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Figuratively personal

Artist Bhupen Khakhar’s oil paintings were often narrative and autobiographical, with his first exhibited works presenting deities cut from popular prints, glued on mirrors. A review by Aruna Bhowmick

Aruna Bhowmick |

An exhibition from a personal collection of works by Bhupen Khakhar is ongoing at the Swaraj Art Archives, Sector 2, NOIDA. Khakhar was a self-trained artist, and started his career as a painter somewhat late in life.

Concerned with the human body and its identity, his works were mostly figurative in nature. A self-professed homosexual, the problem of gender definitions and gender identity are major themes of his work. His paintings often contained learned references to Indian mythology and mythological themes.

The youngest of four children, Khakhar was born in Bombay and spent his boyhood in Khetwadi with his parents and three siblings. His father, Parmanand, an engineer and external examiner at VJTI Matunga, drank heavily and died when Bhupen was only four years old.

His mother Mahalaxmi, a housewife, soon invested all her hopes in her youngest child. The Khakhars were originally artisans from the Portuguese colony of Diu. At home they spoke Gujarati, Marathi and Hindi, and not much English.

Bhupen was the first of his family to attend University at Bombay, attaining a BA with Economics and Political Science, and at his family’s behest went on to take a Bachelor’s in Commerce, qualifying as a Chartered Accountant.


Khakhar worked as an accountant for many years in Baroda, pursuing his artistic inclinations in his free time. He also became well versed in Hindi mythology and literature, and well informed about the visual arts.

Meeting the young Gujarati poet and painter Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh in 1958 came as the turning point, as Sheikh impressed by Khakhar’s latent interest in art encouraged him to come to the newly founded Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda.

Khakhar’s oil paintings were often narrative and autobiographical, with his first exhibited works presenting deities cut from popular prints, glued on mirrors, supplemented by graffiti and gestural marks. He began to mount solo exhibitions as early as 1965.

Though the artist had been largely self-taught, his work soon garnered attention and critical praise. By the 1980s Khakhar was enjoying solo shows in places spread over London, Berlin, Amsterdam and Tokyo. The artist’s work celebrated day to day struggles of India’s common man.

Khakhar’s early paintings depicted average people, such as the barber, the watch repairman, and even an assistant accountant with whom he worked.

The painter took special care to reproduce the environments of small Indian shops in these paintings, and revealed a talent for seeing the intriguing within the mundane. Khakhar’s often openly homosexual themes attracted special notice.

Homosexuality was something that at the time was rarely addressed in India. The artist explored his own homosexuality in extremely personal ways, touching upon both its cultural implications and its amorous and erotic manifestations.


Khakhar painted homosexual love, life, and encounters from a distinctively Indian perspective. In the 1990s Khakhar began experimenting more with watercolours and grew increasingly confident in both expression and technique.

Portrayed as “the accountant” in Salman Rushdie;s novel The Moor’s Last Sigh, Khakhar returned the favour by later making a portrait of the author that he called The Moor, which is now housed in London’s National Portrait Gallery.

In You Can’t Please All (1981; London, Knoedler’s) a life-size naked figure, a self-portrait, watches from a balcony, as father, son and donkey enact an ancient fable, winding through the townscape in continuous narration.

Khakhar is honoured with the Prince Claus Award at the Royal Palace of Amsterdam. The Asian Council’s Starr Foundation Fellowship, 1986, and the prestigious Padma Shri in 1984.

His works are to be found in the collections of the British Museum, The Tate Gallery, London and The Museum of Modern Art, New York, among others.The exhibition commenced on 11 March to continue till the 15 April at Swaraj Art Archives, D-85, Sector 2, NOIDA.