A painterly tribute to late Bhupen Khakhar

40 noted Indian painters have come together to pay tribute to Bhupen Khakhar, one of India's most controversial contemporary painters. Known for his wit, sardonic humor and biting social satire, he was also a reputed writer and playwright in Gujarati, with several collections of short stories and two important plays, 'Mojila Manilal' and 'Phoren Soap' to his credit.

Bhupen Khakhar died of cancer on August 8, 2003. 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' had noted, "He is possibly the most provocative painter in contemporary Indian art." The artist's important works comprised 'Janta Watch Repairing', one of his earliest works called 'Devi', 'Yagna' - Marriage, 'Hamam Khana', 'Man With Plastic Flowers', 'Man from Thailand', and 'Gallery of Rogues', among others.

Ironically, the late artist's most important works had seldom been displayed in India, albeit a retrospective of his work was held in Madrid in 2002.In his own lifetime, Khakhar never enjoyed a retrospective his home country. It was after his death that a retrospective of his works was held at NGMA. A spectacular collection of his works collected from abroad and across the country showcased in November 2003 provided an insight into the artist's mindset and philosophy.

Earlier this year, Veer Munshi did a portrait in the Piscean's signature style-and placed next to posters of Michelangelo (the Renaissance painter shares not only Khakhar's sun sign but also his sexual orientation) and Albert Einstein was again a tribute of one-time teacher and then friend Bhupen Khakhar.

The new show at Gallery Tao, Mumbai is another tribute by the art fraternity in recognition of his contribution to contemporary Indian art. The show hosted at Gallery Tao, Mumbai to mark his first death anniversary makes for good viewing. As Kalpana Shah, the brain behind the exhibition, puts it: "The response from artistes across the country is an indication of the love and respect that Bhupen Khakhar enjoys." The show is a part of the gallery's endeavor of showing the timeless great master of modern Indian art.

Several aspects of the late artist's life and work have been touched upon in this show. 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."

Trying to dwell upon the enigmatic Khakhar's inner world, the artists who have contributed to this show include Gulammohammed Sheikh, Indrapramit Roy, Meera Devidayal, Birendra Pani, Vivan Sundaram, Debraj Goswami, Vasudevan Akkitham and Arunanshu Chowdhury among others. Most of works on display are in keeping with the theme of the show. The artists have merged motifs from Khakhar's works with their personal vision. Small-town architecture, shadowed faces, peculiar use of shading, banal aspects of middle class life - the artist brought to his paintings amazing psychological depth with his sense of detail.

There are other related events that will be arranged along with the group show throughout the month. Staged play reading of the first act of Bhupen Khakhar's Gujarati play 'Mojila Manilal' was held. Darshan Jariwala will read the late artist's famous story 'Phoren Soap' translated into English by Naushil Mehta. A 37-minute documentary titled 'Messages From Bhupen Khakhar' by arts council U.K. will also be screened on August 28.

View the artist's catalogue

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