Few months before his death in August 2003, Bhupen Khakhar said in an interview, “When I feel I’m telling the truth, then there is no restraint”.
It is this absence of restraint that marks Khakhar as a rupture in the history of modern Indian art. A self-taught artist, Khakhar fearlessly spoke his truth to a largely conservative society. The explicit homoeroticism in his canvases was unprecedented in modern Indian art and stands out as one of the earliest attempts at starting a conversation about gay life, his own homosexuality, and gay rights.
His paintings, done in bright colours, were remarkable studies of urban life. True to the narrative tradition of the Baroda school, a major influence on his career, Khakhar sought to tell stories, laced with sarcasm and self-deprecating humour. The stories were about people made vulnerable by their sexual choices and hence, forced to embrace a tortuous social exile. Works like Two Men in Benaras and You Can’t Please All challenged the prevailing morality on sexuality.
Earlier this week, Two Men in Benaras was sold at Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art sale for Rs 22.39 crore, setting a record for modern Indian art. Three years ago, Tate Modern had held a retrospective of the artist. Both are indicators of a growing international recognition of Khakhar’s vision and pioneering radicalism. His unflinching social gaze, risking censorship, ignominy and social ostracisation, speaks of a rare courage that may have resonance in a society that increasingly frowns on artistic license and freedoms.
It’s a moot point whether the radical edge in Khakhar’s work has seeped down and transformed notions of public morality. For instance, can a 1982-work like Two Men in Benaras, at this moment the most expensive Indian painting, be put up for public viewing in India?