Tribute | Being Bhupen
Ten years after his death, Indian artists pay a fitting tribute to the artist iconoclast and pioneer. We revisit Bhupen Khakhar to find why he is relevant and in demand
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Bhupen Khakhar would slip into our hyper connected, performative, social media-propelled world all too easily. In his last days, battling an advancing prostate cancer, he would ply visiting friends with his campy, self-mocking humour—“so dramatic, so nat-khat then also”, says his sister-in-law Lekha Naresh Khakhar, who now lives in the house the artist designed and lived in. Its rooms are airy and angular. Very little of him remains in his studio and bedroom, except a few brushes, the paintings he had collected, and some photographs. He willed his works to three trusts in Vadodara and Surat, to be managed by three close businessmen friends, among them the Garden Vareli family in Surat. None of the trusts talks about these collections (meant only for preservation) in public.
This performative side of Khakhar is key to understanding most of the works in Touched by Bhupen, a commemorative show opening at Mumbai’s Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke today, where artists who knew him, who he collaborated with and mentored, and younger artists who did not directly know him, have created tributes to the great artist.
The pith of this show is in the backstory of its subject.
For those of us who woke up to the world’s creative ferment in the 1990s through Salman Rushdie and MTV, Bhupen Khakhar was cool. Even if you were far removed from the art world, he was an artist who mattered. He was openly gay; and he painted figures with big hands and tiny faces. He broke rules, ransacked traditions.
At that time, and the 30 years preceding that, Khakhar, of course, had been hard at work. A part-time employee of an engineering goods company in Vadodara, he spent his afternoons and nights painting and the evening, as he himself said, “loafing”—with visiting artists and intellectuals, such as English musical artiste Jim Donovan and author Allen Ginsberg, and artists like Sheikh, Nalini Malani and art historian and critic Geeta Kapur, who were central forces behind the Baroda school of art.
The art world rewarded Khakhar late in his lifetime—in the late 1990s and 2000s. In 2002, a year before his death, Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia hosted his biggest solo show. His paintings are now part of important collections across the world, including the permanent collection of the Tate Modern Gallery, London. Jessica Morgan, a curator of international art at the Tate Modern, says they are researching for a show at Tate Modern. In September, a work by Khakhar, American Survey Officer (1969), crushed its estimated figure by a long mile to fetch Rs. 2.54 crore at Sotheby’s auction of Modern and South Asian Art in New York, US.
In 1958, Sheikh met Khakhar while he was an accountant and a student of the evening art classes at the Sir JJ School of Art. Khakhar was dissatisfied with what he was learning, and by then had built a small body of work, mostly amateurish daubs. He showed it to Sheikh, who was already a member of the arts faculty at Vadodara’s MS University; Sheikh asked Khakhar to come to the institution. He was first rejected by the painting department, and in 1962, joined the arts criticism programme.
After his first solo show was a success, Khakhar travelled to England and met many gay artists. In the early 1970s, he came out in the open. “It must have been an extremely difficult thing for him to do, but he found acceptance in the art world,” says Sheikh.
The Khakhar home at Jetalpur Road, Vadodara, is in a leafy cul-de-sac of a circuitous residential colony, distinguished by its sameness of architecture, colour and sizes of houses. Khakhar’s house is a narrow three-storey structure with a red iron gate, covered by thick green foliage. He designed it and had it constructed in the 1980s, first the ground floor and later, two additional floors for a studio, a bedroom and balconies. It has stone floors and zigzag staircases and high ceilings, and daylight filters in through strategically-designed openings high on the walls. Lekha Khakhar lives there with two relatives and a fiercely loyal dog.
“His mother cried and cried and cried when he actually left for Baroda to become a painter,” she says. Nobody in his own or extended family knew about his art or cared much about his fame later. They considered him the rebel who proved a point. “Nobody in our family was an artist or knew anything about art,” Lekha Khakhar says. She and her two grandsons, who live outside of India, are now Khakhar’s only surviving family members.
Critic Timothy Hyman chronicles that the Khakhars were originally a family of artisans who came to Bombay (Mumbai) from the Portuguese colony of Daman. They lived as a large extended family at Khetwadi, off Falkland Road, and became financially secure. His father, Parmanand, owned a cloth shop nearby and was an alcoholic. Khakhar was a bright student, with many interests. At 16, he went through an intensely ascetic phase when he followed every sermon of Mahatma Gandhi, including wearing only homespun Khadi. He studied mathematics in college and completed his bachelor’s in economics and BCom in accounts and auditing, before joining a prestigious chartered accountancy firm. Throughout college and his initial working days, he learnt art, first at an art college at Grant Road and then at the Sir JJ School of Art. The encounter with Sheikh at this time changed his life.
Though he was never known for serious posturing or articulate political opinions, the Gujarat riots left their imprint on him. One of the most dramatic elements of his last phase were large-scale cut-outs of film stars like Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan. Turn the cut-outs around, and there are gashed and dismembered limbs. Sheikh says: “He was never an overtly political man or artist. His politics was his humour. Till the end, he maintained the funny, dramatic grain.”
Touched by Bhupen eloquently recreates some of that drama. And the way Bhupen would like it, there is no reverence or worship in it.
Touched by Bhupen is on till 6 January at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, 2 Sunny House, behind Taj Mahal Hotel, Colaba, Mumbai.
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