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Indian & South Asian Modern & Contemporary Art

Bhupen Khakhar's Courageous Work, 'Two Men In Benares'

By Timothy Hyman RA
Sotheby's upcoming sale, Coups de Coeur: The Guy and Helen Barbier Family Collection on 10 June sees one of Bhupen Khakar's most important paintings brought to auction.

A lways recognised as one of Khakhar’s most important paintings, this divided and double-scaled image has become something of an icon for gay culture far beyond India. Within its almost six-foot square expanse, a lyrical, golden, map-like landscape, with sadhus and small shrines among trees, is surprisingly juxtaposed against the two giant lovers: the Sexual is located in the Sacred.

Two Men in Benares (1982) is the most explicit of what the artist himself called his "efforts to come-out in open", and to create a new iconography of homosexual love, consciously very different from that of David Hockney: "Hockney is concerned with physical beauty – I am much more concerned with other aspects, like warmth, pity, vulnerability, touch." (Khakhar in conversation to the author, 1994).

It had taken Khakhar nearly fifty years to make such a public declaration. His early life had been shadowed by his sexual secrecy. There were certainly several million homosexuals active in the Indian subcontinent, but they had left scarcely any trace on Indian cultural life, remaining in the 1960s and 70s invisible, even in films and novels. Khakhar kept his sexual life hidden from his family and most of his friends. As he would recall in 1995:

‘I told lies. 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…’ (T. Hyman, Bhupen Khakhar, Mapin, Ahmedabad, India, 1998, p. 68. This is an extract from a long written interview conducted by Hyman in 1995.)

installation shot of the Bhupen Khakhar exhibition in Tate Modern called 'You Can't Please All' from June 1 to November 6, 2016
Two Men in Benares on view in You Can't Please All, Tate Modern, London, 2016 / © Tate, London, 2019
Khakhar, Bhupen/Tate / Tate Images

In the 1980s, after the death of his mother, and after several months in England, based in the house of his painter-friend Howard Hodgkin, Khakhar’s newly-liberated sexual imagery began to take shape. In the medium-sized city of Baroda, his undemanding job each morning as a factory accountant left the afternoon and evening free for painting; and it had conferred on Khakhar a reassuringly humdrum camouflage for his neighbours. His painter-comrade GM Sheikh has recalled the strangeness of Khakhar’s having painted Two Men in Benares, ‘in his open-door house in a middle-class neighbourhood…exposed for every passerby to see’. He had taken ‘a great risk’; when the picture was exhibited in Bombay, it was shown ‘only behind closed doors’. (G. Sheikh, ‘Buddy’, Touched by Bhupen, Max Mueller Bhavan and Gallery Mirchandani Steinrucke, Mumbai, 2013, p.159)

In Two Men in Benares, the two nearly life-size figures stand in a naked embrace. They are dramatically lit; a blue and purple margin surrounds them like a dark aureole, and the sense of body temperature drops sharply into blue at their toes. The face of the older man is masked by the dark-bearded profile of the younger, but the white-haired back of his head can be recognised unmistakably as Khakhar’s own. Their body language is powerfully felt, with Khakhar’s hand delicately poised on the stranger’s hip, in contrast to the urgent grasp on and below the shoulder. Their erect penises are almost touching, yet I think the viewer’s response is not pornographic.

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Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Effects of Good Government in the City, 1338 – 1339, Fondazione Musei Senes

Khakhar somehow asserts, both here and in other images, a visionary sexuality purged of obscenity. In his last interview, close to death, he railed against the prevailing Indian repression:

"It is the British Raj and our Victorian inheritance that has made us timid. At a certain stage in our history, the British made us feel ashamed of our sexuality, of our society’s traditionally more open approach to body and sex. This has now made us into a nation of hypocrites." (Khakhar, in interview with S. Menon, ‘When I’m Telling The Truth There’s No Restraint’, The Hindu, 14th September 2003, rpt. C. Dercon and N. Raza ed., Bhupen Khakhar: You Can’t Please All, Tate Enterprises Ltd., London, 2016, pp. 166-168)

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Timothy Hyman, Bhupen Khakhar, Pencil on paper, 1981 / Inscribed “For Dear Bhupen – With Love from Tim / Baroda 1981” / Reproduced from T. Hyman, Bhupen Khakhar, Chemould Publications and Arts, 1998

Khakhar’s Benares/Varanasi is not the familiar, crowded holy-city of stepped temples and ghats, but a quasi-pastoral river bank, peopled with miniaturised holy men; one of the devotees prostrates himself before the black stone phallus of a Shiva-lingam. The Ganges flows peacefully below and around the lovers. A lifelong Gandhian, Khakhar sets out to depict the naked world of love, stripped of all caste or hierarchy, as is the grey, ash-smeared ascetic kneeling naked before his trident at lower-right.

The critic Geeta Kapur asked why Khakhar’s "staging of male sexuality is so often within a religious setting?" Shortly after his death, she wrote of ‘Saint Bhupen’, invoking Sartre’s canonization of ‘Saint’ Genet; "an irreversible overlap between homosexuality and sainthood". (G. Kapur, Saint Bhupen – an essay first written for the Bhupen Khakhar retrospective at Reina Sofia, Madrid, 2002; rpt. ‘Bhupen Khakhar Among Friends’, Museum Gallery and Gallery Chemould, Mumbai, 2005, pp. 4-11)

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Timothy Hyman, Bhupen Khakhar and T. Richard Blurton, 1998 / Image courtesy Brian Weinstein

Through the power and truth of his confession – as well as the beauty of his art – the sexual transgressor can become exemplary and even ‘holy’ within his culture.

When Julian Bell, near the end of his fine world-history of art, Mirror of The World, selected Two Men in Benares as one of very few late twentieth century paintings to be illustrated, it was not as gay icon but above all for Khakhar’s "vision of the flow of humanity and landscape behind the lovers." He pointed to Khakhar’s long-standing inspiration from fourteenth century Sienese painting, especially in Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s panoramic fresco of The Well-Governed City. He sees both Khakhar and Lorenzetti as exemplary for the new, post-formalist painters of the twenty-first century – painters who will now enact a "return to their one-time role, as creators of communal imaginative space." (J. Bell, Mirror of The World: A New History of Art, Thames and Hudson, London and New York, 2007, p. 449)

The painter and writer Timothy Hyman first met Khakhar in 1976, and remained a close friend; his pioneering monograph, Bhupen Khakhar, was published in 1998. His monographs on Bonnard (1998) and Sienese Painting (2003) are included in The World of Art series; in 2016 Thames and Hudson also brought out Hyman’s magnum opus, The World New Made: Figurative Painting in the Twentieth Century, including a section on Khakhar. Timothy Hyman was trained as a painter at The Slade; as well as ten London solo exhibitions, he has shown widely and internationally, and his work is in many public collections. He was elected a Royal Academician in 2011.

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