July 29 2016
Something of an enigmatic figure, Bhupen Khakhar’s works were more enthusiastically received abroad at first, but slowly his art began to tell powerful unheard stories, as the latest exhibition at Tate Modern surely testifies, writes our reviewer…
By Devika Banerjee, writer and art historian
INTEREST in Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar does go back a way in Britain and the Tate clearly recognised his gifts as far back as 1982.
His work was displayed that year as part of the Festival of India Exibition at Tate Gallery (as it was then, now Tate Britain at Millbank) and his work was again highlighed in 2001 as part of the inaugural Century City show at Tate Modern in 2001 – but nothing afterwards.
“You can’t Please All” currently on display until November 6 at the Tate Modern is a fine and beautiful piece of curating.
This is the first major international retrospective in Britain devoted to Khakhar since his death in 2003, aged 69 from cancer.
Perhaps only MF Husain (1915-2011) is better known outside India and like that great painter, Khakhar, another painter, was also a controversial figure.
While Husain offended some orthodox Hindus with his paintings of gods ‘defrocked’ and ‘naked’, leading to his eventual self-imposed exile in London and Dubai (for his own safety he believed), Khakar also offended some in India with his open declaration of homosexuality in his 50s and his portrayal of it and its challenges in a largely conservative and convention-bound society.
Khakhar was born in 1934 in Bombay (now Mumbai) and lived in Baroda (now Vadodara) and was a self-taught artist.
It was in the late 1970s that people began to speak of a “Baroda School” of painters within which the art of Khakhar was one very distinctive component.
He is a narrative painter who developed a unique and unconstrained artistic voice, combining references to European artists such as Henri Rousseau and Pieter Brueghel the Elder, with forms from Indian miniature or temple paintings, experimenting until he arrived at the vibrant palette and awkward and expressive figuration that characterise his work.
He was a chartered accountant by day and an artist by night. He was also a writer writing short stories in his mother tongue of Gujarati, a playwright, a performer and a great mimic and a follower of Mahatma Gandhi.
Khakhar came out publicly in his fifties despite the fact that homosexual relations remained illegal in India throughout his life: They were criminalized by British colonial laws in 1861 and were decriminalised only in 2009 for a short period but were practically overturned in December 2013, when India’s Supreme Court declared that only parliament could revoke the original statute. The present BJP government has said it is opposed to any repeal and attempts to date by Indian parliamentarians have so far failed.
Khakhar’s character, his empathy and identification with the ordinary man, his immense generosity, his wicked sense of humour, his struggle with desire and experiences of love and finally his confrontation with his cancer and death make for an extraordinary life and an equally extraordinary body of work.
I think this is the reason why the curators of this exhibition, Chris Dercon and Nada Raza of Tate Modern have put on this exhibition revealing Khakhar in all his complexity.
The exhibition is chronologically hung following his artistic and intellectual journey from the late 1960s, tracing a practice that finally produced a courageous, unflinching attitude to the painting of his own life, what Khakhar simply called ‘truth’.
He was committed to representing his own experience even when it came to difficult subjects.
Khakhar was better known outside India initially, he was friends with the well-known British artist Sir Howard Hodgkin. Hodgkin spent time in India and first met Khakhar following a multi-artist exhibition in New Delhi in 1968. Khakar stayed with Hodgkin when he came to London.
There is an interview in the latest edition of the Tate Magazine, where Hodgkin discusses his friendship and memories of Khakhar, with curator and critic Shanay Jhaveri, assistant curator South Asian Art, department of modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York.
For me, Man in Pub,1979 made after the artist visited the UK, has a pathos and a vulnerability. It describes his impression of a British worker’s alienation and lonely urban life. This compassionate approach to satire came to characterise his work.
I would recommend visitors to view the film in the exhibition Messages from Bhupen made by Judy Male in 1983 ,screened in this exhibition to gain a more intimate understanding of the artist.
In an effort to shift away from their predominantly euro-centric focus, Western art institutions like the Tate are enthusiastically introducing modern art-histories from Africa, South America and Asia. They are made by people with different histories, traditions and values and what looks formally familiar to us may mean something completely different in their culture.
But this idea of being real – of having integrity, sincerity, authenticity – these are qualities that are present in every Bhupen Khakhar creation we see in the exhibition.
He has given us much to feast our eyes on and a lot to think about.
‘You can’t please all’ Bhupen Khakhar until November 6, 2016, Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG
More here on Bhupen Khakhar (Tate) and booking, admission £12 (£10.90/concessions)
Tickets can be booked up to 8 hours in advance online or up to 24 hours in advance by telephone on +44 (0)20 7887 8888