On his birth week, the Abir Pothi team pays tribute to the artist who had the guts to be what he was before it was fashionable in India
Imagine it is 1981. Less than two years after the first ‘Coming Out Day’ was celebrated by the LGBTQ+ community on October 14, 1979. And you have been a closet homosexual. You have seen how the world treats gays – with disdain and comic cruelty. You are seen as an aberration, less of a human. You are laughed at. You are neither man nor a woman. You are a freak. Sometimes, you even have dirt kicked in your eyes by homophobes. Even your family thinks gays can be “cured”. In fact, they dislike gays. At such a time, you decide to come out and tell the world about your sexual identity. After all, you know that in order to live fully you need to be honest about who you are. That’s where the late Bhupen Khakhar, a self-taught artist of extraordinary vigour, found himself. He was already a celebrated artist by then, and that made his position even more precarious.
Bhupen Khakhar started in journey in art late. He studied the human form and the society that he lives and, often, hides in with insight and humour. After working on his painting ‘You Can’t Please All’ for over five months, he decided it was time to put it out before the world. This would be his “coming out” to the world that he was gay and had openly decided to be so. And he did that via this 69-inches by 69-inches painting at a group show entitled ‘Place for People’. The show went from Bombay to New Delhi in 1981. It was hailed by critics as defining exhibition in Indian art that moved away from symbolic and abstract imagery towards contemporary and personal subjects.
It isn’t just that Khakhar let the picture speak for itself. He elaborated on it later and told the world that the naked man in the picture was actually him. He also added that the picture was about homosexuality. The aesthete that he was, he picked the title from an Aesop’s fable and it hinted at the problems and lack of social acceptance that he faced on account of his sexuality. That one could hate another for what they did in the privacy of their bedroom was to him a monumental example of human ignorance.
The painting now is in the Tate gallery collection. This is what the Tate gallery has to say about this painting, a fresh sensibility in Indian art:
To the right of the painting an almost life-size figure of a naked man leans over a balcony and surveys a townscape below him, which occupies the majority of the composition. The scene is sparsely populated and painted in cool blues, greys and greens which, along with the dark sky in the top left corner and the lights in the windows of the buildings, evoke twilight. Two figures and a donkey can be seen together in three seemingly separate instances, which appear to represent the same characters at different moments in time, implied by the difference in scale between each depiction. Elsewhere a man tends to his car and figures congregate inside homes. The balcony wall on which the naked man leans has a large section cut out of it, which, along with the visible interiors of the houses and the car door flung wide, gives the scene a sense of openness, heightened by the aerial perspective afforded by the view from the balcony. In contrast to the scene below, the building occupied by the naked man is painted in warmer reds and pinks, which serves to magnify the distinction between the private realm of the man’s abode and the public world outside.
The Aesop’s fable from which Khakhar took the title is about a father and son, who take their donkey to the market. As they going, one person asks them why neither of them is riding the donkey. Seeing that it is a logical question, the old man tells his son to sit on the animal. After a while, another person comes along and asks why is it that the young fellow is sitting on the donkey and not the old man. Hearing this, the old man gets on the donkey next to his son. As they are moving on, onlookers start jeering them for overloading the donkey. Confused, the pair then get off the donkey and carry the beast after tying it to a pole. Expectedly, the entire town laughs at them for carrying a donkey. As they are crossing a bridge, the donkey who is obviously uncomfortable, wriggles at the pole. This throws the young boy off and he drops his end of the pole, resulting in the donkey falling off the bridge and into the river, drowning in the process. Another old man, who was following the father and the son, sees this and remarks, “Please all, and you will please none!”
‘You Can’t Please All’ is not just a painting. It is also a document about liberation and a reclaiming of human dignity.