Economic liberalisation might have robbed aspiring towns of their provinciality, but Baroda in the latter decades of the 20th century was as claustrophobic as only a small town can be. It was not a city where you could hide, or keep secrets, but Bhupen Khakhar did both. More even than the fear of being outed as homosexual was the anxiety of the morality brigade, surrounded as he was by the trade and commerce of any small town — the barber, fruit seller, grocer, tailor, watch repairer, mendicant and, inevitably, the neighbour. Within this slightly squalid world, desire existed at a subterranean level and intimacy came with caveats that were more sordid than gratifying.
To own up to being homosexual in this milieu was to be intimidated by its ostracising loneliness. The self-taught artist learned to take lovers furtively, men who similarly hid their fears when their libidos got the better of them. Khakhar would later recall these encounters, but it was only when he was in his 40s that he felt emboldened to announce his sexuality in the early 1980s following a trip to Britain and the death of his mother. For the most part though, his sexual liaisons continued to occur with the disenfranchised and poor.
Khakhar’s coming out couldn’t have been more dramatic, and found unsettling expression in his art. Indian modernism, till then, had failed to take note of the male nude, and in Khakhar it found a chronicler amidst the same neighbourhoods he inhabited and had extolled. It brought with it concomitant tensions — having discarded the closet, Khakhar’s gay outings on canvas induced discomfort in viewers. His homosexual lovers’ erotic embrace was discomfiting for most. Galleries struggled to hang them, and newspapers and magazines preferred to print the less lurid for fear of censure.
Bhupen Khakhar’s You Can’t Please All, oil on canvas, painted in 1981
Certainly, this newspaper cannot see fit to print the painting that is the reason for this appraisal of Khakhar’s painterly oeuvre. The painting in question, Two Men in Benares, which commanded a record Rs 22.5 crore at a Sotheby’s auction in London this week, is among the artist’s most graphic, showing two lovers with erect penises groping in a cul-de-sac while life in the sacred city happens alongside. Such an explicit painting would have been hard put to find a buyer in India when it was first exhibited in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1986, and went on to become part of the Guy and Helen Barbier family collection. The Barbiers came to India in the late ’70s when Guy set up Arthur Andersen & Co. Over the subsequent decade, they became votaries of and collected Indian modern art alongside Davida and Chester Herwitz, with whom they sometimes competed for the same works.
Despite the nature of Khakhar’s outing in the 1980s, the anticipated opprobrium did not follow — at least from Khakhar’s artistic fraternity, which had long suspected his gay leanings anyway. Touted, instead, by galleries and collectors as India’s first openly gay artist, Khakhar did enjoy the inevitable celebritydom that was thrust on him. He seemed to be enthused and repulsed by it in equal parts.
That he was on his way to becoming an international icon of Indian modernism became evident when, in 2016, London’s Tate Modern hosted a retrospective of his work posthumously — Khakhar had died of cancer in 2003. Titled on the basis of another coming out painting ironically labelled You Can’t Please All, the exhibition provided an overview of the artist’s career, but local critics unaware of the context of his work castigated it. The controversy snowballed to racist rather than critical evaluation — but it positioned the artist firmly on a global platform. In recent years, interest in Khakhar’s work has been at an all-time high.
There is reason to respond to Khakhar’s paintings at an aesthetic as well as a cerebral level. His documentation of the tonalities of life is in many ways typical of what is referred to as the Baroda “School”, even though he was not formally trained in its halcyon fine arts department. For now, his work may be enjoying its spot in the sun but to project him as only a gay artist, or include him in similar discourses to the exclusion of all else, would be to continue to do him the disfavour he struggled against all his life.