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.

Lekha Naresh Khakhar at the Khakhar home, Vadodara

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.

Gulamohammed Sheikh with his sculpture on Khakhar at his studio
Gulamohammed Sheikh with his sculpture on Khakhar at his studio

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.

His living room
Khakhar’s You Can’t Please All (1981)
Khakhar’s Salman Rushdie (The Moor) 1995

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 2.54 crore at Sotheby’s auction of Modern and South Asian Art in New York, US.

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Bhupen Circus by N.S. Harsha
Bhupen Circus by N.S. Harsha
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