March 10, On This Day
Empowerment often owes a kindred debt to the courage of legions, or even individuals, who stood tall against norms years ago and opened up a pathway for the freedoms we enjoy today. One such artist, whose open acceptance of his homosexuality via and beyond his artwork forged brilliant new possibilities for the LGBTQIA community, was Bhupen Khakhar.
Born today but 88 years ago on March 10, 1934, Khakhar was a leading artist in Indian contemporary art and a member of the Baroda Group, gaining global recognition for his fearless oeuvre. Sadly, he passed away at the age of only 69 in 2003.
Khakhar was a self-trained artist, and started his career as a painter relatively late in his life. His works were figurative in nature, concerned with the human body and its identity. An openly gay artist, the problem of gender definitions and gender identity were major themes of his work. His paintings often contained references to Indian mythology and mythological themes.
The artist’s work celebrated the mundane struggles of India’s common man. Khakhar’s early paintings depicted average people, such as the barber, the watch repairman, and even an assistant accountant with whom he worked. The painter took special care to reproduce the environments of small Indian shops in these paintings, and revealed a talent for seeing the intriguing within the quotidian.
Khakhar’s often openly homosexual themes attracted special notice. Homosexuality was something that at the time was rarely addressed in India. Khakhar painted homosexual love, life, and encounters from a distinctively Indian perspective. He explored his own homosexuality in personal ways, via cultural implications and amorous/erotic manifestations.
Khakhar’s work has been compared to that of David Hockney. His friends and contemporaries include painters like Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh and Howard Hodgkin; he also found himself portrayed as “the accountant” in Salman Rushdie’s novel The Moor’s Last Sigh, and reciprocated by later making a portrait of the author that he called The Moor.
You can read Abir Pothi’s previous retrospective dedicated to the artist here.