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Bhupen Khakhar passes away

Bhupen Khakhar, one of the most significant and controversial contemporary Indian artists, died of prostate cancer on August 8, 2003, he was 69.

Born in 1934, Khakhar took up painting as a career only at the age of 38. Prior to that, he worked as a chartered accountant, but soon gave up the profession since being a chartered accountant was not what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He joined the M.S. University at Baroda to study art criticism and began painting with collages from calendar art. He moved to Baroda in 1962 to join the art criticism course at the Faculty of Fine Arts. It was here that he started painting and became involved with the seminal Narrative Figurative movement. He held his first solo exhibition in Bombay in 1965 and has had fourteen solo shows since, in Mumbai, New Delhi, Baroda, London, Ahmedabad, Amsterdam, Den Haag, Paris and Tokyo.

Khakhar soon received international acclaim. Renowned British artist Howard Hodgkin helped him organize a solo exhibition way back in the 1980s. In 1989, he held his solo exhibition at the World Trade Center in Amsterdam.

Among his inspirations, the painter counts David Hockney, the British master. Like Hockney's work, Khakhar's own initial paintings revolved around the everyday, 'insignificant man' trapped in an unremarkable existence. Khakhar also worked with his contemporaries in Baroda like Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, to evolve a visual language that combined traditional Indian art elements with contemporary themes.

Timothy Hyman, a personal friend of Khakhar's and an artist himself, penned a book that includes a history, an intelligent discussion, and lavish illustrations of the relevant part of Khakhar's work. Hyman, in his biography on Khakhar, titled 'Bhupen Khakhar' says, "he is possibly the most provocative painter in contemporary Indian art." As a reviewer noted: "Bhupen Khakhar has been called the Indian Hockney, but the innate spirituality which saturates the Indian creative raises Khakhar's work to another level making it work for all time. Khakhar's work never suffers so unduly from its innate beauty as Hockney's work can suffer and the end is a joyous celebration, an uplifting experience of successful synthesis color, form, and subject never bogged down by 20th century Western criticism." Bhupen Khakhar's first UK exhibition took place in October 2002. This exhibition showed the development of his work over 30 years as a key narrative painter and one of the most significant and controversial Indian artists of our time. The exhibition presented 35 paintings from the last 30 years, with an emphasis on the works of the 1980s including watercolors, ceramics, sketchbooks and the dramatic large-scale oil paintings.

The BBC commissioned him to paint Salman Rushdie's portrait - a work called "The Moor", the Tate have examples of his work, and he has had gallery shows in the Cork Street area.

Khakhar's early works were strongly influenced by pop art and he drew on posters, collages and street art for inspiration. He had noted: "I was interested in the expressionistic style, which had no wit and humor. Now I am more involved in wit, painting people, and the environment around me." A lot of his work done in the 70's is a depiction of trade, such as paintings of watchmakers, tailors and barbers.

During the 1980s, Bhupen Khakhar came out as a homosexual, and explored this aspect of his life in his work, making him into one of his country's most provocative artists. The artist called this as the "gay period", in which he tried to explore and represent the world of homosexuals as he knew and understood it. First came the small figures of male nudes. The figures got bigger and bigger, then came the solitary large male nudes and then two male nudes together.

His exploration of homosexuality is quite evident in his famous paintings like 'You Can't Please All To Yayati' and 'Two Men in Benares'. The artist then had noted: "I have chosen homo-eroticism as a theme because I am gay. What is happening in India - social rejection - did happen once in countries like USA and Europe. The police in all societies have beaten up gays and lesbians. But now they have been accepted by society. For me, there is nothing unnatural about homosexuality"

Critics say that during his 'gay period', the observations which made Khakhar a chronicler of ordinary beings had been pushed into the background. In contrast, his most recent paintings are more assured, more settled then what he describes as his "gay period'. He was quoted as saying: "I feel much lighter now. My personal tensions have been resolved. At 64, you no longer have the feeling that you will never die. One leaves the ambition to become a great painter and accepts whatever one is. Earlier, I worried all the time about my position as an artist."

His most recent works continued to challenge, showing an increased violence, or social commentary, addressing the tensions between Muslims and Hindus in Gujarat. His canvasses also had Kerala landscapes, a marvelous study of an elephant, a Tamilian dhaba (roadside hotel), boys pouring coffee, religious iconography in everyday life. It's the everyday life that finds its way in his work.

Bhupen Khakhar spent his early life in a one room flat in a Mumbai chawl where he lived amongst the Gujarati community and their lives served him as an inspiration to turn to a writer later. He noted: "I became an ardent observer of the Gujarati community of which I too was a member by birth. I have written my stories and plays in the same hybrid language of Gujarati-Marathi and Hindi. That language came so naturally to me that I never tried to polish it and make it more acceptable to an elite literary crowd. In fact, I have never lived with the elite class. I know their ways of living through my observation. But the enigmas of middle class life are my reality." A chronicler of the more comic aspects of middle class life, its predicaments, its failings, and successes, Bhupen Khakhar has the eye of a satirist - in his writings, as in his world-renowned paintings.

Khakhar's paintings can be found in collections of museums in the West like New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and in several private collectors.

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