Among others, Geeta Kapur, “In Quest of Identity: Art & Indigenism in Post-Colonial Culture with Special Reference to Contemporary Indian Painting,” Vrishchik (1971-1972); Timothy Hyman, Bhupen Khakhar (Bombay: Chemould Publications and Mapin Publishing, 1998); Bhupen Khakhar (Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2002), with texts by Enrique Juncosa and Geeta Kapur; Geeta Kapur, “The Uncommon Universe of Bhupen Kahkhar” in Pop Art and Vernacular Cultures, ed. Kobena Mercer (Institute of International Visual Art with Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007), 110–135; Karin Zitzewitz, The Art of Secularism: The Cultural Politics of Modernist Art in Contemporary India (Hurst & Co. Publishing, 2014); Jyoti Dhar “Bhupen Khakhar: Love in the time of Bhupen” ArtAsiaPacific 98, (2016): 96–105; Bhupen Khakhar: You Can’t Please All, eds. Chris Dercon and Nada Raza (Lodon: Tate Publishing, 2016).
 Bhupen Khakhar, Truth is Beauty and Beauty is God (Gallery Chemould, Bombay, 1972) in Dercon and Raza, Bhupen Khakhar and also online: https://bhupenkhakharcollection.com/autobio-72/
 Khakhar Truth is Beauty and Beauty is God.
 Hyman, Bhupen Khakhar.
 Ganguly, Dubyendu, ‘Gay and Hearty,’ Indian Express Sunday Magazine, 1992
 Hyman, Bhupen Khakhar
 Dibyendu Ganguly, “Gay and Hearty” Indian Express Sunday Magazine, 1992.
 Jyoti Dhar “Bhupen Khakhar: Love in the time of Bhupen,” 97.
 Nada Raza. “A Man Labelled Bhupen Khakhar Branded as Painter,” in Bhupen Khakhar: You Can’t Please All, eds. Chris Dercon and Nada Raza (London: Tate Publishing, 2016), 13–15.
 See also Nancy Adajania, “Globalism Before Globalisation: The Ambivalent Fate of Triennale India” in Western Artists and India: Creative Inspirations in Art and Design, ed. Shanay Jhaveri, (London: Thames & Hudson, 2013), 168–185.
Hyman, Timothy, The World New Made: Figurative Painting in the Twentieth Century (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), 220.
 Geeta Kapur, “BhupenKhakhar” in Bhupen Khakhar (Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2002), 4.
 Hyman, The World New Made: Figurative Painting in the Twentieth Century, 220.
 Rebecca Heald, „Bhupen Khakhar, You Can’t Please All” Tate, 2014. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/khakhar-you-cant-please-all-t07200
 Kapur, “BhupenKhakhar,” (2002), 15.
 Raza, “A Man Labelled Bhupen Khakhar Branded as Painter,” 19.
 Hyman, The World New Made: Figurative Painting in the Twentieth Century, 223.
 Kapur, “BhupenKhakhar,” (2002), 13.
 Timothy Hyman “You Can’t Please All,” in Bhupen Khakhar: You Can’t Please All, eds. Chris Dercon and Nada Raza (London: Tate Publishing, 2016), 50-51.
 Raza, “A Man Labelled BhupenKhakhar Labelled as Painter, ”13-15.
 Hyman, The World New Made: Figurative Painting in the Twentieth Century, 226.