essay VISUAL ART

Openly In Total

Bhupen Khakhar’s experiments with truth

By NAKUL KRISHNA | 1 November 2016

A MAN AND HIS SON were walking alongside their donkey, on the way to the market: so begins one of Aesop’s fables. “Fools,” muttered a passer-by. “What’s a donkey for if not to ride on?” Of course, thought the old man, and put his son on the donkey. “There goes a callous lad,” muttered another, “riding while his poor father walks.” The boy guiltily got off and let his father ride the donkey. “What a lazy man,” said yet another, “riding while his little son trudges along!” So the boy got on the donkey as well. “Poor, overloaded donkey,” said someone, “carrying a grown man and his hulking son.”

There was nothing else for it. Man and son both got off, tied the donkey’s feet to a pole and resolved to carry it all the way to market, to the laughter of bystanders. As they were walking over a bridge, the uncomfortable donkey managed to get one of his feet loose and kicked out. The boy dropped his end of the stick; the father lost his balance; the donkey, fore-feet still bound, fell headlong into the river and drowned. Try to please all, said a watching wise guy, and you’ll please no one.

You could call that the moral of the story. It’s really an anti-moral, if anything. It is certainly a good rebuke to certain sorts of morality, the ones that hear the voice of judgment in neighbours’ murmurs. But the fable points to something deeper and more radical than that. The muttering passers-by are not exactly wrong. Each possible arrangement of man, boy and donkey will seem unsatisfactory to somebody. The fantasy of a possible arrangement where everyone gets what they want is just that: a fantasy.

You Can’t Please All, the fine new retrospective of Bhupen Khakhar’s art at the Tate Modern in London, which comes with a superb hardback catalogue featuring reproductions of his paintings along with photographs from his life and some excellent critical essays, gets its name from his take on this fable. Scenes from the fable of the donkey occupy one half of his canvas, roughly in the style of one of the several paintings of the Sienese school in medieval Italy, which dealt with episodes from the life of Christ. Khakhar knew what the European “old masters” knew, as WH Auden memorably put it—that extraordinary and horrible things all take place “while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” The episodes of the fable are only one of many things going on in what could be any small town in Gujarat. The other half of the canvas is given to a naked man with (more or less) Khakhar’s face, watching the fable unfold from his balcony.

What is the naked man on the balcony thinking? He could be one more moralising bystander, or more likely, a stand-in for both us and the painter, who have watched the scene unfold and must now decide what to make of it. The title Khakhar gave to the painting takes Aesop’s message at face value. But what is it to live in the light of the belief that “you can’t please all”? Khakhar’s life and his art point towards some possible answers.

The Tate’s exhibition features a short film from 1983 where Khakhar talks about his life and art. “In life,” he says, “we all the time make social adjustments to please people around us. We forget our duty towards ourselves. What we should do in art and life is do exactly what one likes.” This can sound on first reading like a merely selfish remark, but every single thing we know about Khakhar tells against this reading.

To “do exactly what one likes” can mean any number of things; it depends, obviously enough, on what one likes, and finding out what one likes can be the business of a lifetime’s reflection. “We forget our duty towards ourselves,” Khakhar says, choosing his words carefully. Duty, as he sees it, isn’t imposed on one from the outside—by society or the gods. Duty, in Khakhar’s idiolect, is a word for what one most fundamentally needs, an imperative that comes from the deepest self. It is not an ought, but a must. It can be destructive—as, indeed, can morality—but it needn’t be. Nor need it be selfish or callous to acknowledge the proper claims of the self. There is a place between selfishness and martyrdom, and much of human life is lived in it. All of Khakhar’s art—perhaps most good art—depicts that place.

AFTER SOME BRIEF SUCCESS as an accountant in Bombay, Khakhar—moved by some combination of artistic impulse and the need for freedom from his middle-class Gujarati family—went in 1962 to Baroda’s Maharaja Sayajirao University. In Baroda, where he would spend a good part of his life, he came into the orbit of the artist and critic Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, finding among Sheikh’s associates in the smaller city—paradoxically—a community of peers and the artistic freedom denied him in Bombay, too full of people who knew his mother. “I wanted a complete freedom,” he said in one interview quoted in the exhibition catalogue. “At the back of my mind, it also must be my gay attitude.”

