Only a very few other artists in our times have used the resources drawn from one’s self as melodramatically and as queerly as Bhupen Khakhar did. His paintings and prints, particularly over last two decades of his life, stand testimony to this. These throw open the insides of that area of “private” sexuality to a public voyeur/viewer, affirming a publicly devalued and shameful private “deviancy”, reconstructing it in a manner that recuperates its tremendous strength and tenacity to position itself comfortably even within in the arena of international artistic vanguard. In fact, his work affirms its polemical potential for becoming a persuasive “public practice”.
His work and its artistry, however was, safely absorbed within the much tamed aesthetic sphere of a prudent “high culture”, though he engaged with gay themes with aplomb within the available spaces of national and international elite art establishments. And, Khakhar himself interestingly denied the possibility of a political/activist’s agency and role (particularly in local contexts). This is curious since Khakhar practiced his art at a time when gay people and activism in India as elsewhere were gradually gaining visibility and had begun to become a social force. The breach between these two realms may be unbridgeable, but it is interesting to read Khakhar’s role as an artist functioning between these two domains.
It is apparent that unlike some “seditious” artists elsewhere (say, Robert Mapplethorpe), Khakhar’s artistry was approved without much resistance, and moreover the extent of his acceptance within the national art scene almost went hand in hand, parallel with his self disclosure as a gay, making him a (queer?) celebrity in his own lifetime; indeed, many gay men would hold up his success as a matter of great pride. However, certain questions need to be asked: is the magnitude of success and acceptability that he attained achieved by default? Was it primarily acquired through the deployment and valorization of certain assured art historical/aesthetic criteria within the exclusive field of fine art? If so, did the process somewhat unavoidably circumscribe the tenuous political possibilities available to gay peoples’ struggles? Or, was his celebrity status due to him for the art value of his work in its own right, particularly its “deviant” subject matter, in the “difference” of its thematic, or do these issues work in tandem with each other?
It would be rather limiting to view Khakhar’s artistic explorations and its implications merely within the problematic of a far too simple and polarized theme of gay disclosure and closeted-ness. Indeed it is impossible to examine questions of gay identity without considering the class-caste ridden Indian, world circumstances in which the social status of the person concerned and his/her location definitely matter. Disclosures such as that of Khakhar’s – through high art – tend to relatively conceal political implications and intentions rather than revealing it as a strategy. And further, art making and discourses around it are highly mediated fields, and it is simplistic to overlook these, as these are crucial in the making of the aura-tic monadic genius-artists. In contrast to his aura as an artist, it is well known that Khakhar, like most visible gays in India, shared the larger part of his life among ordinary, middleclass people. While he practiced his art within the mainstream-elite artistic circles, he can be read as constantly undermining the aura bequeathed to him by the art world.
In today’s time, although the visibility of gay men may not be that common, men having sex with men, or sharing a life together, is perhaps not that uncommon. And despite this, according to the Indian Penal Code (Section 377), the golden rule of stigma, stands intact: “whoever voluntarily has sex against the order of nature with man, woman or animal shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years.”
Just as in the collage mode, the artists who put-in-use the combination of pop-surreal-art-language were and are aware of the fact that they prefer playing with meanings and various possibilities of interpreting – either from the artist or from the viewer. This is so since such language combines, more than others that hold specific credos, constantly remind one of the gaps between the lived and the represented; the very poetic indeterminacy of the allegorical. Khakhar’s artistry, too, plays with the irreconcilability of the lived and the impossible, the mundane/ordinary and of the dreamt, and the imagined in flight. Indeed, it had been the irreverence, and that peculiar energy of being queer that became the tools and strength of his extraordinary imaging credentials.
At the beginning of his art career, the strategy to flaunt his sexuality in the heterosexual mainstream through playful and funny (amusing) articulations also enabled him to overcome the technical limitations of an “untrained” and un-confessed gay artist; indeed, this came to be considered as a force and strength of his language/aesthetic by the mainstream. As a result, despite the limited circumstances of the elite practice Khakhar’s art still can be considered a “deviant” expression for the discomfort it creates – no wonder, then, that there has been such rush to aestheticize it as a ruse overdetermine his sexual “deviancy”.
Apart from the hype around his artistry – the cream and froth of it, Khakhar is also spoken off for his modesty, honesty, uncanny playfulness and candidness - the transgressions, and the very subversive persona he embodied. Art historically, it is not merely incidental that it is his involvement with common people that has generated a Khakhar who is, perhaps the first Indian painter who reckoned with the hybridity of culture; in fact, this underlies the entire oeuvre of his artistic engagement. Plus, his celebrative freedom within the expressions of oddities and painful experiences in representing the nuances of his experiences of the life he shared with the ordinary men, (which makes his art doubly ironical!), also have already been adequately noted.
Issues of Gay Identity
Gathering his strength for a gradual disclosure from the Gay Liberation movement as well as the from the international art scenario in the early 1980s, Khakhar eventually 'came out of the closet'; simultaneously his mother’s passing away also freed him from the familial restrictions. However, there had been the expressions of the insuppressible, the portrayals of the innocent gay desire ('Seva', 1986 Oil on Canvas) and yearning for the loving companionship of the young for the older males ('Ranchodbhai Relaxing in Bed', 1975) – these come to us as revealing gay desires as if in hindsight. More ambitious and outspoken are the paintings 'Two Men in Banaras' (1982) and 'Yayati' (1987), which he painted with exuberant, subversive sexual strength and confidence, post-disclosure.
The virile male in relation to the passive partner was a major theme with which Khakhar continuously engaged, where his identity comes through as the weaker, desiring and submissive lover. The early clear portrayal of it is seen in the painting 'Two Men in Banaras' where he represents himself with a certain shame (the hidden face) as the older lover (the persona of the artist is marked undoubtedly), subordinated to the young macho aggressive partner. Soon enough, with ‘Yayati’ he celebrates this mode of subordination through a mythical allegory of the resurrection of the old man by his youthful, angelic younger lover.
From the very first painting of metaphoric disclosure definitive, 'You Can’t Please All' (1981), in all the paintings Khakhar painted until the late 1980s there had been an ambivalence in the specificity of the narratives power relation, and as he consciously deploys symbolic, metaphoric and allegorical modes, they become multi-edged. By late 1980s and early 90s these become eccentric and enigmatic. He devised his new pictorial ways, often to subvert and ridicule the stronger partner by exposing the tragedy of this much desired and sexualized partner through a language that objectifies the ambivalence and the bizarre in such encounters, in paintings such as 'Ghost City' (1992) and 'An Old Man from Vasad Who had Five Penises Suffered from Runny Nose'(1995). In these and other such paintings he had been self-consciously working away from the theme of power relations found in his earlier works. The very enigma of real life experiences; the moments of belief and disbelief, decisions about fighting or ignoring a hostile world, of whether to take the encounters with the partner seriously or otherwise are also elements that are present both in his literary narration of his time as well as in his paintings. In Khakhar’s paintings this content is translated as painterly disjunctions; unfinished conjunctions of pictorial spaces or through various modes of collage. Towards the end he painted human bodies that were violated by disease, war and violence, interspersed with the experiences of tender, fearless calmness.