The Story Of Indian Art #21: Bhupen Khakhar

A look at the life and art of Bhupen Khakhar, who's work largely focussed around themes of gender definitions and gender identity.

“When I feel I’m telling the truth, then there is no restraint.” ~ Bhupen Khakhar

On Bhupen Khakhar

His paintings were so odd, strange, weird…the formation, the figuration, the subject matter, the colours… everything the way he saw it was full of humour and wit.
~Atul Dodiya at Salon: Art History, Art Basel, 2013

Bhupen Khakhar

Bhupen Khakhar (1934-2003)

Early Bhupen Khakkar

Bhupen Khakkar was born in Bombay on 10 March 1934. He died in Baroda on 8 August 2003. Khakhar started his career as a painter relatively late in his life. A self-professed homosexual, gender definitions and gender identity were major themes of his work.

Bhupen Khakhar was born in Bombay and spent his boyhood in the area called Khetwadi with his parents and three siblings. He was the youngest of four children. His father, Parmanand, died when Bhupen was only four years old.

Bhupen was the first of his family to attend the University of Bombay. He took a B.A., with Economics and Political Sciences as his special subjects. At his family’s insistence, he went on to take a Bachelor of Commerce and qualified as a Chartered Accountant. Khakhar worked as an accountant for many years partnering with Bharat Parikh & Associates in Baroda Gujarat India., pursuing his artistic inclinations in his free time.

In 1958, Khakhar met the young Gujarati poet and painter Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh. He encouraged Khakhar’s and invited him to come and study at the newly founded Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda. The rest is history.

Themes of Bhupen Khakhar

The artist’s work celebrated the day to day struggles of India’s common man. Khakhar’s early paintings depicted average people, such as the barber, the watch repairman, and even an assistant accountant with whom he worked. His work has been compared to that of the famed British artist, David Hockney.

Barber Shop

Barber Shop by Bhupen Khakhar

Khakhar’s often openly homosexual themes attracted special notice. Homosexuality was something that at the time was rarely addressed in India. The artist explored his own homosexuality in extremely personal ways, touching upon both its cultural implications and its amorous and erotic manifestations. He painted homosexual love, life, and encounters from a distinctively Indian perspective.

In the 1990s Khakhar found himself portrayed as “the accountant” in Salman Rushdie’s novel The Moor’s Last Sigh. Khakhar returned the favour by later making a portrait of the author that he called The Moor, and which is now housed within the National Portrait Gallery, London

The Best of Bhupen Khakhar

Man with a Bouquet of Plastic Flowers (1976) is a scene of solitude, with a clearly divided composition.

Man with a Bouquet of Plastic Flowers

Man With A Bouquet of Plastic Flowers by Bhupen Khakhar

The central character is serious, or perhaps melancholy. The anonymous man is placed within the context of Indian ‘calendar prints’ which usually featured famous politicians. Instead of scenes of glory or admiration, this man is surrounded by empty interiors and underwhelming domestic scenes.

You Can’t Please All (1981) was named Khakhar’s ‘coming out painting’, by his contemporary Timothy Hyman.

You Can't Please All

You Can’t Please All by Bhupen Khakhar

The painting depicts Khakhar on his balcony, naked, watching an ancient fable be re-enacted before his eyes. The fable tells of a father and son taking their donkey to market. The story is concluded with the fathers refrain “Please all, and you will please none!”

For Khakhar, this tale reflected his own desire to accept his identity.

Yayati (1987) is another display of sexuality. It follows the myth of an old king who asks his son to give him his youth. Khakhar transforms this tale to depict an aged man who receives a new lease of life from his young angelic lover.

View A Gallery Of Bhupen Khakkar’s Work Here.

Avinash Subramaniam

Avinash has been an advertising writer, fiction writer, poetry writer, freelance writer and serial wronger. Other roles he has been in include those of an editor, brand builder, and teacher. His interests include advertising, scrabble, body building, chess, cinema, making money, reading, internet culture, cricket, photography. To hear him air his thoughts, follow him on Twitter @armchairexpert.

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