It was endearing to see the jubilant art world at Tate Modern in London for the opening reception of Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar’s international retrospective on May 31, 2016. Curated by Nada Raza and Chris Dercon, former director of Tate Modern, visitors were led through a curatorial walk-through with Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, Khakar’s close friend and peer, joining in to provide unique insights into the practice and persona of Khakhar.
The title of the exhibition, liked by many and questioned by some, comes from an iconic work of Khakhar, which is in the Tate Collection. You Can’t Please All (1981), first displayed in the exhibition “Place for People in India” in 1981, was later named as Khakhar’s “coming out painting” by his contemporary Timothy Hyman. The painting depicts Khakhar on his balcony, naked, watching an ancient fable re-enacted before his eyes. Hyman writes, “The fable tells of a father and son taking their donkey to the market. As they take turns riding the donkey, passers-by comment on who is riding. ‘The father is old so he should ride’, say some, whilst others complain the father is heavy and will overload the donkey. The story is concluded with the father’s refrain, ‘Please all, and you will please none!’ For Khakhar, this tale reflected his own desire to accept his identity”.
Khakhar’s art, to begin with, was not intended by him to be either palatable or pleasing to all. The intense subjectivity of his themes, some of it not easy to paint, presented the challenge of devising a pictorial language and finding ways to paint his gay identity.
As early as in 2002, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Spain had showcased Khakhar’s international retrospective with 69 works for the first time in Europe. The focus was primarily on his paintings. The retrospective at Tate Modern has expanded the spread of his works, presenting the versatility of the artist as a writer, along with the diversity of his practice via his ceramic works, watercolours, accordion books, letters and a film on him, providing a context and his place within the larger landscape of Baroda and the narrative school.
Khakhar grew up in a middle-class joint family household in the Khetwadi area of Bombay. After pursuing a degree in commerce and passing the chartered accountancy exams, he took up a secure job that brought pride to his family. But he was drawn to the arts. In 1958, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh met Khakhar while he was an accountant and a student at the evening art classes at the Sir JJ School of Art. Khakhar, with his unconventional attitude, was dissatisfied with what he was learning. He had, by then, made a small body of work, unstructured and in loose daubs. Sheikh was instrumental in getting Khakhar to Baroda, to the Faculty of Fine Arts at the MS University. Rejected by the painting department, in 1962, Khakhar enrolled in the art criticism programme.
Over the years, Khakhar rose to become an extraordinary figure in Indian art, a true exemplar of uncompromising honesty, who disregarded purist trends and divides between “high” and “low” art. His technical limitations as an untrained painter worked in his favour as he transgressed studied and stereotypical ways of figural narration. His untutored style of handling/applying paint brought a certain naivete to his imagery, a certain playfulness and irreverence, if you will, with a directness in approach. Having familiarised himself with miniature traditions of India and with his exposure to Western methods of painting, he selectively imbibed from both to evolve an idiosyncratic language, quite distinct from his contemporaries.
The saturated colours of his early works resonate with the Indian palette, which he found extremely appealing in the miniature traditions. It is interesting to see how he inserted the lush groves (under the shade of which lovers often meet in Rajput miniatures), painting them in the style of Henri Rousseau (also self-taught and admired by him), especially in paintings such as American Survey Officer and Republic Day. The early works also suggest spatial depth using pictorial devices, such as playing with the sense of proximity and distance, or with varying scale, reducing figures/characters in size in the overall composition.
Khakhar always wanted to be a writer and contributed short stories to Gujarati magazines. In his paintings as well as in short stories, one finds an elaborate weaving of ordinary scenes from everyday life and people around. Watchmakers, tailors, barbers, those with so-called petty vocations are rescued from the margins and represented in his work. Street vendors and shops capture the essence of lower middle-class urban India.
Responding to the flavours of the local and the immediate, the urban street for Khakhar became a rich source from which his characters emerge, performing mundane routines in their environment, their loud and gaudy taste revealing popular aspirations. In his paintings, Khakhar fused the banal and the kitsch to celebrate “street aesthetics”.
The composition of the exhibition at Tate Modern takes cues from the titles of his seminal paintings, forming clusters of works under a sub-theme for viewers to go through his artistic journey. The more private and personal works, especially in large-sized paintings, come later. Khakhar’s own identity emerged on the canvas, shifting his focus to gay agglomerations formed out of common concerns and desires by middle-aged men who, being misfits under societal scrutiny, explore a homoerotic world hidden in the city.
Awkward and often quirky, some of his compositions make visible the underground, unknown, uninhabited cave-like spaces, where the life of the socially unaccepted and forbidden is depicted. Often, the street and neighbourhood captured in dim illumination and isolation under the skies of the night, stage the drama in his paintings of clandestine, unspoken and suppressed desire, transforming into a site for fantasy and sexual encounter. Seva (1986) and Yayati (1987) are bold representations of his ongoing struggle to confront the world.
Night, a multi-framed and multi-layered canvas, is a telling work where secret desires and wild fantasies take form in the dark hours. Fragmented and yet pieced together, we see the city sleeping while the artist’s mind awakens to his inner voice. Self-indulgent and self-obsessed, the imagery is continuously drawn to spill over multiple canvases of different sizes, weaving vignettes that uniquely blend in this pictorial collage style he practised for
The male figures painted by Khakhar are vulnerable, tender, at times withdrawn and at times reeling with pain, aware of their mortality. He paints their bodies as if devoid of bones and corporeal weight, lending to it an unusual feel. The works towards the end of his career, when he was diagnosed with prostrate cancer, are hard-hitting, showing bodies violated by disease, violence and brutality of wars, often with innards and unhealed wounds painted in thick impasto.
One of the most challenging artists in India at the time, Khakhar enhanced the subversive potential of painting as a medium when the rest of the world was declaring it passé, unsettling established canons and confronting the world with his daring themes and uninhibited imagery. Despite Khakhar being unsure of its fate in an unaccepting world, his art, transgressive in its form and content, has remained hugely influential for art practitioners in India.
Roobina Karode is the director of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, which is associated with the Bhupen Khakar retrospective as a co-sponsor and lender of works to the exhibition.