Bhupen Khakhar (1934-2003) was a leading artist in Indian contemporary art. He was a self-trained artist and started his career as a painter relatively late in his life. His works are figurative, concerned with the human body and its identity. Gender definitions and gender identity were major themes of his work. His paintings often contained references to Indian mythology.
Khakhar grew up in Mumbai. His family were originally artisans who came from the Portuguese colony of Diu. At home they spoke Gujarati, Marathi and Hindi, but not much English. He studied Economics at the University of Bombay, and worked as an accountant for many years, pursuing his artistic inclinations in his free time. He also studied in Hindi mythology and literature, and became well informed about the visual arts.
In 1958, Khakhar met the young Gujarati poet and painter Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, who encouraged Khakhar’s interest in art and encouraged him to come to the newly founded Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda.
Khakhar’s works are narrative and autobiographical. His first exhibited pieces presented pictures of deities cut from books, glued onto mirrors, with added graffiti. He began to show his work in 1965, which soon garnered attention and critical praise. By the 1980s, Khakhar had solo shows in galleries in London, Berlin, Amsterdam and Tokyo.
The work celebrates the day to day struggles of India’s common man. Khakhar’s paintings depict average people, such as the barber, the watch repairman, and an accountant with whom he worked. He reproduced the look of small Indian shops in his paintings and reveals a talent for seeing the intriguing within the mundane.
I find him to be a sort of Indian David Hockney (with a dash of Marc Chagall). He was certainly influenced by Pop Art movement, but Khakhar understood that western versions of Pop Art would not have the same meaning in India.
Khakhar’s gay themes attracted special notice. In that era, homosexuality was something rarely talked about in India. He explored his own gayness in extremely personal ways, touching on both its cultural implications and its romantic and erotic manifestations. Khakhar painted scenes of gay life and love from a distinctively Indian perspective. The autobiographical element of his work is a starkly honest act of confession, which is both provocative and moving.
He was portrayed as “the accountant” in Salman Rushdie’s novel The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995). Khakhar later made a portrait of Rushdie that he called The Moor, and which can be seen at the National Portrait Gallery, London. My favorite of his works is You Can’t Please All (1981) a life-size naked figure, a self-portrait, watches from a balcony, as father, son and donkey enact an ancient fable.
His works have won many awards amd can be found in the collections of the British Museum, The Tate, and The Museum of Modern Art in NYC, among others.
All pictures from Estate of Bhupen Khakhar from The Tate online archives