Bhupen Khakhar: Painting the Truth
An interview with the curator Nada Raza

Bhupen Khakhar is regarded as one India’s foremost painters. The self-taught painter depicted what no one had ever shown before: everyday life in the Indian middle class, as well as intimate scenes revolving around sexuality, illness, and death. Together with Anish Kapoor, he was one of the first Indian artists to participate in documenta, in 1992. Still in Europe, Khakhar is relatively unknown. This fall, a major retrospective of his work will travel from the Tate Modern to the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle. Tate curator Nada Raza explains in an interview with Oliver Koerner von Gustorf why his deeply human work is especially pertinent today.
Oliver Koerner von Gustorf: Why is it so relevant to show Bhupen Khakhar’s work right now, especially in the Western art world?

Nada Raza: Bhupen Khakhar was an Indian artist who had international recognition during his lifetime. He traveled and exhibited in Europe from the late seventies onwards and he was invited to documenta IX in 1992. He was someone that was really what they call an “artist’s artist.” In India especially, he was extremely influential for a whole generation of painters. But after his death in 2003, it was astonishing that his work hadn’t really circulated, hadn’t been extensively shown. So we thought it was important to re-appraise Khakhar and look at him in afresh, to make his work accessible to future generations. He was an essential voice during his lifetime. As a museum, Tate aims to include transformative and influential artists in the chronicles of international art histories.

OKvG: What was so revolutionary about his work?

NR: When Khakhar started working the conversation about “internationalism” versus “indigenism,” (articulated by figures such as KG Subramanyan and Geeta Kapur) was current and debated among his peers. Khakhar’s great contribution was expressing what he called the truth. He was committed to this idea of truth, which was a result of his earlier interest in Gandhi. Khakhar’s earliest catalogue, from the seventies, is called Truth is Beauty and Beauty is God. He was very clear about articulating a position that was true to who he was in terms of his ethnicity, class position, aspirations, sexuality, and his own visual world right from the start. His kind of commitment to being an artist was really about being a visual storyteller. In that way he was resisting the international modernism that was so fashionable in the late sixties in Delhi or Bombay, bland in relation to his own deliberately vulgar aesthetic. If you look at what the progressive artists were doing, they were tending towards abstract expressionism, towards various forms of a more masculine style of European painting. They had already moved into metropolitan areas; they were training in Paris, London, and New York. There was a very international conversation happening in India. It was the post-independence generation, they were really trying to find their voice in terms of representing their new country, and there were many lively conversations about what it meant to be an Indian artist.

OKvG: What did this mean for Khakhar?

NR: He was born into a Gujarati family that was originally from Sindh, which is now in Pakistan. Partition had dislocated many families and his moved to Khetwadi, a neighborhood of Bombay. His family was an aspirational middle-class family, so-called “petty bourgeois.” His father died, his mother then became the head of the family. She had very high hopes for Bhupen. He first trained as an accountant, in fact he worked part-time as an accountant for most of his career. Khakhar moved from Bombay to Vadodara, formerly Baroda, under the guise of studying art criticism. There he found a group of peers that shared his interest in art, and rejected academic realism. Instead, they looked toward folk idioms and local styles of painting to develop their voice. Khakhar’s interest in Henri Rousseau was very telling for that same reason. The painting in Bombay at the time was non-representational, but it also did not really reflect his concerns. Artists in Baroda such as Ghulam Sheikh shared his interest in literature, specifically in Gujarati literature, which had a very particular tonality and sense of humor. And it was that humor that Khakhar immediately found so liberating, because it allowed him to deal with hypocrisy and social reality, but under a veneer of satire. Sheikh along with Khakhar is assoicated with what became known as the Baroda School of narrative and figurative painting.

OKvG: How would you describe Khakhar’s painterly interests on a formal level?

NR: He was conscious of the fact that his style was crude, that his paintings were considered vulgar because of their color palette and content. He wanted to depict the India of the polyester-shirt-wearing, plastic-flower-carrying, everyday man. And in that way he was very contemporary. He started by rejecting the idea of “Nehruvian” modernism, which was a kind of international modernism that was being embraced both in India and abroad at the time as the accepted form for economic and national progress. But actually, it also left out very individual, very particular, vernacular forms of communicating. His choice of color, his choice of form, his source materials were very carefully considered and didn’t really reflect a global or elite approach. He was basically saying: I don’t care—I belong to the India of Gandhi. I am going to portray my world.

OKvG: How did that affect his painting? 

