Bhupen Khakhar – Pioneering gay Indian painter

A new retrospective of his work at Tate Modern, London

Tate Modern, London, until 6 November 2016

Review by Trevor Grundy*

You can’t please them all, Bhupen Khakhar 1981 (courtesy, Tate Modern).


DURING his relatively short life (1934-2003), the Bombay-born narrative artist Bhupen Khakhar – whose paintings appear before the British public for the third time since 1982 at Tate Modern’s retrospective exhibition entitled You Can’t Please All – was no stranger to controversy or the sound of clashing verbal swords.

He’s known throughout Asia as the sub-continent’s first “pop” artist.

India’s first openly gay painter would be a better description of this courageous and unflinchingly honest man who has attracted such praise – balanced by a hefty amount of scorn – in recent years.

A review in the leftwards-leaning The Guardian (May 31), by art critic Jonathan Jones, asked: “Why is Tate Modern exhibiting an old-fashioned, second-rate artist whose art recalls the kind of British painters it would never let through its doors? Why are we supposed to be interested in this old-fashioned, second-rate artist whose paintings are stuck in a time-warp of 1980s neo-figurative cliché?”

He went on: “The only reason to give Khakhar a soft ride would surely be some misplaced notion that non-European art needs to be looked at with special critical generosity: that Khakhar’s political perspective of the world is more important than the merits of his art. Whatever the thinking behind it, this show is a waste of space. With its vast extension about to open, Tate Modern has a lot of space to waste. But its curators need to open their eyes to the brilliant, imaginative and truly modern art being made by young artists on the Indian subcontinent right now.”

Praising Khakhar for revealing his own gay identity in the 1980s, Jones said that the famous painter’s depiction of “arses and cocks” no longer have the power to shock. Then this: “I might leave it there, except that Tate Modern is such a grandstanding institution in its proclamations on the future of art. So how on earth does Khakhar fit into its vision? Perhaps the curators are so remote from painting as an art form that they genuinely cannot tell the difference between a cutting edge painter and an archaic mediocrity. Or is this exhibition simply patronizing liberal nonsense?”

A group of Indian artists was quick to reply. Writing in The Wire, Nandini Majumdar said they regarded Jones’ criticism as both “ignorant and neo-colonialist.”

Chennai-based arts editor and journalism lecturer, Sadanand Menon, deplored the fact that The Guardian gave space to what he called “the patronisng fools who don’t know art history.”

A woman with eyes wide open on the subject of good and bad art is Tate Modern’s curator, Nada Raza whose expert selection of works from the 1960s to the 1990s helped make the exhibition possible.

She writes in the exhibition’s accompanying book, Bhupen Khakhar – You Can’t Please All (Tate Publishing, 181 pp. £24.99): “Who is Bhupen Khakhar? A narrative painter. An artist who was gay and Indian and who decided to bare all his hopes, fears, experiences and dreams in his work. He was a chartered accountant by day and an artist by night. He was a writer, a playwright, a performer and a great mimic. He was friends with most of his artistic peers and in competition with them all. Khakhar’s character, his empathy and identification with the ordinary man, his immense generosity and his wicked sense of humour, his grappling with desire and experiences of love and finally confrontation with illness and death make for a remarkable life and equally extraordinary body of work.”

A cross-section of this work – which most of the 53 multi-racial/multi-cultural/multi-intolerant nations in the Commonwealth would not dare show – is once again before Londoners, a city now so varied that a handful of “arses and cocks” would no longer shock what George Orwell called “old maids cycling to holy communion through the morning mist.”

Khakhar’s work, of course, is not only about gay men, although the Tate Modern exhibition is almost certain to underscore, if needs be once again, his growing status as a gay artist icon.

And there’s no doubt that his sexuality had a commanding role to play in his lifestyle and psyche and thus in his work. Growing up gay in the 1940s and 1950s in a joint –family household in the Khetwadi area of Bombay could not have been easy.

It was long before India’s first LGBT magazine, “Bombay Dost”, was available. Founded in 1990 by Ashok Row Kavi, one of India’s most prominent LGBT activists, it went on to become a beacon of hope for all gay Indians.

Bhupen started his adult life with a business career in mind. He graduated with a degree in commerce from Sydenham College (India’s first college of commerce based in Mumbai) and he passed chartered accountancy exams which provided him with an income when he took the plunge, left business and entered the artistic arena at the urging of his friend and artistic colleague Gulam Sheikh at the faculty of Fine Arts MS University in Baroda.

Dibyendu Ganguly, writing in a 1992 “Indian Express” Sunday magazine article headlined “Gay and Hearty” said that Bhupen’s arrival in Baroda coincided with the formation of what has become known as the Baroda School of Painting.

They were exciting days.

