First published 30 November 2013, in LiveMint.com. Reprinted here with the permission of the author.
Bhupen Khakhar would slip into our hyper connected, performative, social media-propelled world all too easily. In his last days, battling an advancing prostate cancer, he would ply visiting friends with his campy, self-mocking humour—“so dramatic, so nat-khat then also”, says his sister-in-law Lekha Naresh Khakhar, who now lives in the house the artist designed and lived in. Its rooms are airy and angular. Very little of him remains in his studio and bedroom, except a few brushes, the paintings he had collected, and some photographs. He willed his works to three trusts in Vadodara and Surat, to be managed by three close businessmen friends, among them the Garden Vareli family in Surat. None of the trusts talks about these collections (meant only for preservation) in public.
When Khakhar had visitors in those last two years, which was every day, he would sometimes lie supine, hold one side of his canvas with frail hands and brush it with colour. Till the end (he died in 2003 at the age of 69), he loved interviewing himself—one of his signature gimmicks. His questions to himself were absurd, like, “How does the railway budget affect your paintings?” The answers were illuminating, and equally absurd. Journalists and interviews excited him. Those who knew him closely say performance was his drug.
This performative side of Khakhar is key to understanding most of the works in Touched by Bhupen, a commemorative show opening at Mumbai’s Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke today, where artists who knew him, who he collaborated with and mentored, and younger artists who did not directly know him, have created tributes to the great artist.
The pith of this show is in the backstory of its subject.
Khakhar’s close friend and colleague, poet and artist Gulammohammed Sheikh, has made a 10ft fibreglass installation of Khakhar, inspired by his famous painting Yayati (1987). With wings attached to his back, fingers soiled in multi-coloured paint, in big pink shoes, looking down benevolently almost like an angel, it is far from Khakhar’s interpretation of the Yayati myth. From Sheikh and Jogen Chowdhury to Nataraj Sharma and Shilpa Gupta, the show is a repository of the adulation Khakhar’s whimsy, irreverence and originality enjoy in the art fraternity. Atul Dodiya, who has embodied the painter in his art on many occasions (he has two works in this show), says: “I found Bhupen’s sense of space and colour refreshing. He was always a struggler because he was not trained. His works were never designed. He added, rejected, and added until he was satisfied.”
For those of us who woke up to the world’s creative ferment in the 1990s through Salman Rushdie and MTV, Bhupen Khakhar was cool. Even if you were far removed from the art world, he was an artist who mattered. He was openly gay; and he painted figures with big hands and tiny faces. He broke rules, ransacked traditions.
At that time, and the 30 years preceding that, Khakhar, of course, had been hard at work. A part-time employee of an engineering goods company in Vadodara, he spent his afternoons and nights painting and the evening, as he himself said, “loafing”—with visiting artists and intellectuals, such as English musical artiste Jim Donovan and author Allen Ginsberg, and artists like Sheikh, Nalini Malani and art historian and critic Geeta Kapur, who were central forces behind the Baroda school of art.
It took him a few years to develop an idiom entirely his own, and when he did, he spoke to the philistine as well as the aesthete. Khakhar’s sources were diverse: Mughal miniatures, Krishna pichwais, Kalighat paintings, oleographs, medieval illuminated manuscripts, the Sienna school, Pieter Bruegel, R.B. Kitaj and David Hockney. Critics were sharply divided about the merits of his first solo show in Mumbai in the late 1960s, collages in which he painted over street and calendar art. Some considered it an aesthetic misadventure. If it was, it was so peculiar, and so strangely resonant at that time (two of the works were sold immediately, and among the rest, some were subsequently sold and some are still part of collections of his works), that it transfixed the world of art, authorship and the few connoisseurs of the time. Khakhar became the cynosure of an empathetic cult. He became India’s first serious pop artist and energized a generation of artists to think beyond just applying formal training to practice.
