Bhupen Khakhar’s refusal to compartmentalise different experiences and aspects of his life extended to his art as well. Known by different labels, from India’s first pop artist to the spokesman of the urban middle class, perhaps he will be particularly remembered for being the first Indian painter to have come out of the closet. In the ’80s, that was without doubt courageous. But Khakhar was explicit, in person and in his renderings.
It was after the success of his first solo show in Mumbai in the mid 1960s — comprising collages and paintings on street and calendar art — that Khakhar travelled to England for an artist-in-residence programme at the Bath Academy of Art. Through his interactions with artists like Howard Hodgkin, he found liberation and determination, and once back home he would open up about his homosexuality.
It comes as no surprise that the Tate Modern retrospective is titled “You Can’t Please All”, taken from one of his acclaimed confessional paintings. In the 1981 work, Khakhar paints his naked self, standing in the balcony, watching a father, a son and a donkey enact the ancient fable on the streets. “There were several things happening around him. When he came to the UK in the ’70s, the relationship between two men was just beginning to be accepted, so he was witnessing a shift in culture in England. Later, when he returned to India, his mother had died. He was aware of the irony that it was pre-independence laws, laid by the British, which were still applicable to homosexuality in India. He slowly developed this commitment to being truthful to his work. He presents love and relationships, the tensions and difficulties he went through in his work,” says Nada Raza, Assistant Curator, Tate Modern.
Borrowed from collections across the world, the exhibition features Khakhar’s work of five decades, including canvas, watercolours, experimental ceramics and textiles. Belonging to different phases of his career, these are representational of the various engagements of the trained chartered account. Born in Mumbai to a cloth merchant, he largely remained a self-taught artist despite the evening classes he enrolled at the JJ School of Art and the art criticism course he pursued at MS University.
The classroom was his universe. Unlike several others of his generation, he was not influenced by European modernism or nature, but culture, as is evident in works such as The De-Lux Tailors (1972) and Barber’s Shop (1973), depicting the ordinary lives of workers and tradesmen. Even the once ubiquitous plastic flowers in Indian homes become his subject in Man With Bouquet of Plastic Flowers.
Over the years he explored numerous Indian genres — miniatures, Company paintings and temple maps, but what remained consistent was his commitment to the truth, one of several sermons of Gandhi that he tried to follow, even in his art. As Raza notes, he confronted provocative themes, particularly his homosexuality, with honesty, sensitivity and wit. In the 1987 work Yayati, we see mythical figures in fantastical portrayals of same-sex love. The large-scale diptych Yagnya – Marriage (2000) depicts a traditional Indian marriage ceremony between two men being attended and embraced by the public.
We gather his associations in the retrospective through his personal memorabilia, letters and photographs with friends and associates. There are woodcuts he produced for two stories by Salman Rushdie, the author who famously bought his painting Second Class Railway Compartment (1982), at the Knoedler gallery in London, with the money he had in his pocket, indicating the low prices of Indian art back then.
But like everybody else, Khakhar was vulnerable and mortal. Works such as Bullet Shot in the Stomach (2001) and At the End of the Day the Iron Ingots Came Out (1999) show the realities of battling prostrate cancer, that led to his demise in 2003. These are some of his most radical works, notes Raza. Also ones that represent his state of mind during those last years, when he coloured his canvas with frail hands on his bed.