The artists saw themselves as a progressive group, anxious to distance themselves from their colonial predecessors and former masters – the British. The school promoted experimentation and sought a distinctive modernist Indian aesthetic. Some of India’s best painters were working at Baroda at that time. The newcomer survived by drawing on past savings from his job in Bombay and later on as a part-time accountant with the Jyoti group of companies in Baroda.

Recognition for his work came gradually and from abroad. In 1979 came the breakthrough – he exhibited three works at an international exhibition of narrative paintings in London. He was one of the six representative Indian painters to be shown at the Tate Gallery in London along with Rabinranath Tagore, Jamini Roy, Amrita Sher-Gil and others. He was the first major Indian painter invited to exhibit at the prestigious Documenta Exhibition held every five years at Kassel, Germany, which was founded in 1955 to get young Germans up to speed with modern art and artists after the darkness of Nazism.

Today, Bhupen is known as India’s first “pop” artist and because of that there are so-called purists who detest the man and his work.

Does homophobia play some role in that dislike?

It’s possible.

After all, homosexuality is a taboo subject in India. It’s a subject that India – said to be the world’s biggest democracy – avoids talking about openly. In 2012, the Indian Government submitted figures to the Supreme Court indicating that there were around 2.5 million gay men and women in India. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code makes sex with persons of the same sex punishable by law.

Bhupen tells us that he never tried to hide his sexuality. “I have not gone out of my way to announce it either. I am not a gay activist and the depiction of the man-to-man intimacy in painting was not really meant to be a social statement.”

He never tried to hide his sexuality?

The British artist Timothy Hyman wrote an essay on his friend Bhupen and quoted him saying: “I was very much ashamed of my sexuality. I never wanted it to be known I was gay. Up to 1975, I felt that if my fiends knew I was gay I was prepared to commit suicide.”

But his feelings changed as his self-confidence grew feelings changed during visits to Britain.

In 1976, and again three years later in 1979, he was a guest of the British painter Howard Hodgkin at the Bath Academy of Art in Corsham.

He saw that among most Britons homosexuality was accepted.

But Bhupen found aspects of life in Britain both boring and chilling. He found London grey, hostile and isolating. A Man in the Pub (1979) shows his impression of workers who were alienated and lonely in an urban setting. About England, he said: “You are not allowed to smile during the winter season which lasts ten months of the year. If you are sensible, then try and look as grumpy as possible. English people appreciate sulk.”

Writes Chris Dercon, Director, Tate Modern, and Friedhelm Hutte, Global Head of Arts at Deutsche Bank: “In spite of his achievements, Khakhar has remained one of the least known masters of twentieth century figuration. An autodictat, storyteller and Gandhi follower who worked part-time as a bookkeeper in parallel to his artistic career, his painting was devoted to the ordinary people who surrounded him in daily life – to his lovers, his family and his neighbours in Baroda. As he gained confidence as a painter, Khakhar went on to combine popular and painterly aesthetics, absorbing diverse art-historical influences with ease, from Indian miniature and devotional iconography to fourteenth century Sienese painting and contemporary pop art. In his work, he was more interested in ‘warmth, pity, vulnerability, touch’ than in physical beauty.”

I toured the Tate Modern exhibition under the guidance of Nada Raza.

While pointing out the frequency of his homosexual themes , the curator drew attention to his closeness to “the common man” – tailors, watch repairers, barbers, circus performers, the haunting Man with a Bouquet  of Plastic Flowers, a window cleaner, the lonely man in a London pub and, of course, the most famous of them all his 1981 oil paint on canvas, You Can’t Please All, which shows the naked artist looking on as a hard-working men, women and animals go about their business, eager not to be too disturbed by the psyche and sexuality of an Indian artist better appreciated in Britain than in the land of is birth.

At the end of the tour, I was struck by words hanging like a painting on the wall at Tate Modern.

Talking to art students in a workshop he conducted at the Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University of Baroda, Khakhar said this:

“Safety is the word you all should hate. In education, in marriage, in journey, in job, in neighbourhood, on a picnic – anywhere – we inherently need safety. The safety of people and places we already know very well. Who are familiar to us. The moment you are with strangers, whether on a train, streets or in a classroom, you become uneasy. Uncomfortable.”

Interesting words that should be emailed by Baroness Scotland, the new Secretary General of the Commonwealth to leaders of the 53 nations “club” that boasts so much about its fight for human rights and its multi-culturalism. Sadly, also known for its fear of offending abuse-screaming dictators in Africa who hide their homophobia under a cloak of religious orthodoxy.

  • The Bhupen Khakhar retrospective is at the Tate Modern, London, until 6 November 2016:

*Trevor Grundy is a British journalist who lived and worked in Central, Eastern and Southern Africa from 1966-1996. He writes on religious and African affairs.