A Gay Indian Artist Shakes up London’s Tate Gallery

June is usually the month when London auctions of modern Indian art hit the headlines with dramatic million-pound sales, but this year they have been unremarkable and have been overshadowed by the opening at London’s Tate Modern gallery of a fascinating retrospective exhibition, called You Can’t Please All, of figurative works by Bhupen Khakhar, a provocative Indian artist who died in 2003.

Khakhar is less well known than names such as V.S.Gaitonde, Tyeb Mehta, M.F.Husain, F.N.Souza, and Amrita Sher-Gil who dominate the auctions, but he is regarded highly by other Indian artists for his iconic, pioneering narrative paintings. He tells stories with humor depicting ordinary middle class life in the late 20th century, especially in his Gujarati home city of Baroda – but not always so ordinary because Khakhar was gay in a country where homosexuality was (and still is) illegal, and male nude figures appear frequently in his works.

“In the late 1960s, he was the first Indian artist to combine traditional art, Indian popular culture, and Western pop art,” says a foreword to the exhibition’s catalog. He “turned the cultural establishment on its head” with portraits of hairdressers and tailors, and with “sad, angry affectionate pictures” of middle-class life.

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Man Leaving (Going Abroad) 1970, Courtesy Tap Collection, copyright Estate of Bhupen Khakhar

In the 1980s, he was courageously the first homosexual Indian artist to come out. The exhibition graphically illustrates that period as well as his later problems with cataracts in his eyes, which led to a blurry brushwork (masking some suggestive same-sex scenes), and then to his struggle with prostate cancer from 1998.

Some of the most appealing however are early quirky studies such as Man Leaving (Going Abroad) (above) painted in 1970, and others depicting a watchmaker and a tiger chasing and mounting a stag (both below) and strike pickets at a factory gate. Khakhar’s inspiration is said to have come from a wide range of sources varying from pre-Renaissance painters to the India’s colonial Company style, and from post-Impressionists like Henri Rousseau to West Bengal’s 19th century Kalighat style.

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Tiger and Stag 1970 Estate of Bhupen Khakhar/NGMA, New Delhi, copyright Estate of Bhupen Khakhar

His works have appeared in a few earlier exhibitions internationally, including one at the original Tate Gallery in 1982 along with five other Indian painters including Rabindranath Tagore and Jamini Roy, and at the Tate Modern along with others in 2001. Such shows help to boost sales, as has happened for example with Gaitonde after a notable exhibition in New York’s Gugggenheim Museum in 2014.

Both Christie’s and Saffronart auction houses have managed to include Khakars in their sales over the past month. A small 24" x 24" overtly gay oil on canvas, At New Jersey (below), went at Christie’s for £134,500 ($197,715) including buyers’ premium, which was more than double the $87,500 that it fetched at Christie’s in 2014 .

There have been questions about whether the paintings – done between 13 and 50 years ago – fit the Tate Modern’s ultra contemporary image. Nada Raza, the exhibition’s co-curator with Chris Dercon (till recently the gallery’s director), points out that the Tate Modern shows art from 1900, and argues that the definition of modernism needs to be expanded when it is applied outside the US and Europe because the experience of modern life, and artistic and cultural responses, can be vastly different. Artists elsewhere resist and change the forms and rules of modern art to reflect their own experiences, often in relation to colonial or imperial powers – and that is what Khakhar did.

Some UK critics do not agree. Both The Guardian and its associated Sunday newspaper, The Observer, have slammed Khakhar and his paintings at the Tate as “incredibility unimpressive,” a “waste of space,” “uneven, garrulous, puzzling, opaque” and, having “no fluency or touch with the brush, he moves the paint around with laborious difficulty.” Those rather mindless reviews have been rightly criticized by art curator and critic, Geeta Kapur along with others including Salman Rushdie, for whom Khakhar illustrated two books.

But The Observer does maybe strike a chord when it says that the exhibition fails “to give sufficient context for viewers who have no knowledge of India in the 1960s and 70s”. There are the usual notices on the theme of each room and individual works, and a neat pocket-size pamphlet that everyone is given, but more explanation could help visitors meet then challenge of understanding and appreciating what they are viewing, as I discovered when talking to Nada Raza. There is a splendid hard-backed catalogue with very informative essays, but that does not cater for everyone.

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You Can’t Please All 1981, Tate, copyright Bhupen Khakhar

Perhaps the most important work in the exhibition is You Can’t Please All (right), which gives the exhibition its title. This 5ft9in x 5ft9in oil on canvas illustrates how Khakhar was “both voyeur and participant” because the artist has said that he is the naked man leaning on the balcony and it was interpreted as marking his coming out.

He is watching a street scene based on an adaptation of an Aesop’s fable about a man, his son and a donkey – the man mounts and dismounts from the donkey, trying to please passers-by who make comments, but eventually the donkey dies.

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Janata Watch Repairing 1972 Vivan Sundaram and Geeta Kapur, copyright Estate of Bhupen Khakhar

Khakhar was born in Mumbai in 1934 and qualified as an accountant, which Nada Raza says pleased his mother who hoped he would climb the heights of the city’s business districts.

Instead, though continuing to work as an accountant, he went to Baroda to study painting in 1962 where he was taught and influenced by artists such as Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and K.G. Subramanian.

In 1976 he came to the UK (via the then USSR and Yugoslavia), and again in 1979 as an artist in residence at the Bath Academy of Art. He found Britain alienating because of the lives of working class people, and lists “total distrust for foreigners” as an Englishman’s qualities in notes that are displayed at the Tate. Writing about winter, he says: “You are not allowed to smile during this season, which lasts for 10 months of the year. If you are sensible, then try to look as grumpy as possible. English people appreciate sulk.”

The exhibition is sponsored by Deutsche Bank which will be taking it to Germany later. The National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi also has a current exhibition of the Khakhar works that it has in its collection – including this painted chair, which neatly illustrates the range of the artist’s work, and humor.

** Visiting the Tate Modern also enables one to look at the stylish Switch House extension (rising on the right behind the end of the old power station in the picture below) that was opened last week. This is a significant contribution to London architecture because of the way, after plans for the external cladding were changed from glass to specially designed brickwork, the structure blends with the gallery’s original brick power station and contrasts with nearby glass-clad buildings.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. He blogs at www.ridingtheelephant.com, which can be found at the right side of Asia Sentinel’s homepage.