Bhupen Khakhar

Art, Painting
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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The deeper you get into Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar’s personal story, the more you’re likely to be drawn to his work. Born into a lower-middle-class Mumbai family in 1934, he eventually moved to the western city of Vadodara where, in a community of forward-thinking artists, he developed his bright, bold approach to figurative painting. He travelled in Europe and was a strong supporter of Gandhi, depicting everyday Indian life in a Henri Rousseau-influenced style, adding the mythological, cosmopolitan and autobiographical touches that give his work its trademark eclecticism.

The big headline, though, is that Khakhar was openly gay at a time when homosexuality wasn’t just frowned upon but illegal, and carried a life sentence (Indian law still upholds this, despite opposition). His earlier works – of city and family scenes and tradespeople – are mostly focused around male figures, and masculinity is a recurring theme: the lonely, silent men he saw in England (‘Man in Pub’ 1979); the moment when a young man is wished well by his elders as he flies the family nest (‘Man Leaving (Going Abroad)’ 1970).

Around 1990 Khakhar started painting more intimate encounters between men, some tender, some sexual, and by the late 1990s, his knack for storytelling took an unflinchingly visceral turn with a series of paintings about the agony of the prostate cancer that eventually killed him. Edged with humour and horror, pieces like ‘Bullet Shot in the Stomach’ (2001) are full of blood, guts and the dull reality of terminal illness. Tracing Khakhar’s art along the arc of his life is compelling – but the sense remains that it’s the man who really captures the imagination. 

By: Ananda Pellerin

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