The tailor, the accountant, the chaiwalla, the barber and the rickshaw-walla—men doused in monotony and insignificance—populated his canvases. Kapur famously called him a painter of “lost realities”. Unlike the high-brow alienation of Indian artists before him, say, the Bombay Progressives, Khakhar was acutely aware of the existence of others, and of what educated society perceived as otherness. He referred to the tea stall owner near his office and Rushdie as friends with the same sense of familiarity and fondness. In 1995, he made the supremely witty work Old Man from Vasad Who Had Five Penises Suffered From a Runny Nose (inspired by it, artist Shilpa Gupta makes a work ‘…And She Said His Cook Had a Runny Nose’ for the show at Mirchandani + Steinruecke) and a famous portrait of Rushdie. Khakhar affronted middle-class sensibilities further when, a few years later, he openly practised as a homosexual artist, with many intensely private self-portraits, some alone and many with a partner. Khakhar said in an interview to Outlook magazine in 1995 that his contribution, and the most significant thing he had done, was the “kind of personal confessional paintings” he had made. His friends were artists, models, authors and random libertarians who came and went, but his intimate relationships were always with middle-class, some uneducated, men who knew nothing about art. A facsimile figure of Vallavdas Shah, a close friend for almost all his life, older than him, features in many of his later paintings.
Rushdie recalls meeting Khakhar in the early 1980s at an event at Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, London. It was an encounter between artists from India and Indian-origin writers and artists based in London. They got along, and shortly afterwards they met at the Knoedler gallery in London where Khakhar had a show opening. The author had just sold a story to an American magazine and the cheque was in his pocket. He particularly fell in love with the painting Second Class Railway Compartment (1982). “To my amazement the price was exactly the same as the amount on the cheque in my pocket (this shows how low the prices for Indian art were at the time). I thought there was something beautiful and fitting about turning my story into his painting, so to speak, and so I bought it, and it is still one of my most prized possessions,” Rushdie says in an email interview.
The art world rewarded Khakhar late in his lifetime—in the late 1990s and 2000s. In 2002, a year before his death, Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia hosted his biggest solo show. His paintings are now part of important collections across the world, including the permanent collection of the Tate Modern Gallery, London. Jessica Morgan, a curator of international art at the Tate Modern, says they are researching for a show at Tate Modern. In September, a work by Khakhar, American Survey Officer (1969), crushed its estimated figure by a long mile to fetch Rs. 2.54 crore at Sotheby’s auction of Modern and South Asian Art in New York, US.
Sheikh, now in his mid-70s, paints out of a warehouse-like studio in Vadodara. We meet one afternoon when Painting Still?, his sculpture for the show at Mirchandani + Steinruecke, is ready to be packed up for transportation. Khakhar’s Yayati, which inspires the sculpture, is inspired by an episode from the Mahabharat. The ageing eponymous king is impotent and he asks his son for the gift of youth and virility. In bright pink and pale green, Khakhar makes it an erotic encounter between an old man and a young man with wings. Sheikh extrapolates the winged vigour of the original painting on Khakhar, who seems content, benevolent and almost ethereal. “There was a sense of drama and performance in everything Bhupen did,” Sheikh, who was one of Khakhar’s first artist acquaintances, says. “He was like a chameleon, always surrounded by people. He could slip in and out of different worlds. He painted with people around him. But what is not often discussed is how hardworking a painter he was. He painted all the time that he was not at office. For him, to have come from a family in Bombay, with a great job as a chartered accountant, it was a difficult thing to be an artist. He did both well, and he was smart enough to make his work life an inspiration. People who he met and encountered at office, became some of his subjects. So it is almost like he made art a way of living.”
In 1958, Sheikh met Khakhar while he was an accountant and a student of the evening art classes at the Sir JJ School of Art. Khakhar was dissatisfied with what he was learning, and by then had built a small body of work, mostly amateurish daubs. He showed it to Sheikh, who was already a member of the arts faculty at Vadodara’s MS University; Sheikh asked Khakhar to come to the institution. He was first rejected by the painting department, and in 1962, joined the arts criticism programme.
