Born in Mumbai in 1934, Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar first studied accountancy before he moved to Baroda in Gujaral for a master’s degree in art criticism where he found artistic and sexual freedom in an environment more gay friendly. At the Department of Fine Arts of Maharaja Siyajirao University, he interacted with a group of Indian artists who rejected the stark elitism of modernist abstraction in order to paint real life in a figurative and narrative way. This allowed him to experiment with a synchretic visual language where classical South Asian Art and certain compositional elements of Western art (Henri Rousseau, Joachim Patimir, Pieter Breughel, for example) mixed.
There is a calculated amateurism in the way he composed his first folkish paintings. All of them share a Breughel inspired bird eye perspective where the land functions as a stage where (only) men interact. His vibrant vernacular palette with turquoise light blues and bright oranges echoes the colors used by Indian people to decorate their homes. His view is that of a gay man looking at his own place in his own time and society without victimizing himself or rejecting it. He is not a militant but a humanist. His triumph is that he manages to convey a gay identity which is humorous, tragic and dignified at the same time.
His trade paintings are the Indian equivalents of the XVII century ‘cris de Paris’. In them, he portrays the ordinary men he encountered in his daily life in Baroda. The composition of these paintings is reminiscent of the eighteenth and nineteenth century paintings for colonial audiences called sri nathji pichhvai where a main scene is framed by a series of vignettes where the figure depicted in the main scene is found in other daily activities. In general, these are life stories of loneliness and alienation which become funny and true when depicting pub life in the UK after painter (and Indian art collector) Howard Hodgkin invited him in 1976 to teach in Bath.
But there are two Khakhars. The one on canvas which is rather formulaic since he applies the classical Indian composition to the representation of daily life and the one on paper. His watercolours (and his pottery) are, hands down, the best of the show. I am saying this because while in oil on canvas he uses pigment to depict a self contained narrative (which gets close to the level of reportage or how things are), with his watercolours he deploys pigments to convey the psychological in-betweenness of being gay. It is here that his figures become mephorically and literally metamorphic. In ‘Son is the father of man’ `1997’ he dares to delve on the homosexual phantasies of Male pregnancy (which, by the way, was current in Early Modern Spain, for example) and mother(father)hood. A couple of his ceramics portray him seated as if he were a frog, an amphibious that might very well allegorises homosexuality for it moves in both worlds. It is here where not only his figures but his use of the materials are vehicles of his gay identity.
After this the visitor is ready for the last room with his brave and sensitive portrayals of inter-generational love. These are inspired by Bhakty spiritualism which often expressed the idea of love between men, master and disciple in the form of devotion. The physicality of this otherwise Platonic encounters projects a tenderness that is enhanced by a rather melancholic palette. The beauty of these images lies in that they speak of love and learning through death. In the last series, not only he sees death but he embodies it with cancer as his muse. Stains and expressive gestures cancel all figures and abstraction methastasises. J A T