Born in Bombay (Mumbai) in 1934, Bhupen Khakar played a central role in the rise of modern Indian art. Khahkar initially studied accountancy before he moved to Baroda (now Vadodara) in Gujarat to pursue a master’s degree in art criticism. Away from the pressures of family and typical Indian life, he discovered a new artistic freedom in the very intellectual and high-brow arty community that dominated the Department of Fine Arts at Maharaja Siyajirao University.
Khakhar moved away from abstraction and shunned the clean lines of his contemporaries and favoured storytelling over the written conventions of artistic modernism, taking inspiration from a variety of sources including folk, classical South Asian art and contemporary visual culture.
The Tate has brought together key pieces of the artist’s work spread across five rooms showcasing decades of intimate storytelling. Renowned for his wavy colourful canvases and engaging figurative postmodernist style, Khakar is no Hockney, Hodgkin or Rousseau but rather a masterful storyteller who established his own gritty and political aesthetic: there’s a collection of pieces that are an elaborate homage to Hindu religious art featuring men with countless penises, a row of thought-provoking but questionable ceramic busts and a wonderful series of sketches, including one of the author Salman Rushdie.
From his very first paintings of local workers and skilled tradesmen to his great narrative-led compositions, Khakar was fiercely committed to presenting the immediate world as he experienced it. There’s a room dedicated to what Khakhar referred to as his ‘trade paintings’ featuring interesting works of simple snapshots of Indian male life: a man getting a haircut, a window cleaner showering something with a hose and a tailor cutting a cloth. It’s obvious from a quick glance of these paintings that Khakhar exhibits a dash of Henri Rosseau’s garish style when it comes to recording what he perceives as the everyday.
As you pass from room-to-room you’ll be confronted by works that touch on a variety of themes, particularly the artist’s honest and at times, hilarious depiction of his homosexuality. Painting at a time when being gay was not only frowned upon but also illegal (it carried a life sentence) it’s no surprise that the majority of the works on show are focused around Khakhar’s ideas on male sexuality and masculinity.
There’s Night (1996), an amalgamation of several beautiful and layered canvases that explore numerous and sensitive portrayals of love and desire, along with Banaras (1982), Party (1988), and Yayati (1987), which delve into the artist’s own intergenerational relationships with the men he encountered throughout his lifetime. There’s a lot of freedom in this room, some quizzical, others complex, but there’s a brutal honesty that’s strangely and openly universal.
His later works take on a completely new method of storytelling. Some are intimate, others are sexual but overall it’s the unflinchingly and incredibly invasive paintings that illustrate the artist’s battle with prostate cancer that steal the show. Edged with horror, pieces like Bullet Shot in the Stomach (2001) and Idiot are full of blood, pain and guts and depict the cruel and harsh reality of terminal illness. Having lost his battle to the disease in 2003, there’s a comic power to these works, both in their titles and in Khakhar’s use of bold colours.
Cancer takes on a variety of forms: in the water colour Sri Lanka Caves (2002) for example, the disease is represented as small biting creatures, transmogrifying into weird but beautiful abstractions. Of course, they are unnerving and some are difficult to look at but the overarching deliberate ridicule of the artist’s own death instantly demands our compassion.
This exhibition won’t please all but there’s a quirky, introverted and mysterious quality to these paintings that draw you in; ultimately it’s the man behind them that fills you with intrigue.
Bhupen Khakhar: You Can’t Please All is on display at the Tate Modern until 6 November 2016.