The Groundbreaking Life and Works of Bhupen Khakhar

The Groundbreaking Life and Works of Bhupen Khakhar

As several works from the Estate of Bhupen Khakhar come to auction in Sotheby’s Boundless: India sale, we take a closer look at the life of this much-celebrated Indian artist.
As several works from the Estate of Bhupen Khakhar come to auction in Sotheby’s Boundless: India sale, we take a closer look at the life of this much-celebrated Indian artist.

W ithin his career and thereafter, Bhupen Khakhar has received the most international and highly regarded institutional attention of any Indian artist. He was the first artist of Indian origin to be selected for Documenta IX in Kassel back in 1992, and has been exhibited at illustrious venues across the world, including the Tate Modern, London, the Centre Pompidou, Paris, the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, and The Museo Nacional Centre de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid. Now, a selection of works from the Estate of Bhupen Khakhar are being offered in Sotheby’s Boundless: India sale on 15 November in Mumbai.

Bhupen Khakhar, circa early 1970s. Image courtesy the Estate of Bhupen Khakhar

Born in 1934 into a middle-class Gujarati family, Khakhar first trained as a chartered accountant in Bombay. He moved to Baroda in 1962, where he chose a new career path as a writer and an artist, liberating himself from family pressures. Largely self-taught, Khakhar was encouraged by his friend Gulamohammed Sheikh to join the Faculty of Fine Arts at Baroda. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Khakhar had been uninspired by his time at the famous J. J. School of Art in Bombay. By contrast, Baroda’s Faculty of Fine Arts was a breath of fresh air for the artist – it was new, it was contemporary, and it was in this atmosphere of free thought that Khakhar thrived.

In 1976, through a cultural exchange programme, Khakhar made his first trip abroad. He travelled to the USSR, Yugoslavia, Italy and the United Kingdom. In the UK, Khakhar stayed with his mentor and close friend, the British artist, Sir Howard Hodgkin, who he had met at the 2nd Triennale of India in 1972. In an interview for Khakhar’s Tate retrospective in 2016, Hodgkin reminisced, ‘…during my visit [in India] I went to see the art critic and curator Geeta Kapur, who I knew slightly. She asked me what I thought of the exhibition. I told her I thought it was all rubbish – except for three pictures. She said: ‘That’s very interesting; the painter who did them is standing right here.’ That was how I met Bhupen.”

Artists Bhupen Khakhar and Howard Hodgkin at Hodgkin’s home in Wiltshire, circa late 1970s
Bhupen Khakhar and Howard Hodgkin at Hodgkin’s home, Wiltshire, circa late 1970s

In 1979, he returned to the UK, this time as an artist-in-residence at the Bath Academy of Art in Corsham. Khakhar lived with Hodgkin again, this time for six months, teaching at Bath once a week. This time in the UK was transformative for Khakhar. In England in the 1970s, he bore witness to the increasing acceptance of homosexuality, which had been legalised the decade before. Moreover, being exposed to and interacting with artists such as Hodgkin and David Hockney, gave him the much-needed freedom for which he had yearned. This period also coincided with the death of his mother in 1980, which allowed him a new freedom. Together, these aspects facilitated what has been termed as his 'coming out of the closet'. He declared his homosexuality, something which he had only hinted at before. This was to become the hallmark of the next phase in his artistic production, an autobiographical chapter that made him the first Indian artist to freely disclose his sexual orientation through his work.

"Through the innumerable changes of oeuvres between those first collages and the present [1995] "confessionals"; through the various avatars as collagist, neo-miniaturist in the '60s, diarist of the demeaned in the '70s, painter of the narrative in the '80s, gay icon of the '90s; through all the aspersion, appreciation, rejection, acceptance, pannings, panegyrics, Khakhar… has remained unapologetic."
S. Mehra, ‘An Accountant Of Alternate Reality,’ Outlook India, 13 December 1995

Sotheby’s has been privileged in selling several seminal works by Khakhar in the past decade. In 2017, Sotheby’s set a world auction record for the artist with the sale of his 1972 ‘Trade’ painting, De-Luxe Tailors. The work sold for in excess of $1.4 million, in the estate sale of Khakhar’s life-long friend, Hodgkin, who had been gifted the work by the artist in the 1970s. In June of this year, Sotheby’s broke this auction record with one of Khakhar’s iconic ‘coming out’ paintings, the monumental Two Men in Benares (1982). The work had been in the collection of Swiss collectors, Guy and Helen Barbier, for over three decades, and sold for over $3 million.

Artist Bhupen Khakhar painting in his studio in Mumbai in 1998
Bhupen Khakhar in his studio, reproduced from T. Hyman, Bhupen Khakhar, Chemould Publications and Arts, Bombay, 1998

Now, Sotheby’s is honoured to present a selection of works by Bhupen Khakhar from the Estate of the artist. Ranging from watercolour to oil, collage to ceramic, and even including a pair of hand-painted armchairs, these artworks showcase the diversity of Bhupen’s artistic practice.

The lots are led by one of the artist’s rare and early landscapes, the ethereal Tiger and Stag (1970), which was last seen at Tate Modern’s landmark retrospective on Khakhar in 2016, You Can’t Please All. The painting presents a tiger attacking a stag before an expanse of rolling hills, a clump of thick and luscious vegetation, and a rose-tinted mystical cityscape. Tiger and Stag exhibits both Khakhar’s proclivity towards the foliage, verdant imagery and flat picture planes of Indian miniature painting, and his passionate identification with the French Naïve painter, Henri Rousseau.

Other works in the sale include a vibrant collage from 1965, Interior of a Hindu House No. 1. Collages were among the first works of art that Khakhar produced, and despite their early significance, they remain his rarest art form. The work reflects the vibrant colours and bold imagery that Khakhar observed in the bustling bazaars of Baroda, whilst also manifesting the radical vision of the Western ‘Pop’ movement to which he had been introduced by British artist, Jim Donovan.

Four beautiful watercolours are also coming up for sale, including the vast preparatory study for Khakhar’s seminal oil painting The Celebration of Guru Jayanti (1980). This latter canvas, the colourful vignettes of which took almost eight months to complete, has tragically been lost. The exquisite brush and ink study being offered in the sale is therefore of immense consequence to Khakhar’s surviving body of work.

As with all Bhupen Khakhar’s works, these lots from the Estate of the artist are the product of an assured artist doing exactly what he liked – depicting the mundane with the imaginary, the sacred with the profane, to weave an idiom, unambiguously his own.

Indian & South Asian Modern & Contemporary Art

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