Bhupen Khakhar’s paintings have this quality of drawing you irresistibly into his world.
Bhupen’s life and work has been described as being ‘both exemplary and emblematic’. There was a definiteness, a consistency and a completeness about his art and life. Indeed everything about Bhupen seems to be the stuff of legend: it is interesting the way he created 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, (he once hired a wedding band to play for a friend’s birthday in Kasauli), his writing and his aphorisms,(one of his famous aphorisms was ‘a bouquet of plastic flowers is an eternal joy to the eyes’) and his early catalogues as James Bond, or as a body builder, ridiculing himself-
Bhupen Khakhar had a mischievous, puckish quality and a terrific wit. He saw himself as the Outsider - a‘Detective Inspector’ poking fun at the solemnity of the Indian art world. His early work was thought frivolous, and dismissed. The British critic Timothy Hyman writes of the artist Ram Kumar’s fury at seeing Khakhar’s work in the 1970s: he thought 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 - (he wrote once in a catalogue ‘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-embarassed, half-defiant way, Bhupen Khakhar became a Master Painter.
Perhaps this had something to do with his ‘coming out’ as a homosexual: the more explicit the subject matter, the more structured and classical the work. Bhupen Khakhar always avoided artistic bohemia, he (unlike Souza or Husain) maintained a stolidly middle-class salaried man look, preferring to be seen as Common Man rather than Camp.
Bhupen Khakhar’s interventions in the Indian art scene were special, unique and extremely influential. Facing the prevalent formalised abstraction in the Indian art scene of the 1960s, he struggled to create an urban pictorial language equivalent to the hybrid Bombay Gujarati dialect that he grew up speaking. Trained as a chartered accountant and lacking any formal study as an artist, he was criticized for his bad drawing and lack of skill as a painter. With his passion for art and incessant hard work, he turned his bad drawing into expressing the clumsiness, the banality, the pathos as well as the monumentality of the life of the Common Man, of the lower middle class life that he was celebrating. He became a masterly colourist, taking from the bad taste, loud colour palette of calendar art to create his own highly nuanced, subtle and rich painting technique. In the process, he reinvented a familiar world, the prosaic everyday life of modern urban India and made it into art, making us experience it afresh. His death is a great loss to the art world and all of us who knew him well and were influenced by his work.