Using an oxymoron may be one way to grapple with the world created by Bhupen Khakhar. Compared to its early, relatively uncomplicated years, tenanted as it was by typical small-town men following their humdrum professions, that world has over the last two and a half decades become an increasingly - almost irresistibly - complex, conflicted, even dark. This transformation represents a shift in Bhupen’s gaze from the exterior to the interior. The shift, however, has remained informed by an awareness of the casual inseparability of the exterior and interior. There, as a result, has been a parallel shift, inducing Bhupen to gradually move away from the poignant, direct narrativity still recurs, but it is variously inflected with deeper, elusive suggestions that, we are left in doubt, cannot be subjected to a definite coherence.
I have known Bhupen for long and - as a friend - admired the many striking shifts in his work. Even if I had made the attempt, I could not, as a non-specialist, have found it easy to separate the friend and the art. Yet, there was one moment when the power of his art struck me with a lucidity that could disregard everything I had known about the friends. This happened when I was writing the brochure for a Bhupen show at Mardi Gras, an exhibition of gay artists in Sydney. The title chosen by the organisers for Bhupen’s work was ‘Homoerotic Lyricism from India’. My brief was clear, and in consonance with what I had known about the artist. But as I reflected on the work, it seemed to break out of the frame of homoeroticism. It did so by making its ostensibly homosexual motifs obliterate the binary division between male and female. In spite, as it were, of the artist’s personal sexual preferences, and their intentioned reflection in his art, the work in question had taken a revolutionary leap beyond the sex/gender binaries and, consequently, suggested a radically different understanding of the distinction between homosexuality and heterosexuality.
To have gone beyond the selfsame gay identity for which, initially with pusillanimity and later with with abandon, its creator had sought fulfilment in his work, seems to me among the greatest triumphs of Bhupen’s art.
The move away from binary categories goes beyond the gender divide. Rejecting modern civilisation’s arbitrary anthropocentrism, which makes man the measure of all things, it seeks anew mankind’s intimacy with the world of animals and vegetation. That at least two of the works on display here are subliminally reminiscent of Ajanta and Bosch - both differently emblematic of a long-lost organic harmony among beings and things - bears witness to the venerable, albeit ruptured, genealogy of such a fusional vision.
This vision, significantly, has followed in the wake of an exceptionally black phase in Bhupen’s art. True, the black has not disappeared altogether. But that is a measure of the intractability of the tragic in human life. For long, far too long, had Bhupen transmuted the tragic with his queer humour, before the tragic possessed him completely during the black phase. The present work marks a release from that possession. It displays a tranquility that envisions a new harmony, even as it recognises the pervasiveness of pain, suffering and evil. Hence the ‘tranquil turbulence’ of Bhupen’s art at the moment.
Will the moment be longeval? Given the often dizzying changes in Bhupen’s art, it’s best to leave the question unanswered. Though, a vision such as encapsulated in this moment is unlikely to yield to the worst that might happen in the artist’s personal life or/and in the life of his society, be it post-Godhra Gujarat or post-9/11 wider world. Also, in that it irrevocably alters our ways of seeing Bhupen’s art, the moment is beyond effacement.
This essay appeared in the catalogue, Recent Works By Bhupen Khakhar: Water Colour Exhibition, Sarjan Art Gallery, Baroda, 2003.