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PRINT December 2016

Bhupen Khakhar

Bhupen Khakhar, Window Cleaner, 1982, oil on canvas, 36 × 36".

A GOOD OLD-FASHIONED KERFUFFLE erupted last May when the English critic Jonathan Jones, in a pithy and cantankerous screed in The Guardian, categorically dismissed an exhibition of works by the late Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar at Tate Modern as “a waste of space.” Khakhar’s paintings, in this critic’s view, were “emotionally inert” and “stuck in a time-warp of 1980s neo-figurative cliché.” The only reason they could possibly be on display, he conjectured, was “some misplaced notion that non-European art needs to be looked at with special critical generosity.”

Jones’s article inspired a tornado of counterattacks from members of the tightly knit South Asian art community. Writing in The Wire, Geeta Kapur, the éminence grise of Indian art historians, accused Jones of embracing “discarded art-historical categories.” (“The critic’s eyes are dull, his judgment embarrassing,” she fumed.) The Mumbai-based writer Sidharth Bhatia wondered why people bothered about an Englishman’s opinion in the first place—a fine point, but the sting from a liberal of paper of record was mighty nevertheless. The fallout from Jones’s jeremiad hung like a black cloud over a conference on exhibiting South Asian art in Britain held at the Paul Mellon Centre in Londonin June and July.

The controversy struck me with particular force, in part because my first encounter with Khakhar was still fresh. Shamefully, I hadn’t seen or heard of his work until I wandered into an exhibition drawn from his archive in a dark and cavernous hall of the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi this past February. One painting immediately caught my attention: It featured a flat red tableau with two tiny men of indeterminate age seated across from each other. Delicately wrought trees that evoked pom-poms interrupted the deep ocher red. I imagined the men were playing backgammon. The painting’s appeal was visceral; I wanted to meld into that red.

Months later, in London, I chanced on Khakhar again at Tate Modern. Titled “You Can’t Please All” (presciently, as it turned out) and curated by Chris Dercon and Nada Raza, the compact exhibition of paintings was culled from the artist’s five-decade career and supplemented with ephemera. My second encounter was revelatory; Khakhar’s universe—by turns wry and wrenching—is exhilarating. It is also undeniably his own.

The Tate exhibition opened with a series of narrative paintings in the vein of the one that had caught my attention in Delhi, all populated by figures drawn simply but neatly—with an almost childlike hand. Mostly executed in and around the year 1970, these works at once conjured intricate Pahari miniatures, fourteenth-century Sienese painting, the playful primitivism of Henri Rousseau, and David Hockney’s Egyptian works. Their color palette was rich with pastel pinks and moody blues and purples. “Emotionally inert” they were not.

It could be said that the eclectic references in Khakhar’s work are rooted in the artist’s own varied background. Born in 1934 in pre-partition Bombay, he eventually traded that city’s cosmopolitan climes for sleepy Baroda, a university town that was home to one of India’s leading art schools. Originally trained in accounting at the University of Bombay—a profession he pursued for twenty-seven years while also making his art—here he enrolled in a two-year art-criticism program. At the Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery, an institution modeled on London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, he encountered academic painting for the first time, lingering over the pre-Renaissance painters in particular.

In his new home, Khakhar joined a lively intellectual and artistic community that included figures such as Vivan Sundaram, Nalini Malani, and Gulammohammed Sheikh—all of whom went on to become giants of Indian modern art. With Sheikh, he edited a questing literary journal called Vrishchik, of which one copy was on view at the Tate. Khakhar wrote a great deal, too, including a black comedy that satirized the pettiness of the bourgeoisie and a smattering of short stories. (His engagement with literature was lifelong; he later illustrated Salman Rushdie’s limited-edition Two Stories [1989] with a series of idiosyncratic woodcuts and linocuts.) Inevitably, many of the poets, playwrights, and artists who made up Khakhar’s circle made their way into his paintings; in this way, Khakhar’s body of work is also a poetic record of a vibrant time and a place.

Bhupen Khakhar, Blind Babubhai, 2001, watercolor on paper, 43 3/4 × 43 1/4".

Above all, Khakhar’s works document mostly marginalized social universes. Many of the cinematic canvases on view at the Tate celebrate the nobility of the nobody, the heroism of the humdrum: people at work, in love, in prayer, deep in sleep, eating sweets. His so-called trade paintings riff on the colonial-era Company style, featuring men—a barber, a watch repairman—at work in their shops. In one, a sign announces DE-LUXE TAILOR. In another, a doormat promises GOOD LUCK. These paintings dip into the vernacular, even kitsch, language of the bazaar. “Good taste can be very killing,” the artist once said. Not coincidentally, they’re my favorite of his works. One can begin to see why Khakhar has been called India’s first Pop artist.

A number of works from the 1980s and ’90s were tucked away in two galleries toward the end of the show. Here, Khakhar’s brushstrokes grow looser, his subjects more autobiographical. The men he loved—Khakhar was gay, and his open treatment of homosexuality was as rare as it was brave—feature heavily in these paintings. So does the artist himself: bespectacled, a little stooped, white-haired. There is an unforgettable tenderness among these lumpen, aging bodies. Penises appear alternately flaccid and erect, withered and robust; Khakhar’s bodies in love are soulful without being pornographic, revelatory of what we might call, to pervert Arendt’s phrase, the banality of loveliness.

As his health faltered—he was afflicted by cataracts, then prostate cancer—his art captured the deterioration of his own body. Man with Cataracts, 1989, is an ink drawing of a man with dozens of arrows plunging into his eyeballs. And His Son also Had Black Teeth, 1995, depicts mouths darkened by decay. In other paintings from the ’90s on, noses run, skin lesions erupt, an anus streams with ropey shit. These are portraits of a disintegrating body, saying its own farewells.

Khakhar died in 2003, and although he has his fair share of devotees in India today, his work doesn’t command the same market prowess as that of some of his contemporaries. But the Tate show, while not the artist’s first international outing, inevitably introduced many more people to his oeuvre. Even for those of us already familiar with Khakhar, the background chatter about the museum pandering to political correctness encouraged a reconsideration of his practice. And while the show wasn’t perfect—I would have liked to have seen more emphasis on his fascinating Baroda circle, and a less pronounced pairing of the illness paintings with the homoerotic works—it was a landmark all the same. I saw a body of work that was at once original and, in a way, distinctly South Asian, which is to say a product of empire, the work of an artist looking both without and within.

Khakhar is the first artist whom I’ve wished I could have a drink with. For the poetry, puns, and compassion in his work, I am grateful. Among the miscellany on display at the Tate, I found a queer, outlandish autobiographical sketch, appearing in a tongue-in-cheek catalogue from 1972, called Truth Is Beauty and Beauty Is God (the artist’s mantra, as it happens). Alongside photographs of Khakhar assuming hammy stock poses inspired by cinema and advertising—mockads for toothpaste or pain reliever, as James Bond—are these words:

I would write a few lines about my past births. I had visited Chhayashastri in Patan. He told me that:

I was Kapol Baniya by caste and was serving as a manager at a feudal lord’s palace. . . . As I had done bad deeds and was unfaithful I was born as a butterfly in my next birth. One day a saint was about to perform Puja—he had lighted a lamp in front of god. I jumped in the lamp and died. Indirectly my death was in worship of god so I was born as Bhupen Khakhar, a Brahmakshtriya [sic], at 7 a.m. on 10th March 1934.

I can’t help but wonder what form Khakhar, chartered accountant–turned–painter, has assumed now.

Co-organized with Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Berlin, where it is on view through Mar. 5, 2017.

Negar Azimi is Senior Editor of Bidoun.