Some of the central conceits of Bhupen Khakhar’s work are in evidence in his earliest, most perfunctory of works. In fact, if we wish to truly understand the inner-workings and preoccupations of an artist’s mind, then we ought carefully to look at the marginalia he’s left us. On display at the new Khakhar retrospective at Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art are dozens of watercolours, sketches, ceramics, installation pieces and other artistic divertissements from Khakhar’s life, which illuminate for us his creative sensibility better than any number of his masterpieces could possibly have.
In the early pieces, many of them left undated and unsigned, certain stylistic devices that we associate with Khakhar’s work are already at play. A few of the sketches in this section of the exhibition — composed using separate but interconnected panels, each narrating a specific episode or a moment from the protagonist’s life — are stylistic precursors to some of Khakhar’s best-known paintings, like Man With a Bouquet of Plastic Flowers or You Can’t Please All.
More importantly, however, Khakhar’s sketches and watercolours provide a glimpse into the vastness of his imagination. As we scan through the pieces showcased here — 140 artworks in total, loaned by the Bhupen Khakhar Estate to the National Gallery of Modern Art for a period of five years — we are confronted with a morass of ideas and inspirations that lay behind Khakhar’s prolific career as an artist.
Khakhar’s sketches and watercolours provide a glimpse into the vastness of his imagination. As we scan through the pieces showcased here, we are confronted with a morass of ideas and inspirations.
He seemed to have tried his hand at everything, mastering all forms with equal panache — from hyper-realistic kitsch to abstruse, Russian-inspired abstraction; from landscape to still-life; from modern portraits to Mughal miniatures. The best exhibitions are those that confound our set notions about art, and leave us a little more confused with regard to the “meaning” of an artist’s work, just as the Khakhar show in Delhi, called Many Facets of An Artist, lives up to every last word in its title.
In any case, Khakhar was a human being with many professional and creative facets to his life. Not many people remember today that he once worked as a fulltime chartered accountant — a profession I consider to be the very antithesis of imaginative thought — and came to painting rather late in life, in his mid-30s. He was an aspiring writer, too, and had published a couple of short-story collections in Gujarati. And if that weren’t enough of an outline of a multifaceted and complex personality, Khakhar also co-edited the influential literary journal Vrishchick, with the artist and critic Gulam Mohammed Sheikh.
Khakhar was a professional dabbler, always open to absorbing fresh influences and always open to experiencing something new. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to call him one of our most experimental and original of artists. But it’s the range of his art, in terms of its tone and subject matter, that continues to astound his admirers.
In other words, Khakhar was a professional dabbler, always open to absorbing fresh influences and always open to experiencing something new. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to call him one of our most experimental and original of artists. But it’s the range of his art, in terms of its tone and subject matter, that continues to astound his admirers.
The combination of the high and the low — the sacred and profane, the precious and vulgar — is one of the recurring themes in modern art. And Indian artists, writers and poets from the last five decades have shown a particular proclivity towards exploring this idiom of obvious counterpoints. It becomes most vivid, in Khakhar’s case, looking at his excellently-done promotional posters for Bollywood films. At the present exhibition, one comes across a host of film posters — of Shree 420, Hum Dono, and even some B-grade movies, like Maa Kasam Badla Loonga — created by Khakhar with loving care and attention to detail.
Then, there is the installation piece by him from 1992, called Paan Beedi Shop, which is exactly as is advertised on the label: it is a fully-functional and partially-stocked stall for selling cigarettes (one of the wood panels carries a mural by the artist with accompanying text that reads, “Smoke gets into your eyes”).
A lot has been said about the tragic vision of Bhuphen Khakhar. Those who knew him well, found him to be a suffering soul: circumstances made him suffer, as did his sexual preferences. The allegorical link between desire and suffering is vivid in his late work, founded as it is on the Blakean ideals of sexual innocence as virtue, which equated temptation with ultimate sin, and saw it as a prelude to personal catastrophe. The “dark secret love” of the worm that Blake wrote of, “destroys” the life of the “sick rose”. One of Khakhar’s great subjects is to chronicle the life of this worm, after it has ravished the delicate, unfortunate rose.
You can see shades of guilt in the shadowy faces in most of Khakhar’s portraits. The face is always toned dark or gray or blue or red — fully or partially depending upon the extent to which the rot has set in. In a striking portrait from 2001, called Injured Head of Raju, you can see the shadow of guilt or pain taking a distressingly literal form: you can see blood dripping down and covering this particular face.
Still, to consider Khakhar as an essentially tragic artist is to do him gross injustice, just as calling him a humourist — as the poet Nissim Ezekiel does in his essay on Khakhar — amounts to a limited understanding of his work. The emotional range at Khakhar’s disposal was unbelievably vast, his mastery of different styles and forms was unparalleled, and his position at the topmost rungs of the modernist canon remains unchallenged till date: these are some of the things we are reminded of at the Delhi show, as if a reminder was needed.