HOW A MAN LABELLED BHUPEN KHAKHAR CAME TO BE BRANDED AS PAINTER
Description: Bhupen Khakhar’s paintings have this quality of drawing you irresistibly into his world. And there is a definiteness, a consistency and a completeness about his art and life that makes him an excellent subject for a book.
Formal Interpretation: Timothy Hyman describes Bhupen’s life and work as being ‘both exemplary and emblematic’, and indeed everything about Bhupen seems to be the stuff of legend: it is interesting the way he creates that emblematic quality about himself. He seems to stand iconic in the centre like those saints or national leaders, while all around him are vignettes, which are told stories. Stories of his open house, Pandu the cook, his famous friendships, his lovers, his generosity, his pranks, [getting a wedding band to play for a friend’s birthday in Kasauli], his writing and his aphorisms [‘a bouquet of plastic flowers is an eternal joy to the eyes’], his early catalogues as James Bond, body builder, ridiculing himself…
Symbolic Interpretation: This puckish quality was of Khakhar the Outsider, the ‘Detective Inspector’ poking fun at the solemnity of the Indian art scene.[Hyman writes of Ram Kumar’s fury at seeing Khakhar’s work in the 1970s: this was ‘caricature and in art there is no place for caricature’]. In the process of playing the Fool, the Insignificant Man caught in the rigidities of Indian middle class life [‘I used to immediately take bath twice with cold water following thoughts about sex’]; to the Melancholy Fool who ‘takes off his clothes before the world’ to expose his weakness in a half-embarrassed, half-defiant way, Bhupen Khakhar has become a Master Painter.
Perhaps this has something to do with his ‘coming out’ as a homosexual: the more explicit the subject matter, the more structured and classical the work. Khakhar has always avoided artistic bohemia, he [unlike a Souza or a Husain] maintains a stolidly middle-class salaried man look, preferring to be Common Man rather than Camp.
Interesting Points: Hyman has in a way been an insider to the Indian art scene. He was in Baroda when the ‘Place for People’ show was being planned and sees his role as having ‘endorsed’ the Baroda project, which was interested in a more societal view of art. This tied in with his own concerns of opposing Greenbergian internationalism with another canon of forgotten figurative artists like Bonnard, Beckmann, Leger. In England it was the British Pop artists like Kitaj and Hockney who also interested Khakhar. Hyman describes Khakhar facing the prevalent formalized abstraction in the India of the 1960s, struggling to create an urban pictorial language equivalent to the hybrid Bombay Gujarati dialect that he grew up speaking. In the process, he reinvented a familiar world and made us experience it afresh.
Bhupen Khakhar has found a rare biographer who sympathizes with his concerns and can look at his work with the eye of a practicing painter. The most enjoyable thing about the book is the detailed pictorial analysis of all the important works, interwoven with anecdotes and contextualized in terms of both the artist’s life and the Indian art scene, particularly of the 1970s and 80s.
Mistakes: An unfortunate thing about the book is Hyman’s polarizing of indigenous and International, Indian and Western. This is not a problem with Hyman alone who is an Englishman writing on an Indian artist, but also the way Indian art is looked at within India by artists and critics. These dichotomies were necessary within the Nationalist movement to resist colonial dominance but each term has taken on different meanings now. We need fresh categories to rethink what we have done before and what we are doing now. Our concern is no longer with reconstructing or reinventing a tradition of our own to define ourselves against the European tradition. The notion of the European avant-garde itself has been re-examined and we have our own definitions of modernism. Even the sense of community that Khakhar wants, that comes from identifying with lower middle-class, provincial or popular, becomes difficult when his paintings become openly homosexual.