The house he built himself—all sharp angles and primary colours—was named “Paramanand,” after his father, but with a tip of the hat to the word’s literal meaning: the highest bliss. “No private corners,” he once declared, committing himself to an ideal of “living openly in total.” The inversion of the more idiomatic “totally in the open” is a characteristic Khakharism: he was fluently, sometimes intentionally, subversive of the rules of the traditional English idiom, as he was of principles of good taste. Paramanand would be transformed nightly, Sheikh remembered, “into a party zone.” Khakhar was a prankster, always poised on the punchline of a joke.

But unlike other outliers who move away from their families for their art, Khakhar never quite lost his solidarity with the milieu of his childhood. As the critic Geeta Kapur, a friend of Khakhar’s and an early admirer of his work, puts it, he instinctively identified “with the petty bourgeois.” In this, he placed himself at odds with the strand of modernism in Indian painting represented by the Progressive school of MF Husain and Francis Newton Souza, with their love for the abstract, archetypal and mythic. A revolt against orthodoxy in its day, the Progressive strand of artistic modernism risked—as is often the way for radical movements of all kinds—turning into an orthodoxy of its own, begging to be challenged by someone with a sense of the artistic possibilities of the almost-kitsch on which the Progressive artists had turned their backs.

In the early 1970s, Khakhar did a set of what critics called “trade paintings.” The paintings depicted a setting he knew well—a world of barbers, tailors and watch repairers, all working in small, stuffy spaces. Khakhar had no nostalgia for this world. He was never tempted to romanticise the simple life of the artisan or, in the manner of a state-approved Soviet artist, to hold up the man at work as the pinnacle of human aspiration. Still, there is no derision for the subjects of these paintings, nothing to suggest that the artist is gazing smugly from his fashionable set at the world he is glad to have left behind.

Khakhar knew his subjects too well, for his own formation had been so much like theirs. But unlike other artists who turn to the world of their unartistic childhoods for their subject matter, Khakhar retained an empathy for his subjects, free of judgment or contempt. His trade paintings did not simply represent the world of safety razors, screwdrivers and sewing machines; they participated in them. They took seriously the claims of the barber and tailor and watch repairman to have an aesthetic of their own, reflected in their choices of furniture, implements and calendars.

The model for the trade paintings was the eighteenth-century “Company School” of Indian painters, commissioned by East India Company officials to capture images of Indian life that could give viewers in faraway Europe some sense of what it was like in the colonies. But Khakhar’s view of Indian life was not that of the native informant explaining things to the visiting anthropologist. His paintings do not explain India; they complicate it. Still, they are—like their eighteenth-century antecedents—full of detail, each one evidently the product of careful observation, thought and attention.

In Barber’s Shop (1973), the floor is a lurid pink, the colour of some cheap tonic for flatulence, while the wall is a greyish green. Against this background, we have the ruddy-faced customer, the respectful barber behind him wielding his spray bottle, and an orange mat on which green letters spell out “Good Luck.” The effect is not one of documentary accuracy—the human faces are painted with scant regard for strict realism. It is, rather, in the phrase of the artist and critic Timothy Hyman, the author of what is still the best monograph on Khakhar, a “compassionate inventory.” It evokes a lifetime of memories of visits to particular barbershops while capturing something deep and general about the experience. You can almost smell that heady mix of talcum powder and disinfectant. After a few minutes in Khakhar’s world, one will never look at a barbershop the same way again.

ONE OF KHAKHAR’S deepest influences, as he repeatedly affirmed, was Mohandas Gandhi. The nature of this influence is not always apparent in his work. He preferred art to politics and disliked using his art as a simple vehicle for political comment. “Direct messages,” he once told an interviewer, “like the slogans on posters, generate paintings that build a singular relationship without bringing up a complex structure.” Further, he lacked the Gandhian veneration for the village; what he called his “gay attitude” would have given him a more pessimistic, and realistic, sense of what village life was like for the nonconformist, than Gandhi ever achieved.

