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Self-taught, with a language of his own

Bhupen Khakhar, 69, who died of cancer in a Vadodara hospital on Friday evening, began his career in Mumbai as a chartered accountant but by the 70s this self-taught artist had become one of the major forces of contemporary Indian art. He moved to Vadodara in 1962 to join the art criticism course at the faculty of fine arts.

He started painting there and became involved in the narrative figurative movement. Never allowing his lack of formal training to get to him Khakhar had a deadpan humour and his work was characterised by casual draughtsmanship.

Khakhar’s work has been represented in most major galleries and museums in India and abroad, on one occasion teaming up with Salman Rushdie at the Tate Modern in London.

With a mop of white hair and an impish grin, his irreverence, audaciousness and naivete were pitted against the elitist establishment.

Khakhar’s lack of training gave an edge to his work and he was able to evolve his own mode of expression. He plundered the various modes of expression — anything from Indian miniatures to oleographs and kitschy images of deities — to forge a language of his own. He could slip in and out of fantastical settings and real-life situations with ease.

In spite of a certain cheekiness the fears and anxieties that besiege our times found expression in his paintings.

These fears are linked with the homo-eroticism of his work. He often used garish colours but the world he depicts is pervaded by gloom that gave them a certain sense of eerieness and unreality.

He painted human beings in a situation that was often beyond their comprehension.

In the 80s he came out of the closet by depicting self-referential figures. Early in his career he had run into trouble because of his frank depiction of gay situations. He had an eye for detail and was a keen observer of quotidian life.

His work was also a scathing commentary on limited and limiting lives of the petit bourgeois. Relieved by wit and humour though it is, his fiction written in Gujarati, too, conveys his fascination for Gujarati middle-class morality.

Though little is known of his literary work as they are written in the vernacular his play Maujila Manilal has been staged in Mumbai, and Khakhar himself painted the sets for that production.

 

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