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Remembering the Legacy of Bhupen Khakhar

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The magenta-pink surface of a factory yard hits an emerald green street in Factory Strike; brilliant vermilion-red railings vibrate against a deep azure sea in Man Eating Jalebi. These aren’t the subtlest color combinations, they are loud and how. Bhupen Khakhar (1934-2003) was born in Bombay, studied economics and qualified as a chartered accountant. After meeting the painter Gulam Mohammed Sheikh in 1958, he became interested in painting, eventually attending art school in Baroda. He saw pop art for the first time in 1962 – its traces are occasionally apparent in his street scenes and acid colors – though the influence of Henri Rousseau and David Hockney may be more obvious to western eyes.For a part-time painter – he didn’t give up his accountant’s job at a small Bombay factory until his 50s – Khakhar was continuously successful, exhibiting throughout his life. His works are in museums and private collections across the world. You Can’t Please All, the painting that gives this show its title – and it is a true hostage to fortune – was bought by Tate Modern. In ‘You Can’t Please All’, the painting that gives the show its title, a naked man (the artist, we are led to understand) looks out into a street from a balcony, with scenes in the neighbouring buildings visible in a way that is hardly realistic, but vividly conveys the merging of the public and private worlds in Indian life.

There is a certain sense of magic realism in the images of small-town life rendered in vibrantly intense colors, painted with a quirky disregard for Western conventions of space and composition. There’s a dream-like quality to Death in the Family, in which a reclining figure – the departed soul perhaps – seems to float over the nocturnal streetscape. Khakhar’s manipulation of diverse influences suggests parallels with another Western painter, David Hockney, as indeed does his frank treatment of his own homosexuality. He drew on external elements from Sienese religious frescoes to Western Pop Art and Bollywood, alongside various forms of traditional Indian art.

Khakhar’s view of Indian life is fundamentally satirical. Yet, this is a rich and absorbing exhibition. It draws you in not only through the sheer liveliness of the work, but because Khakhar’s artistic impulses weren’t at heart intellectual or political, but personal and emotional. A group of large blurry paintings created while he had cataracts give way to luminous watercolours and a whole room of paintings on sexual themes, from the realistic – scenes of orgy-like, all-male parties – to the visionary: in one painting, an aged king and his son, transformed into an angel, appear to be making love. Khakhar confronts his five-year demise due to cancer in a series leading up to his death in 2003, in raw and powerful paintings, that are imbued with a stoic and bewildering humor.

In At the End of the Day Iron Ingots Came Out he shows a man, presumably representing himself, excreting painfully on the lavatory, with a cross-sectional view into his intestines. The graphic candor of Khakhar’s treatment and his apparent lack of self-pity is remarkable.

While we all reel with what Jonathan Jones has to say quashing the show left, right and center in his piece titled ‘Bhupen Khahkar – Mumbai’s answer to Beryl Cook’, Bhupen had already responded to that several years ago – like he says – You can’t please all.

Cover Graphic : Aniruddha Das

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