Where Gandhi could be intensely moralistic about drinking and sex—urging married couples to live like brother and sister, for instance, or hoping that prohibition would be the norm in independent India—Khakhar was unbothered. What he took from Gandhi was something deeper, and less overt—namely, an ideal of solidarity with those who suffer. This ideal of Gandhi’s was often at odds with the moralism he himself embraced. Khakhar, unlike Gandhi, took people as they came. So, with the prerogative of the artist, he gave the ideal of solidarity a new and quite un-Gandhian inflexion. As Geeta Kapur puts it, he managed in his art to create “a pragmatic truce with everyday life.” This, she writes, “was Khakhar’s ultimate eccentricity and, after Mahatma Gandhi, his ‘experiment with truth.’”

In Khakhar’s hands, everyday life is evoked with compassion and a sense of imaginative possibility, but without fantasy. His subjects haggle in the marketplace, visit brothels and get drunk; Khakhar did not judge them against any higher standard. He knew too well that even where the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak. And sometimes, the spirit itself is unwilling. You can’t please all.

Along with this ideal of solidarity, Khakhar took as his own a Gandhian ideal of truthfulness that he, like Gandhi’s other followers and indeed Gandhi himself, could never fully live up to. “My aim is not to be consistent with my previous statements,” Gandhi notoriously declared, but “with truth as it may present itself to me at a given moment.” He seemed, as the Marxist historian Perry Anderson remarked, to be claiming “a licence to say whatever he wanted, regardless of what he had said before, whenever he saw fit.”

Anderson may be right to think this an irresponsible attitude in a politician, but there is something to be said for it in the artist. The artist is not, after all, accountable to his audience in the same way as the politician, because he does not wield that sort of power over them, and does not claim that sort of authority. The artist’s claim to authority relies on his audience’s uncoerced response to his art. When Khakhar declared that “what we should do in art and life is do exactly what one likes,” he was saying something that may reasonably be challenged as a claim about life, but is harder to deny as a claim about art.

Of course, in both art and life, this can have consequences. One can be mocked, vilified, or worst of all, ignored. At different stages of his life, Khakhar experienced all three reactions. Gandhi, in his saintly way, tended to belittle the significance of the more ordinary kinds of bad luck to which people are vulnerable—being fired, falling ill, being ignored. For Gandhi, the righteousness of his cause made everything worth it: emaciation, celibacy, imprisonment and the blow of the police lathi. Khakhar did not take so philosophical a view of things. The words “Good Luck” on the orange floormat in his painting of the barbershop were not a cheap joke at the barber’s expense; Khakhar quite possibly saw them as an honest benediction, reflecting something of the attitude towards the ups and downs of every human life that the financially insecure understand better than anyone else.

“I am somewhat of an iconoclast,” Khakhar said in connection with a Gujarati comedy he once wrote, Maujila Manilal. “I have shown”—in the play—“that it rains in the fields of Badman as well as Goodman—the gods don’t make any distinction there. Good deeds don’t get you a place in heaven. The gods decide that—with a roll of the dice.”

Khakhar’s mock-theological language here is decidedly pagan; the gods are plural, given to gambling with the lives of mortals. They are gods, it seems, not because they are good but because they are powerful. There is nothing in Khakhar of Gandhi’s fondness for self-denial. His vision of life was one that acknowledged—as Gandhi for the most part did not—the beauty of the human, particularly the male, body, the goodness of sexual love, and claims of the suffering body to succour.

THE HERO OF JAMES JOYCE’S A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man declares, famously and somewhat grandly, what would become a kind of modernist credo: “I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.” Khakhar moved to Baroda because he wanted “a complete freedom.” Baroda was a form of exile, as were his trips to England, where he discovered its growing, but still secretive, gay scene. “People lived together,” he observed wistfully of those who took advantage of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain, even if social attitudes were slower to shift.

The freedom Khakhar sought—artistic and sexual—produced its own ethical demands. It is one thing to say that one has given up on trying to please all, but to live out this belief proved risky and painful. Though he enjoyed the long winter he spent in England, noting with wry half-approval how much the English, in his words, “appreciate sulk,” he was unwilling to be a lifelong exile there; the country was too in thrall to “middle-class taste,” which meant that his work would have little reach beyond the narrow circle of critics and fellow artists who already admired him.