By the late 1960s, he was on his own distinctive path. Kitsch has never been used as inventively by any other Indian artist. His love of popular culture was unapologetic. In a catalogue he designed for a solo show at Mumbai’s Gallery Chemould in the early 1970s, he posed with a visiting European model as “James Bond of Kalbadevi” (see box). He was a James Bond fanatic. He watched James Bond films, engrossed, biting his nails, often even his toenail! He wrote plays and short stories in a conversational, Bombay style of Gujarati, some of which were later translated to English. Rushdie says: “I remember walking around the back streets of Baroda with him, which felt like stepping into his imaginative world, with the watch repair companies, tailors and barbers we know from his canvases. Perhaps it is this double refusal of influence that gives his work its strength and its growing authority. And yes, of course, it was courageous to be an openly gay artist then and, in the increasingly repressive climate for art and culture in India today, that continues to be an important stance.”
After his first solo show was a success, Khakhar travelled to England and met many gay artists. In the early 1970s, he came out in the open. “It must have been an extremely difficult thing for him to do, but he found acceptance in the art world,” says Sheikh.
The Khakhar home at Jetalpur Road, Vadodara, is in a leafy cul-de-sac of a circuitous residential colony, distinguished by its sameness of architecture, colour and sizes of houses. Khakhar’s house is a narrow three-storey structure with a red iron gate, covered by thick green foliage. He designed it and had it constructed in the 1980s, first the ground floor and later, two additional floors for a studio, a bedroom and balconies. It has stone floors and zigzag staircases and high ceilings, and daylight filters in through strategically-designed openings high on the walls. Lekha Khakhar lives there with two relatives and a fiercely loyal dog.
“Ten years ago, this was a sparsely populated neighbourhood. There was this house and many more trees all around,” she says. It has changed little from what it was in 2003, when Khakhar died, she says. Religious miniature paintings, a sunset picture in shiny paint, a miniature of two men in a sexual embrace, award plaques like the 2000 Prince Claus Award, some calendar art—the living room walls have no space to spare. Our conversation steers to his early life and last days, and throughout, the sister-in-law talks with an exasperated fondness, chuckling while narrating anecdotes, and clearly unwilling to talk about his homosexuality.
“His mother cried and cried and cried when he actually left for Baroda to become a painter,” she says. Nobody in his own or extended family knew about his art or cared much about his fame later. They considered him the rebel who proved a point. “Nobody in our family was an artist or knew anything about art,” Lekha Khakhar says. She and her two grandsons, who live outside of India, are now Khakhar’s only surviving family members.
Critic Timothy Hyman chronicles that the Khakhars were originally a family of artisans who came to Bombay (Mumbai) from the Portuguese colony of Daman. They lived as a large extended family at Khetwadi, off Falkland Road, and became financially secure. His father, Parmanand, owned a cloth shop nearby and was an alcoholic. Khakhar was a bright student, with many interests. At 16, he went through an intensely ascetic phase when he followed every sermon of Mahatma Gandhi, including wearing only homespun Khadi. He studied mathematics in college and completed his bachelor’s in economics and BCom in accounts and auditing, before joining a prestigious chartered accountancy firm. Throughout college and his initial working days, he learnt art, first at an art college at Grant Road and then at the Sir JJ School of Art. The encounter with Sheikh at this time changed his life.
Khakhar’s last solo exhibition, Beauty Is Skin Deep Only, had a downbeat air. Held at the Sarjan Art Gallery in Vadodara in December 2001, it was weighed down by hospitals, surgical instruments and physical deformity, despite some bracing signature figures and vast portraits. This last phase inspires Vivan Sundaram’s work for the show, Bad Drawings for Dost—a sculptural work, a penis with testicles, fitted with two pins, which can be opened out. He made seven toys and joined them to create a strange abstract form, as if somebody was on a motorcycle, emphasizing the playfulness and cheekiness. “When Bhupen got prostate cancer, I know he got himself medical charts. Maybe if he had got hold of these objects he would have made some work with them,” says Sundaram.
Though he was never known for serious posturing or articulate political opinions, the Gujarat riots left their imprint on him. One of the most dramatic elements of his last phase were large-scale cut-outs of film stars like Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan. Turn the cut-outs around, and there are gashed and dismembered limbs. Sheikh says: “He was never an overtly political man or artist. His politics was his humour. Till the end, he maintained the funny, dramatic grain.”
Touched by Bhupen eloquently recreates some of that drama. And the way Bhupen would like it, there is no reverence or worship in it.