Who is Bhupen Khakhar?

Black and white photograph of artist from above as he sits on the floor and draws a palm tree onto a board

Who is he?

Bhupen Khakhar is an Indian artist who is best known for his paintings, but also experimented with installations, glass-painting, ceramics and writing.  He worked as a chartered accountant for many years before becoming an artist.

His career change was partly thanks to meeting the poet and painter Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh in 1958. Sheikh encouraged Khakhar to attend Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda and introduced him to many people who Khakhar would later collaborate with. As a result Khakhar became a core figure in the Baroda School; a group of figurative painters who were influential around that time.

Although self-taught, Khakhar’s artworks are sophisticated, painted with vibrant oil, gouache or watercolour and containing imaginative and deeply personal references. Khakhar has often been linked to the Pop Art movement and parallels have been drawn with the work of David Hockney.

The artist’s work celebrated the day to day struggles of India’s common man… and revealed a talent for seeing the intriguing within the mundane.
Timothy Hyman, Bhupen Khakhar, A Retrospective, 2003

Painting called 'American Survey Officer' consiting of three men standing and chatting at the bottom of a tropical jungle scene

Bhupen Khakhar
American Survey Officer 1969
Kiran Nadar Museum of Art 

How did his sexuality influence his work?

Khakhar openly explored his sexuality within his work, touching on the personal and cultural implications of same-sex intimacy within Indian society. He often included himself in these amorous or contemplative scenes. The autobiographical element of his work is a starkly honest act of confession, which can be both provocative and moving.  

What are his key works?

Bhupen Khakhar, ‘You Can’t Please All’ 1981
Bhupen Khakhar
You Can’t Please All 1981
Tate
© Bhupen Khakhar

You Can’t Please All (1981) was named Khakhar’s ‘coming out painting’, by his contemporary Timothy Hyman. The painting depicts Khakhar on his balcony, naked, watching an ancient fable be re-enacted before his eyes. The fable tells of a father and son taking their donkey to market. As they take turns riding the donkey, passers by comment on who is riding. ‘The father is old so he should ride’, say some, whilst others complain the father is heavy and will overload the donkey. The story is concluded with the fathers refrain “Please all, and you will please none!” For Khakhar this tale reflected his own desire to accept his identity.

Yayati (1987) is another open display of sexuality. It follows the myth of an old king who asks his son to give him his youth. Khakhar transforms this tale to depict an aged man who receives a new lease of life from his young angelic lover.

Over the next two decades [since You Can’t Please All), Khakhar would create the most challenging gay iconography of our time, in which the sexual and the sacred are often conjoined. 
Timothy Hyman, The Independent, 2003

Man with a Bouquet of Plastic Flowers (1976) is a scene of solitude, with a clearly divided composition. The central character is serious, or perhaps melancholy, with the characteristic stiff posture of many of Khakhar’s figures. The anonymous man is placed within the context of Indian ‘calendar prints’ which usually featured famous politicians. Instead of scenes of glory or admiration, this man is surrounded by empty interiors and underwhelming domestic scenes.

Through strongly identifying with his subjects, in paintings such as this, Khakar transforms his artworks into scenes of human fragility and tenderness.

What the critics say…

His paintings were so odd, strange, weird…the formation, the figuration, the subject matter, the colours… everything the way he saw it was full of humour and wit.
Atul Dodiya at Salon: Art History, Art Basel, 2013

There was a dark side to Bhupen, he did see the emptiness of many peoples lives. 
Timothy Hyman at Salon: Art History, Art Basel, 2013 

Some commentators have suggested that he’s a pop artist – but he’s much more. The strength of his work… is that it’s disruptive and provokes deep questions about society.  
Dr Devika Singh, Smuts Research Fellow at the Centre of South Asian Studies

Painting called 'Night' which shows a series of portrait of men in different panels

Bhupen Khakhar
Night 1996 
Kiran Nadar Museum of Art  

Khakar in quotes…

Everything I see is in connection with the figure.
Interview with Sadanand Menon, The Hindu Magazine, 2003

When I feel I’m telling the truth, then there is no restraint. 
Interview with Sadanand Menon, The Hindu Magazine, 2003

Going to the office for two or three hours gives me the feeling that I have done my duty to society and I feel, now I can go and paint.
The Independent, 2003