His 1979 oil on canvas Man in Pub captures something of the loneliness he saw in the people he met outside the art world. The titular man sits in his fur-lined jacket in front of a wall covered in mock-Victorian wallpaper. One hand clutches a glass of some strong spirit, while the other holds a pair of thick dark gloves against his crotch. The painting is middle-class taste, middle-class repression and middle-class loneliness all condensed into one damning image. There is compassion in this painting, and something like solidarity—Khakhar knew loneliness as well as anyone and saw that even bad taste was the taste of real human beings—but he had no wish to live in the world of this painting.

Exile in England, then, was ruled out. But Khakhar was equally unwilling to dissemble as the price of staying in India. The impulse to openness was too strong in him and deception weighed heavily on his Gandhian conscience. It hurt him that he could not count on all his friends being at ease with his sexuality. It took him a long time before he could find it in himself to take a fourth path that Joyce does not mention: courage. In an interview given late in his life, he was gently critical of his younger self:

I did not have the courage to confess I was going to see and meet my boyfriend. … But Gandhi spoke truth; I told lies. He was fearless; I was, and am still, a coward. Now slowly at the age of sixty I have summoned up the courage to speak about my preferences, about my boyfriends.

Khakhar was—like Gandhi—too hard on himself. Despite knowing full well that he could be on his own should the Indian police ever take note of his doings, Khakhar pushed the boundaries of what could be said, or painted, with a combination of recklessness and discretion, perhaps a species of Joycean cunning.

A painting from 1984, In a Boat, is nothing if not brave. It has, as the critic Shanay Jhaveri wrote, “a certain baseness.” There is no concession to the sensibilities of the strait-laced; nothing is prettified. The scene, Jhaveri writes, has the quality of “masquerade, the jolliness of the romp.” Two of the men in the boat embrace, both naked from the waist down. One of them has a cloth draped about his head, perhaps a female impersonation. Others lick their lips, which are painted a striking red, and yet others, most unsettlingly of all, sit fully clothed and watch, or stare into the middle distance.

There are male bodies galore in Khakhar but they are seldom idealised and never simply eroticised. Conventional figures of the beautiful male—the muscled torso in an athletic or militaristic pose—are nowhere to be found. An early painting, done in 1972, Muktibahini Soldier with a Gun, depicts at the centre of a canvas, whose margins house more conventionally martial images (tanks, men in uniform, fighter jets), a soldier from the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1972. Bespectacled, delicate and abnormally pale, clad only in a white vest gone slightly pink from the wash, he looks like an earnest young lecturer captured while dressing for a day at college, except that he holds not a textbook but a gun.

Critics reaching for a familiar comparison have likened Khakhar to the English painter David Hockney. But Khakhar rejected the comparison: “Hockney is concerned with physical beauty. I am much more concerned with other aspects, like warmth, pity, vulnerability, touch.” Where Khakhar’s paintings are sensuous, the sense they evoke is indeed touch, rather than the gaze—an odd effect for a visual artist to strive for. Unlike Gandhi at his most uncompromising, Khakhar never thought of the body, with its pains and needs, as something to conquer or transcend. But like Gandhi, Khakhar’s sympathies were ultimately with those who suffered violence, not those who perpetrate it, and never the muscle-men who sculpt their bodies in unconscious imitation of those who do. The gaze tends to objectify, turning human bodies to patterns, angles, idealised abstractions. Touch, by contrast, tends to humanise, to bring the perceiver into contact with life, texture and imperfection, with bumps and rashes and the rise and fall of breathing.

In his life too, Khakhar was drawn not to the virile but the vulnerable, those whose bodies were marked not by exercise and health but labour and illness. The men to whom he was drawn were, as Jhaveri put it, “older, ageing, amorphous, ambiguous, tortured, gentle, fierce, odd, pained, pallid and frail.” Two men were particularly significant to him in his middle age: Ranchodbhai, an illiterate former porter 20 years older than him, and Shankarbhai, an elderly widower who had lived in East Africa and lost one of his eyes. Both appear as the subjects of paintings—Ranchodbhai Relaxing in Bed from 1977 and Portrait of Shri Shankarbhai V. Patel Near Red Fort from 1971.

