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
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.