Leading artists mark a decade without the colourful Baroda-based artist Bhupen Khakhar by celebrating his influence in a new exhibition
Hazel, Audrey, Donna, Carla, Wilma, Rita and Katrina are not just names of the most devastating hurricanes known to man. They are the painstakingly pencilled women— lips pursed, noses inflated, with wild hair and broad, open faces— caught in various states of sneezing, in 29- year- old artist Vidha Saumya’s seven panel portraits, her personal tribute to the late artist Bhupen Khakhar. Saumya created these works by imagining the garrulous Khakhar at a party confronting each of these women and later recounting the experience with his legendary humour and eye for detail. Bent over the unfinished sketches lying on a table at Galerie Mirchandani+Steinruecke in Mumbai, the mother- daughter gallerist duo, Usha Mirchandani, 72, and Ranjana Steinruecke, 54, murmur in unison, “Oh, Bhupen would have just loved this.”
The gallery, along with Max Mueller Bhavan, is hosting a collective exhibition by 28 of India’s top artists, from old friends such as Jogen Chowdhury, Vivan Sundaram, Sudhir Patwardhan and Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, to younger artists such as Saumya, Abir Karmakar, Shilpa Gupta and Ranbir Kaleka, some of whom have known Khakhar only through his art. ‘Touched by Bhupen’ shows Khakhar’s influence, 10 years after his passing, on not just his peer group but also generations beyond.
Each artist has created new works for the show to channel some part of Khakhar’s art: The humour, portraiture, colour, texture, drawing from miniature styles or the theme of homosexuality. Every work enlarges on a sliver from either a previous work of Khakhar or from his life. “The thing about Bhupen is that there was so much to him that every artist views him or appropriates him through his own prism,” says Mirchandani,
who held the first retrospective of Bhupen’s work at the National Gallery of Modern Art in 2003, shortly after he died of cancer that year at the age of 69.
Artist Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, 76, on whose persuasion Khakhar moved to Baroda to join the art movement there, spent 50 years working with him. “Bhupen's body of work had a diverse orientation. He addressed issues vital to our lives even today, like gay sexuality,” Sheikh says.
When Timothy Hyman, a British figurative artist, wrote a book on Khakhar in 1998, he called the artist’s coming out of the closet in the 1980s “the most courageous act of his life”. “He found himself speaking for a class and a world hitherto unregarded, unrecorded,” writes Hyman. The act gave Khakhar a new language which informed his greatest works that depicted homosexual relationships such as Two Men in Banaras ( 1982), Seva ( 1986), Man Wearing Red Scarf ( 1981) and Yayati (1987). He translated onto canvas the nuances of relationships between men, men and society, men and the neighbourhood, and men and self. That he could do this honestly and sensitively was his greatest achievement. Art historian Shivaji Panikkar called Khakhar “the first Indian artist to make use of India’s undervalued, hybrid visual culture”. He equally pulled in the pop influences of the 1960s. When he was ousted from J. Swaminathan’s ‘ Group 1890’ exhibition in 1963 for being “too kitsch”, art critic Geeta Kapur proclaimed him a great avant garde artist of his time. Khakhar’s response was to mix native and European elements. By the time he came up with You Can’t Please All in 1981, he was already much feted.
Khakhar was famously distrustful of art as a profession and continued his day job of a practising chartered accountant till very late in life, which earned him the character of ‘ the accountant’ in Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh. As Rushdie describes him: “… and the Accountant. It was the last of these— the artist who is without doubt the present- day inheritor of Aurora’s fallen mantle— who adopted Aires: a fortyish floppy- haired fellow he was then, wearing huge glasses with lenses the size and shape of portable TVs, and behind them an expression of such perfect innocence it immediately made you suspicious of a prank.”
While Khakhar’s darbar in Baroda attracted Rushdie and Sheikh, it also drew the delivery boy and the gardener, say friends. Vivan Sundaram, 70, in Delhi, says, “Over time, Khakhar became a guru-style cult figure by speaking about that which was repressed, with extraordinary sensitivity and humour. He built an adda around him so when I brought the artist Howard Hodgkins to meet him, he exerted his influence on him as well.”
Khakhar’s personal style was inclusive. He would paint in the living room, among people, his lover and long-term partner Vallarbhai seated cross-legged there, the cricket commentary constantly on, and Khakhar
(ABOVE) VIVAN SUNDARAM’S TRIBUTE TO KHAKHAR; (RIGHT) GHULAM MOHAMMED SHEIKH’S RENDITION OFYAYATI,HIS FIRSTATTEMPTATA FULL-SCALE SCULPTURE
KHAKHAR MIXED INDIAN AND EUROPEAN ELEMENTS
’’VIVAN SUNDARAM, 70 Artist, Khakhar’s friend
There was a complex generosity and humanity in his work. He spoke in many registers. But above all, he was Dost.
’’GHULAM MOHAMMED SHEIKH, 76 Artist, Khakhar’s friend
ONE OFVIDHA SAUMYA’S SEVEN INK-ON-PAPER PORTRAITS OFKHAKHAR’S WOMEN FRIENDS letting out a steady flow of his wit and humour. “I am the best Indian artist,” he would say without being disingenuous. Sundaram recalls: “There was a complexity, humanity, generosity in his work that reached across.” Sundaram, who did a series called Bad Drawings for Dost in an earlier colourless tribute to the colourful Khakhar, this time went to stores selling medical anatomical figures and used the figurines to create Postmortem Gaga Waka, a play on Khakhar’s five penises in the watercolour An Old Man from Vasad Who Had Five Penises Suffered From A Runny Nose (1995). One of Khakhar’s most memorable works, this is also the inspiration for 37-year-old Mumbai-based artist Shilpa Gupta.
While Khakhar’s paintings influenced some artists directly, elements from his art as a whole engage others, especially the younger genera- tion. Take, for instance, Varunika Saraf, the 31-year-old Hyderabadbased artist, who has done a large painting and a small series of 19 drawings embellished with glass beads. Saraf says her inspiration has been the colours Khakhar used and the special devices in his miniature paintings, apart from his humour. “I’ve drawn from his early paintings such as Parsi Family and Independence Day, and my paintings are also a comment on how the spaces Bhupen occupied, such as Baroda and Mumbai, have changed.”
As the years since Khakhar’s passing lengthen, his tribe, of young artists influenced by his art, increases.