In late life, his partner was a man named Vallavbhai Shah, who appears in one of Khakhar’s most mysterious paintings. Yayati, from 1987, takes its cue from the myth of the king and voluptuary who exchanged his age for his son’s youth. In Khakhar’s painting, the young man—who has Khakhar’s face—is an unearthly shade of green and sports an angel’s wings as he descends in a sort of benediction upon the older man—who has Shah’s face. The transfer of youth—rather, relative youth, as Khakhar was already in his fifties at the time—is done by a bumping of genitals. The stereotype of the older man preying upon the younger is gone; the younger man gives fully of himself, bestowing his love in an act of grace.

Sexual desire with Khakhar was almost a counterexample to the thought, to be found in everyone from Immanuel Kant to Gandhi, that sexual desire is intrinsically and necessarily objectifying. Gandhi’s caring, maternal persona seems to have emerged in him as an alternative to the dominating aggression of his early youth, but he thought this persona required absolute celibacy. Khakhar made no arguments against Gandhi’s position. He was a painter who saw things differently and he realised his visions on the canvas, where to desire somebody’s body is not to deny their subjecthood, and the desire for sex is not a desire for violence.

“HOW DO YOU WITHSTAND, BODY?” goes the title of one of Gieve Patel’s best-known poems. Patel, a medical doctor in addition to being, like Khakhar, a Gujarati and an artist, asks a question to which all of Khakhar’s art may be seen as an answer: “How do you withstand, body,/ Destruction repeatedly/ Aimed at you?” The sources of destruction can be, as in the painting of the Muktibahini fighter, war or rioting. More often, the violence has no external source. Khakhar would find in the sufferings of his old age that few things wished the body ill like the body itself.

Khakhar was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the mid 1990s. His illness was long, and the treatment—radiation for his brain, abdomen and genitals—almost as harsh as the illness itself. “Sab abhi mere haath mein se nikal gaya hai” (everything has now got out of my hands), he said in an interview with the critic Sadanand Menon, published in The Hindu in 2003, the year of his death. “It is all in the hands of the … oncologists … I can’t walk, bhai.” Khakhar did not spare his interviewer the quite literally emasculating facts of his condition: “they have removed my testes … The only thing I can feel now is through memory. The drug they give is very strong. You can lose hair and develop breasts.”

The paintings of the 1990s were the finest things Khakhar ever did. Suffering did not deprive him of his sense of humour, but his humour acquired a self-directed sharpness that is almost painful to view. The titles of his late works see Khakhar turning his unidiomatic English, once the basis of an inferiority complex, into a demotic poetry. Some titles, such as Injured Head of Raju and Bullet Shot in the Stomach, both from 2001, have the merciless pith of a newspaper caption.

Some of these paintings face the mortification of his illness squarely, refusing the comforts of euphemism: At the End of the Day, Iron Ingots Came Out is the title of a 1999 painting depicting a man on a chamberpot, intestines captured mid-shit. The 2002 watercolours Birth of a Crocodile and Tree with Flowers Grow from his Arse find even more unnerving visual metaphors for the torture that was his daily bowel movement. He Took Enema Five Times a Day (1999) at least allows Khakhar’s bowels their privacy, but there is no attempt to rescue his own dignity. In Idiot, a watercolour from 2003, a man urinates into his own shoe while another, watching from a chair, laughs uproariously. The image is not funny, and the laughing man only underlines how unfunny it is.

These too are, in their way, Gandhian images, but not in the usual sense. Gandhi was, it’s true, obsessed with bowel movements, but the alimentary canal was for him another laboratory for his experiments in the desiccation of the body and its violent desires. By contrast, Khakhar’s enemas were not part of some misguided regime of personal purification; they were, quite simply, doctor’s orders, and never ceased to be anything but humiliating.

What is Gandhian about these paintings is their straightforward honesty about these truths. An unpleasant, embarrassing experience is depicted with humour and craft but no obfuscation. There is no attempt to turn the body into a symbol of the spirit, to turn pain into metaphor, or to find meaning in what is meaningless.

