Never miss a great news story!
Get instant notifications from Economic Times
AllowNot now

You can switch off notifications anytime using browser settings.

Politics and Nation

Stock Analysis, IPO, Mutual Funds, Bonds & More

When Bhupen Khakhar came out, through me

I was a rookie reporter, he an eminent artist. He decided to talk about being gay at a time when homosexuality was a taboo subject

, ET Bureau|
Sep 08, 2018, 11.00 PM IST
Living independently, free from family pressures, Bhupen blossomed as a person and as an artist. His early paintings depicted the lives of the lower middle class
When I went to interview Bhupen Khakhar at his home in Baroda in 1992, the internet didn’t exist and there was no option of doing a Google search before I met him. I had no idea he was gay. So it was a revelation when the conversation veered to the topic of his sexuality and how it had influenced his work.

Bhupen wanted to talk about it at length and as a rookie reporter, I sensed I was being handed my first big story. At a time when homosexuality was still a taboo subject, one of India’s most distinguished artists was coming out, through me.

Bhupen had always been open about his homosexuality in his work. Paintings like Two Men in Benares, (1985) and Yayati, (1987) were what The Economist calls “explicit depictions of desire,” featuring male nudes in close embrace.

In terms of boldness and originality, these paintings compared with anything that was being produced in the West at that time. British art scholar Timothy Hyman, who wrote a monograph on Bhupen in 1994, says Bhupen’s nudes were a coming out unprecedented in Indian culture: “there are millions of practising homosexuals in the subcontinent, but they leave virtually no trace in film or literature, let alone painting”.

Art critics in India, however, had always glossed over this aspect of Bhupen’s work. “I guess they are embarrassed to ask me about it,” Bhupen told me. “When I bring it up, they change the subject.” Even today, journalists in India have an odd tendency to shy away from the subject.

They speculate about the sexuality of certain prominent public figures in private, but they can’t summon the pluck to ask them directly. As a result, like Bhupen, many of them are unable to unburden themselves, though they may want to.

For Bhupen, growing up gay in Khetwadi, Mumbai, in the 1950s and ’60s was a lonely and frightening experience. “I was the only gay person I knew.

There was absolutely no one to talk to,” he told me. In his 20s, Bhupen was the pride of his family. Having graduated with a degree in commerce from Sydenham College, he had passed the chartered accountancy exams and taken up a job with AF Fergusons in Mumbai.

Like many men with unhappy personal lives, Bhupen wanted to find fulfillment in his work— but accountancy just didn’t make the cut. He had taken a part-time course in painting at the JJ School of Art in Mumbai and at the age of 27, he finally made a break, quitting his job and moving to Baroda to join his friend Ghulam Sheikh at the Baroda School of Fine Arts. His arrival there coincided with the formation of what has come to be called the “Baroda School” of narrative painting.

Living independently, free from family pressures, Bhupen blossomed as a person and as an artist. His early paintings depicted the lives of the lower middle class— tailors, cobblers, watch repairers — with whom he felt a deep empathy. The empathy had a lot do with the gay lifestyle of those times, when barriers of class, caste and religion were broken.

In an era when there were no dating apps, Bhupen had encounters with several men, who, he recalls, “were not educated or from the upper middle class”.

Brian Weinstein, retired professor of political science at Howard University, Washington DC, is a collector Bhupen’s works and knew him well. He says: “Bhupen was always interested in the ordinary, often ‘ugly’ people (he considered himself to be ugly) in his surroundings. He admired their inner beauty, no matter how they appeared to others.”

Bhupen’s later paintings, which were more explicit, once again reflected his sexual preferences, featuring older men, with sagging bodies and white hair. At his house in Baroda, he had a wall full of portraits he had done of former lovers. “Most of them are dead,” he said, with the droll humor I later came to know he was famous for. “It’s hard finding older men at my age.”

Before Bhupen died of prostate cancer in 2003 he produced a series of remarkable paintings during his illness. GayBombay, a cultural organisation, marked his passing in a manner typical of LGBT community worldwide. It dedicated a party to him, with copies of his famous works decorating the walls. It was gratifying to find my old article there.

Two years ago, when Tate Modern, London, had an exhibition of Bhupen’s work, Brian Weinstein sent me an e-mail saying my article was on prominent display at the entrance. It’s been 26 years since I met the artist and wrote the piece. I owe him a debt of gratitude.

Also Read

Bhupen Khakhar’s painting to fetch around $750K in London auction

Bhupen Khakhar's 1980s painting on homosexuality breaks record, sells at $3.2 mn in London

Bhupen Khakhar's 'De-Luxe Tailors' painting sold for 1.1 million pounds

After scathing review, Saffronart’s CEO not impressed with Bhupen Khakhar Tate show

Add Your Comments
Commenting feature is disabled in your country/region.
Download The Economic Times Business News App for the Latest News in Business, Sensex, Stock Market Updates & More.

Other useful Links

Follow us on

Download et app

Copyright © 2019 Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. All rights reserved. For reprint rights: Times Syndication Service