Bhupen Khakhar, Bullet Shot in the Stomach, 2001, oil on canvas, 7 1/2 × 11 5/8".

Bhupen Khakhar, Bullet Shot in the Stomach, 2001, oil on canvas, 7 1/2 × 11 5/8".

Bhupen Khakhar

Bhupen Khakhar, Bullet Shot in the Stomach, 2001, oil on canvas, 7 1/2 × 11 5/8".

Walking into “Bhupen Khakhar: You Can’t Please All” is like stepping into two worlds at once. The late Mumbai-born, Vadodara-based artist’s paintings provide glimpses of the Indian street, its burning-hot colors teeming with workaday characters. But they also suggest realms of pure whimsy. In Man Eating Jalebi, 1975, an ordinary gentleman sits at a table, enjoying the sticky orange sweetmeat that is a commonplace Gujarati dessert. Yet the turquoise sea behind him, on which bobs a toylike boat, resembles a stage set. Where does fact stop and fantasy begin?

Curators Nada Raza and Chris Dercon indulge in a visionary gesture of their own: Khakhar’s retrospective is the biggest solo exhibition ever to have been dedicated to an Indian artist at the institution. It encompasses paintings, ceramics, book illustrations, and the documentary Messages from Bhupen Khakhar (1983) by Judy Marle. Spanning five decades of Khakhar’s career, the show transports viewers from a 1965 collage (Interior of a Hindu Temple III) through 1970s paintings of fluorescently hued tradesmen to watercolor self-portraits documenting the artist’s battle with prostate cancer in the last years of his life (he died in 2003): The suffering Khakhar is rendered in the murky yellows, browns, and blacks of pus, dried blood, and excrement.

Khakhar’s bodily urges play a vital part in the exhibition. You Can’t Please All, 1981—considered the artist’s “coming out of the closet” picture—lent the exhibition its name. The painting was the result of his visits to England in the ’70s, when he was allegedly inspired by British Pop artist David Hockney’s gay figures. In You Can’t Please All, a nude Khakhar leans over a balcony looking down at a surreal small-town panorama below. As he exposes his bare backside to the viewer’s gaze, the protagonist’s position recalls Hockney’s canvas Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool, 1966, in which Peter’s posterior view is similarly paramount.

Tate Modern’s exhibition, which will travel to Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Berlin, labors to make Khakhar’s work fit snugly into a Western canon. European influences are celebrated—the ghosts of Henri Rousseau and Pieter Bruegel the Elder loom large in wall text and brochure alike, neither of which mentions Khakhar’s Indian compatriots. (You have to spring for the catalogue to find out about them.) Yet Khakhar was vital to Vadodara’s narrative figurative tradition in the ’80s and ’90s. Like his peers Nalini Malani, Nilima, and Gulammohammed Sheikh, he fashioned a hybrid style, merging techniques from European masters with the iridescent shades of time-honored Indian art. In Green Landscape, 1995, rolling hills rise above an emerald sea. The panorama is fringed with little vignettes of men embracing and minuscule profiles of Khakhar himself. While the picture’s flat figures are reminiscent of Matisse, their elaborate borders mimic Rajasthani and Mughal miniatures.

Luckily, the exhibition’s concluding section somewhat compensates for cultural omissions, thanks to its clever inclusion of Bullet Shot in the Stomach, 2001. The diptych depicts two Khakhars at war, one pointing a gun at the other. Both figures reveal their internal organs: The Khakhar on the left displays a red heart; the Khakhar on the right exposes crimson intestines. The placement of Bullet Shot in the Stomach ensures that the personal tackles the political head-on. The gun appears to be aimed at a figure in an adjacent painting, Untitled, 2001, showing a Muslim man drinking sharbat outside a blue mosque. The juxtaposition transforms the interpretation of Bullet: It morphs from a metaphor for the doubleness of artistic identity into a symbol of India’s internal fractures: a nation divided by the Hindu-Muslim riots of the ’90s and early 2000s, perhaps. As the traumatized Khakhar in Bullet makes eye contact with the skullcap-wearing Musalmân, viewers are left guessing: Is it sympathy, hostility, or complicity that we read in the glance the two men exchange?

Zehra Jumabhoy