Throughout his life, Khakhar took what he needed wherever he found it and put it to his own uses: the kitsch of the lower-middle-class drawing room, the expansive narrative canvasses of the Sienese masters, the expressive resources of Indian English, even the indignities of his own final illness. He did this with a fidelity to and love for his subjects and sources unmixed with contempt or ironic detachment. He did not abhor broken things or people, but rather saw that they craved, needed and deserved love. When it was his turn to be sufferer, he extended to himself the same courtesy he had extended to his lovers. He never forgot his duty to himself: to be truthful, even about his frailty. In his last paintings, pain is pain and suffering does not ennoble the sufferer. Sometimes it just hurts, and one owes it to oneself to admit it.

“HOW DO YOU WITHSTAND, BODY?” goes the title of one of Gieve Patel’s best-known poems. Patel, a medical doctor in addition to being, like Khakhar, a Gujarati and an artist, asks a question to which all of Khakhar’s art may be seen as an answer: “How do you withstand, body,/ Destruction repeatedly/ Aimed at you?” The sources of destruction can be, as in the painting of the Muktibahini fighter, war or rioting. More often, the violence has no external source. Khakhar would find in the sufferings of his old age that few things wished the body ill like the body itself.

Khakhar was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the mid 1990s. His illness was long, and the treatment—radiation for his brain, abdomen and genitals—almost as harsh as the illness itself. “Sab abhi mere haath mein se nikal gaya hai” (everything has now got out of my hands), he said in an interview with the critic Sadanand Menon, published in The Hindu in 2003, the year of his death. “It is all in the hands of the … oncologists … I can’t walk, bhai.” Khakhar did not spare his interviewer the quite literally emasculating facts of his condition: “they have removed my testes … The only thing I can feel now is through memory. The drug they give is very strong. You can lose hair and develop breasts.”

The paintings of the 1990s were the finest things Khakhar ever did. Suffering did not deprive him of his sense of humour, but his humour acquired a self-directed sharpness that is almost painful to view. The titles of his late works see Khakhar turning his unidiomatic English, once the basis of an inferiority complex, into a demotic poetry. Some titles, such as Injured Head of Raju and Bullet Shot in the Stomach, both from 2001, have the merciless pith of a newspaper caption.

Some of these paintings face the mortification of his illness squarely, refusing the comforts of euphemism: At the End of the Day, Iron Ingots Came Out is the title of a 1999 painting depicting a man on a chamberpot, intestines captured mid-shit. The 2002 watercolours Birth of a Crocodile and Tree with Flowers Grow from his Arse find even more unnerving visual metaphors for the torture that was his daily bowel movement. He Took Enema Five Times a Day (1999) at least allows Khakhar’s bowels their privacy, but there is no attempt to rescue his own dignity. In Idiot, a watercolour from 2003, a man urinates into his own shoe while another, watching from a chair, laughs uproariously. The image is not funny, and the laughing man only underlines how unfunny it is.

These too are, in their way, Gandhian images, but not in the usual sense. Gandhi was, it’s true, obsessed with bowel movements, but the alimentary canal was for him another laboratory for his experiments in the desiccation of the body and its violent desires. By contrast, Khakhar’s enemas were not part of some misguided regime of personal purification; they were, quite simply, doctor’s orders, and never ceased to be anything but humiliating.

What is Gandhian about these paintings is their straightforward honesty about these truths. An unpleasant, embarrassing experience is depicted with humour and craft but no obfuscation. There is no attempt to turn the body into a symbol of the spirit, to turn pain into metaphor, or to find meaning in what is meaningless.

Throughout his life, Khakhar took what he needed wherever he found it and put it to his own uses: the kitsch of the lower-middle-class drawing room, the expansive narrative canvasses of the Sienese masters, the expressive resources of Indian English, even the indignities of his own final illness. He did this with a fidelity to and love for his subjects and sources unmixed with contempt or ironic detachment. He did not abhor broken things or people, but rather saw that they craved, needed and deserved love. When it was his turn to be sufferer, he extended to himself the same courtesy he had extended to his lovers. He never forgot his duty to himself: to be truthful, even about his frailty. In his last paintings, pain is pain and suffering does not ennoble the sufferer. Sometimes it just hurts, and one owes it to oneself to admit it.

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Nakul Krishna is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Cambridge.

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