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PRINT March 2014

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Bhupen Khakhar

Bhupen Khakhar, Janata Watch Repairing, 1972, oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 36 1/4".

OVER THE PAST DECADE, the late Indian painter Bhupen Khakhar (1934–2003) has been alternately celebrated as the “king of kitsch” and the father of Indian pop art. He famously appeared as a visionary artist in Salman Rushdie’s 1995 novel The Moor’s Last Sigh, and his affable specter still looms large over the Indian art world—as when his bespectacled, toothy visage featured in the installation of his friend and sometime acolyte Atul Dodiya, Celebration in the Laboratory, at the first Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2012. This past year, Khakhar’s wide cross-disciplinary appeal and larger-than-life legacy were cemented by the torrent of exhibitions that commemorated the tenth anniversary of his death. In April, London’s Grosvenor Gallery staged “Bhupen Khakhar,” which included drawings, watercolors, and paintings from the mid-1970s though early ’80s. In September, Mumbai gallerist Shireen Gandhy organized her own homage, “Subject of Death,” at Chemould Prescott Road; in the same city Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke mounted another tribute, “Touched by Bhupen,” in November.

While all three shows celebrated Khakhar, Gandhy’s and Mirchandani’s both explicitly addressed the abiding fascination his idiosyncratic, deliberately naive figurative works hold for a younger generation. “Subject of Death,” curated by art historian Geeta Kapur, paired Khakhar’s late paintings (most dating from the last two decades of his career) with works by nine well-known contemporary artists, using the shared theme of mortality to prompt reflections on the painter’s persistent relevance. The most striking dialogue was that between Khakhar’s watercolor An Old Man from Vasad Who Had Five Penises Suffered from Runny Nose, 1995, and Anju Dodiya’s watercolor self-portrait Dead Self, 2013: In the former, a naked figure wearing a diaphanous scarf on his head gazes mournfully toward the viewer, his quintupled manhood resembling a strangely deformed flower. Dodiya’s work echoes these floral allusions by depicting the artist’s own emaciated body wrapped in a glowing shroud, garlanded with bloodred petals. Both works gesture to the frailty of the body, and perhaps also to the fragility of artistic legacies—an anxiety of influence if ever there was one.

“Touched by Bhupen” outlined Khakhar’s orbit more broadly, featuring works from the likes of Subodh Gupta and Francesco Clemente. The most outré homage was Painting Still?, 2013, by the Baroda-based poet-artist Gulammohammed Sheikh. His campy colors imitated the gaudy hues favored by Khakhar, while resurrecting the legendary man himself in the form of a ten-foot-tall fiberglass statue wielding a paintbrush and sporting a yellow-gold outfit and rose-tipped angel’s wings. Sheikh was a close friend of Khakhar’s, and in fact largely bears responsibility for persuading him to become an artist; his tribute—heavy-handed as it might be—highlights the pioneering way in which Khakhar merged high art with low humor through a vast array of vernacular and commercial references. Indeed, he made his life in and out of the studio his subject: Khakhar is, famously, the first Indian artist to address explicitly his homosexuality in his work.

But although such exhibitions offer ample evidence of the extraordinary range of Khakhar’s impact, they do not fully explain it. Why are so many gallerists, curators, and artists still so eager to claim solidarity with Khakhar’s celebration of the everyday and the extravagant alike? (Tate Modern, for example, has a Khakhar extravaganza tentatively slated for 2016.) Part of the artist’s appeal is precisely the unprecedented historical and cultural scope of his work. He is considered a founder of what art historians call Baroda’s narrative figurative tradition, which borrowed the jewellike tones of traditional Mughal representational styles to tell stories from contemporary life. Yet he also drew from sources far beyond India’s traditional art forms, including ’60s American Pop, Bollywood posters, and the nineteenth-century works known as Company School paintings, popular during the Raj, which merged the iridescent detailing of traditional miniatures with Western perspective.

Khakhar’s ongoing appeal is also tied to his ability to link the history of art with the story of the “ordinary” people of post-independence India. The artist’s favorite subjects were the small-time professionals and tradesmen who made up India’s middle classes, the same social milieu from which he hailed (he was actually an accountant before becoming an artist). In Janata Watch Repairing, 1972, a neatly clad, orange-faced man, ensconced in a turquoise room, painstakingly mends a wristwatch. The showy, strangely neon palette echoes that of a kitschy film poster; mingling with Khakhar’s childlike figuration, it lends the piece a hallucinogenic, transformative atmosphere.

If an understanding of India’s socioeconomic structure is important to Khakhar’s work, it is because his subject is ultimately the formation of identity—specifically those new identities that seem to escape or transgress their cultural milieus: the postcolonial and the postmodern, the gendered and the queer, the localized and the mass mediated. Khakhar’s performative paintings anticipated a younger generation of talent, which burgeoned postglobalization in the ’90s. By simultaneously exploring both specificity and difference, the artist paradoxically established a legacy that has proved evermore widespread and mutable.

Zehra Jumabhoy is a Steven and Elena Heinz Scholar researching contemporary Indian art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London.