NR: His commitment also exhibited a very Indian way of looking and seeing, as opposed to having a more fashionable, universal perspective. As Geeta Kapur points out in her essay in the exhibition catalogue, Khakhar looked at European art with great intensity, and he especially admired pre-Renaissance painting. But he was not only admiring it merely on a formal level. I think his larger story was much more universal than the forms he chose to represent himself. What was modern about his work? He was talking about same-sex love, about avoiding alienation, about changing India, especially after 1989. His work describes popular culture, and the contradictions posed by the encounter with modernity. And then he made his cancer public in his painting, as we know it was “the” disease of the twentieth century. In her essay, Kapur describes how the walls in Bhupen’s house were plastered with medical charts—self-pedagogy and public display at the same time.

OKvG: Painter Howard Hodgkin said that Khakhar “has been able to paint what he lives, nothing about art and everything about life—without hang ups.”

NR: Sir Salman Rushdie just wrote about this exhibition for the Telegraph. And the title of his piece was He painted like I wrote. That’s a really interesting claim, because Rushdie of course represents a whole generation of post-colonial South-Asian writers as the kind of first-person narrative voice that speaks of the experience of being post-colonial, in terms of language. So in a way, Khakhar’s project was creating that kind of modern Indian voice. And when I say “modern” I don’t mean it in terms of “modern style of painting.” I mean the experience of “modern life” as it was happening in India at that time. And obviously that was radically different from the experience of modern life anywhere else. In much of the literature of that time, the experience of modernity was presented as a dichotomy between a Western liberal view of the world and a kind of authentic traditionalism. That polarization has persevered and we have seen the problems that it has led to in South Asia today. But Khakhar’s generation was the generation before that. So they were really turning to folk and classical forms and trying to figure out what could be useful to them within that context—what was fitting to represent the urban experience that  they were having.

OKvG: Khakhar chose to leave Bombay and go to Vadodara, a small town.

NR: It’s a town in a world that changed very much during his lifetime. What he did was show scenes of everyday life: people going about their business, a guy picking mangoes from a tree, shopkeepers, men he met in town or in the park, his own friends and family, his lovers. He often painted funerals, wedding banquets, things like that, everyday religious practices… His genuine interest in human experience really shone through. When he was painting his trade paintings, the watchmaker, the barbershop, he portrayed spaces that a gay man would naturally be drawn to.

OKvG: Why?

NR: Because they are spaces where men can meet, come into close contact. The tailor’s shop, the paan shop, where people would congregate in the evening—a paan shop is basically a tobacconist’s. He had real empathy in portraying different characters. And it is interesting that he continued to write short stories, that he wrote and produced a play, Maujila Manilal which was a kind of moral tale, a satire. There was often a lot of irony in his descriptions of middle-class morality. The irony was also that while homosexuality was difficult to accept, his works were full of characters who were hardly more morally enlightened. If you look closely at Blind Man Looks in the Mirror and Has Relations with Wanton Woman, there is a scene playing outside, beyond the shutters: it shows a group of men drinking liquor, which was of course prohibited at that time. So little clues were always given, and hypocrisy teased out and exposed.

OKvG: But his paintings are more than moral tales, right?

NR: Absolutely. His paintings can be interpreted on different levels. He said that he thought of great paintings in the same way he thought about great novels, complex and layered. On a certain level a painting like You Can’t Please All reads like a fable based on one of Aesop’s tales. But when you look at it closely, you see details, such as a man sitting in a corner behind a barred window, behind a grill. That is the exact opposite of what is happening in the main scene, in which the protagonist has shed his outdoor clothing and is sharing a confessional moment with the viewer. It becomes clear that as a viewer you are inside of the painting, inside the man’s house—looking out with him. And this delineation of public and private is something that Khakhar portrayed often, using the device of the doorway or window. It is a rather painterly technique. I think he was really thinking about representation, in how and what he was borrowing from his many visual references. We thought it really important to begin the exhibition with an early collage, because it speaks of the sensitivity of borrowing from different places in order to construct a complex image. That was something that he retained throughout his career, even in his approaches as a painter. He was able to create dissonance and multiple narratives within a single work.

OKvG: This seems like a very contemporary approach. It makes me think of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who directed films like Tropical Malady. He is also someone who creates multiple narratives and perspectives in one scene, and combines city and country, spirituality and homosexuality…

NR: That’s a great observation. We actually have one of his works on display at the Tate Modern right now. It is an interesting relationship, because Weerasethakul is dealing with the very male experience of adolescence and coming to terms with the world. Khakhar was kind of a late bloomer. He satisfied the conditions of his class and his family. He trained as an accountant, he was successful, he supported his mother. He was a good son. He was also very aware and anxious about being alienated from society. Then he came to England, where he observed the “Man in Pub,” and the kind of existential loneliness and alienation that he saw there was exactly what he feared, even if Western society offered a lot of individual freedom. He believed in being a part of society. He was going beyond simply being an activist. He was thinking about how one could live a normal life as a gay man. So the idea of family, the idea of care and having children, of love not as sex, but as devotion, those were concepts that were still quite difficult to articulate, even in South Asia. Again, he was very aware of the irony that the laws against being gay in South Asia were actually British laws. So when he came to England in the late seventies and saw that people were able to live out intimate sexual relationships—homosexuality was legalized in Britain in the late sixties—he found it quite ironic that it was possible in England, but that a British law was preventing it in India. He talked about it and decided to go back. He had a partner, someone who had his own family, a much older man. Khakhar’s partners were often older men, he also depicted that, and was truthful about it in his work—which is quite extraordinary. The tenderness with which he depicted love was really romantic in a way.

