Portraits of a Rebel

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At a time when the Supreme Court has criminalised homosexuality in India, one can’t help but wonder what Bhupen Khakhar would have made of it? Khakhar, derided in his lifetime as “the gay painter”, would likely have retaliated against the decision. He once said, “I was very much ashamed of my sexuality. I never wanted it to be known I was gay. Up to 1975, I felt that if my friends knew I am gay, I was prepared to commit suicide.” After a visit to England in 1979, Khakhar changed his mind, and in a 1981 painting, You Can’t Please All, where his naked self peers out at the world, he came out in what was an unprecedented act of courage for an artist in India. Through the 1980s, much of his work would explore his struggle with his sexual identity, explicitly confessional and often revelling in homoeroticism.

Ten years after his death, the art world is having a definite Bhupen Khakhar moment. The Tate Modern in London is planning a detailed retrospective. At a Sotheby’s auction in September, one of his paintings sold for Rs 2.54 crore, more than double its presale estimate, and well above the fetching price for paintings by Raza, Souza and Husain. To mark his 10th death anniversary, two galleries in Mumbai, the city of his birth, have organised massive shows: the first one by Chemould Prescott Road Gallery was in October, and this month, Touched by Bhupen has 26 artists paying tribute in a show spread over two galleries, Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke and Galerie Max Mueller. The list of participants reads like a veritable who’s who of the art world — Atul and Anju Dodiya, Subodh Gupta, Vivan Sundaram, the Italian artist Francesco Celmente, Ram Rahman, Nilima Sheikh, Shilpa Gupta and Khakhar’s peers from the Baroda School of Art, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and Sudhir Patwardhan.

This moment of popularity is unusual for Khakhar. Neglected by the media, yet valourised by generations of artists, Khakhar, who relentlessly exposed sexual hypocrisy behind ordinary middle-class life and religious customs, has posed an odd problem for many from the art fraternity and outside of it. He is not an easily embraced artist. He would say of himself, “In life, truth and honesty are suppressed. I represent truth.” Yet, Khakhar became one of the first Indian artists to gain recognition abroad. One of the earliest retrospectives of his work was at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid. His work is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Tate Modern. British artist Howard Hodgkin helped him organise a solo show in the late ’70s, and painter and writer Timothy Hymen wrote a biography in which he called him “possibly the most provocative painter in contemporary Indian art”. “To the international art world, he stood out for being completely individual and apart. In India, the buzz around his work has built up only over the past five years, but he still is one of the most important Indian artists internationally,” says Ranjana Steinruecke, the curator for the show.

Born to a conservative middle-class Gujarati family in Bombay, Khakhar trained as a chartered accountant, who turned into an amateur artist. (Salman Rushdie, his friend and collector, cast him as “the accountant” in The Moor’s Last Sigh. Later, Khakhar painted a portrait of Rushdie as a Moor for the National Portrait Gallery in London.) A chance meeting with Gulam Mohammed Sheikh took him to MS University, Baroda, where he studied art criticism and became a full-time artist at the age of 38. He passed away in 2003 after a long battle with cancer.

As the show establishes, Khakhar’s influence is much beyond that of provocateur. He drew influences from calendar art and street art, movie posters and mythology, mixing the highbrow with the lowbrow, to become one of the first pop artists of India. He was one of the central figures of the Baroda School of Art. Khakhar’s works put the figure of the ordinary and the marginalised at the centre, the cycle-repairwala, the tailor, the watch repairer, their unremarkable existence and daily drudgery. Salman Rushdie has said that you can see and hear the back streets of Baroda in his work. Sudhir Patwardhan, who is part of the Baroda School, acknowledges that Khakhar’s portrayals of ordinary men and daily environments have directly influenced his work. He says, “Bhupen’s influence has to be read in two ways. First is his historical importance, when he brought in pop images and subverted the elitist aesthetic that was prevalent in the Indian art scene in the ’70s. When he came out in the ’80s, which was very rare for an artist, that was another important intervention. The other is the aspect of purely good art. When you come across his work, you will enjoy it and want to look at it.”

For younger artists, like Shipla Gupta, Vidha Saumya and Abir Karmakar, Khakhar has been a towering rockstar figure, his appeal defined by his rebel and enfant terrible status. Karmakar, also part of the Baroda school, whose works, like Khakhar’s, are explicit and self-confessional, says that the element of autobiography in art was unheard of in India until Khakhar introduced it. “As an artist who deals with provocative subjects, I know how difficult it is to express oneself with the growing intolerance in our society. Back in the ’80s, his narrative style and his images were new and bold, as they are even now.” Karmakar has shown two works, a painting of a life-size door and an installation made of windows as a tribute to Khakhar’s referencing of the inside and outside, of secrets and deception, and the element of voyeurism in his art.

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