By Akash Bharadwaj
Bhupen Khakhar’s work holds special attraction for me. In them I not only see an artist’s struggle against the established codes and conventions of the art world, but also a desire to understand one’s own self in the process. “The glimpse of truth in one’s work is more important for me than whether you use colour well or other such technical virtuosities. Truth… and a certain kind of confession,” said Khakhar to Sadanand Menon in an interview, which turned out to be the last interview he gave before passing away on August 8, 2003.The ongoing exhibition, ‘Many Facets of an Artist’ at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, offers a glimpse into many facets of the artist who did not want to hide himself behind his paintings. “It (his painting) stands naked in front of everyone,” he once said.
The works in the collection explore different mediums, including painting, ceramics, print, watercolour, mixed media, and an exclusive installation. In one of his works done in etching, two men sit on a sofa dotted with roses; on the wall behind hangs a frame with two figures inside; near the lower boundary of the painting is written: “since they loved each other so much that they wore the suit of the same design.” Bhupen Khakhar had been very open about his gay identity, since his art career started. In another work, supposedly his self portrait, he holds in his hands two men who are copulating. In the right corner above hangs a ceiling fan. And on the left is a door which is way too small in comparison to the portrait. Since Khakhar was not trained in painting, in his works one finds a sense of proportion and perspective that is based on feelings and years of practice. Also, at a time when there is a very sparse representation of homosexuality in film and art and, in fact, is considered a criminal offence by the law, Khakhar’s works, expressing his emotion and concern as a homosexual, very much reveal the politics of his work.
The exhibition also includes his etching works that are part of the illustration story, Phoren Soap, which he wrote in Gujarati. Along with that, there are also wooden cut-outs of megastars like Amitabh Bachchan that Khakhar has used by drawing on its back the scenes of urban life. The exhibition also has film posters of Hindi Cinema of the 1970s, which come from Khakhar’s collection. Rajiv Lochan, the director of the NGMA, in an interview to HT said, “This exhibition is not just about what Khakhar created, but to show what interested him, his associations, and how these contributed to his language.”
The exhibition includes 140 works that NGMA has got in loan from Bhupen Khakhar Estate for five years. This also coincides with an ongoing exhibition at Tate Modern in Britain, which has triggered a huge controversy in the art world. While Jonathan Jones in The Guardian simply writes him off as an “incredibly, unimpressive Indian painter,” Geeta Kapur has come in support of Khakhar and reads in Jones’ review a “sneaky conservatism”. At a distance from this debate, Khakhar concentrates on the ordinary. Having worked as an accountant in Bombay, and later continuing his pursuit as an artist in Baroda perhaps made him empathise with the working class. Class, sexuality, and body are the themes around which his work revolves.
The subjects in his paintings were from his surroundings: barbers, a man selling eatables on the cart, auto-walas, and the man offering namaz. He did not even hesitate to bring his own desires and intimacy on the canvas. As art critic Timothy Human points out, he was probably the most provocative painter in contemporary Indian art. He was also the first one to use Kitsch in his paintings. Khakhar’s works like Guruparv Jayanti challenged the dominant abstraction and purist trends of the modern Indian art and brought onto the canvas the real bodies and real people. He also delved into a narrative style that combined both reality and fantasy. Even while representing the everyday world, the dark saturated colours and figures in oil on canvas suffuse his work with an aura that takes it beyond mere imitation of what can be seen.
A few weeks back, I had accidentally discovered a book on one of the lanes of Daryaganj book market in Delhi. The book’s title was Muffled Heart: Stories of the Disempowered Male and it had on its cover Bhupen Khakhar’s ‘The Man with a Bouquet of Plastic Roses’. The narrative style of the painting coincided with stories that formed the collection of the book. It revealed the desires and vulnerabilities of men enmeshed in the web of patriarchy and isolation. It reminded me of his portraits of modern male subject with extreme pathos and hollowed eyes. I wondered why works like ‘The Man with a Bouquet of Plastic Roses’ and ‘You Can’t Please All’ could not have been included in the exhibition. My recent encounters with Khakhar, be it in the lanes of Daryaganj or going to this exhibition, pushes me to think that it is possible to curate a Bhupen Khakhar show in a more powerful and imaginative manner. Here was an artist who did flinch and hid behind his paintings. We must give him more of our time and space.
Akash Bharadwaj studies Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.
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