OKvG: For me it seems like the spiritual idea of love that doesn’t spare sexuality and that is also physical.

NR: In the tradition of Sufi poetry and Bhakti poetry there is this notion of one’s devotion to their beloved being a kind of divine process of coming closer, or reaching “oneness” with god. I found an Indian miniature in his house depicting two noble men in an embrace. Men lying with other men, or lying with boys has been the subject of Indo-Persian miniature painting. Within the region, homosexuality has long existed in multiple forms. It only became criminalized under the Victorian colonial establishement. Today, the law is being debated in the Supreme Court in India. It’s a very contemporary conversation.

OKvG: We talk about the issue of homosexuality as if it was resolved for him early on, and that he was so progressive and free. But how are these topics and Khakhar’s paintings seen in India today—in today’s society?

NR: I have been really impressed with the kind of support this exhibition has received in India. People recognize that it’s a very important conversation to have “right now.” And it’s really an international conversation. I think there is increasing acceptance, and that people are quite hopeful that things will change. But obviously it’s an on-going struggle. I work throughout South Asia—in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka—and I think there is a growing LGBT movement there that is much more organized than it was in previous years. Again, there are these networks of solidarity that grow beyond national borders. It was really interesting for me to come across the work of Leela Gandhi. She teaches at Brown University, she is from the Gandhi family, and she has talked about these kinds of networks of affinity that have developed a form of resistance against imperial forms of power. So once again, these networks are not new and I think Khakhar, when he was in the UK and traveling around the world, was able to tap into these circles and was really a part of them. And he found a group of friends and artists that gave him a sense of freedom here in the UK as well—Howard Hodgkin and David Hockney, that generation. I think that really spoke to him.

OKvG: Why was his relationship with Hodgkin so close?

NR: Howard has a long connection with India. He collects classical Indian art and I think he still spends every winter there. He first saw Bhupen’s work at the Indian Triennale in 1968. In a recent interview in Tate Etc. he described how he met curator Geeta Kapur at the exhibition and told her he thought all the works were rubbish, except for three pictures. And she told him the artist who did the three was standing next to him, and proceeded to introduce Bhupen and Howard. Both men admired each other’s work, and in 1982 Howard included him in a landmark exhibition that he curated at the Tate: Six Indian Painters. But beginning in the late sixties they also developed a very personal relationship. At the time Howard had not yet come out as gay, and he invited Bhupen to come stay with him, his wife, and his kids for a while—a family situation that the guest from India tremendously enjoyed. You have to keep in mind that Khakhar, even though he dealt quite openly with homosexuality in his paintings, waited until after his mother’s death in the early 1980s to officially come out. After his first visit to Britain he went on to Amsterdam, and I am told he took part in Carnival celebrations there. He also designed a poster for the Gay Games in Amsterdam, it was beautiful, a really simple design. These experiences certainly played a role in his decision to come out the closet and be confessional about his sexuality in his work. He again made an active decision to represent his truth, which was incredibly courageous. It is present in the early work as well, but it’s more coded. He approached his later work with amazing honesty. So his approach to the body, to the aging sexual body was really interesting. Also his approach to cancer—and the fact that ironically, during the time when AIDS was affecting the queer community, he got prostate cancer. He addressed that fact with sensitivity, pain, humor, and rage. It’s all there in those final paintings. In his writings he talked about the fear of losing sexual potency, the indignity of illness. He was a very competitive man, he had given up what could have been a very lucrative corporate career in order to become an artist, so it was very important for him to succeed. He was the first Indian artist, along with Anish Kapoor, to exhibit at documenta. It was a big deal for somebody who was self-taught to be shown among a group of artists who had a lot of international success. And right when he was at a sort of prime in his extraordinary and very individual life, it was cruelly cut short. I think he really faced up to his fears and anxieties in his practice— he told friends that he was having nightmares about being carried away by demons. Even though he was living his life with as much openness as possible, it was still a very difficult situation. It was liberating, this idea that you can’t please everyone, an acceptance that he had to go against the grain, to swim against the tide. It was not a coming out painting in a traditional sense. It was more like he was taking a stand.

Nada Raza is Assistant Curator at Tate Modern. She specializes in modern and contemporary art from South Asia.

Bhupen Khakhar – You Can’t Please All
Tate Modern

until 11/06/2016
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle
11/18/2016 to 03/05/2017