Bhupen Khakhar:  Sexuality and the Self
written by Timothy Hyman


Much of Bhupen Khakhar's life has been shadowed by his sexual identity.  There are certainly several million homosexuals in the subcontinent but until very recently they have left almost no trace on Indian cultural life.  Khakhar, too, kept his sexual life hidden from his family and most of his friends.  "I was very much ashamed of my sexuality.  I never wanted it to be known I was gay.  Up to 1975, I felt that if my friends knew I am gay, I was prepared to commit suicide."  His feelings changed after his visit to England in 1979, where he saw that homosexuality was generally accepted.  Other factors in his decision to come out were his increasingly stable attachment to his friend Vallavbhai; and the death of his mother in 1980 - in itself a severe blow, yet one which allowed him a new freedom of public action.

Khakhar's coming-out in the course of the 1980's was probably the most courageous act of his life, and it may also prove to be one of the most consequential.  He found himself speaking for a class and a world hitherto unregarded, unrecorded.  The most striking change was that his art became explicitly confessional, and as often as not including a self-portrayal - sometimes approaching life-size, and frequently naked.  The naked self of 'You Can't Please All' might sound "self-centered" or "self-important". But in this and subsequent pictures, the self is always juxtaposed to the world; the self interrogates, and is interrogated by, the world.  Here the individual and society are brought together with equal status, and in such a way as to enhance one another's meaning.

Khakhar's sexual encounters were for much of his life with men of his own age or younger, met by chance, perhaps on a single occasion.  It is an episode of this kind that he records in the large canvas, 'Two Men in Banaras.'  This is a divided and double-scaled image:  the lyrical golden landscape, with its sadhus and small shrines among trees (the Ganges flowing round them), set so surprisingly against the two giant men on the left.  They are dramatically lit; a blue and purple margin surrounds them like a dark aureole.  They stand in a naked embrace, their erect penises almost touching.  Significantly, the face of the older man is masked by the dark, urgent profile of the younger.  But we see the back of the head, whose white hair and elephantine ear are unmistakably Khakhar's own.  The image conjoins genital excitement and a religious setting; the sexual is located in the sacred.  This "religious" sense of sexuality becomes more evident in his devotion to elderly men.  Khakhar himself refers to such relationships as "compulsive" and "obsessional", but their outward character is more like the service of a chela, all tender companionship and gentle affectionate sympathy.

A key image is 'Seva'.  It tells explicitly of the relationship between master and disciple, through the medium of touch - the grasping of the leg.  The surrounding element - the women waiting for their separate darshan, the nocturnal world beyond - are extinguished by this numinous enactment; the light which fills the two profiles creates, a moment of revelatory stillness.  What passes between them is both a surrender, and a bestowal of power; this passing of energy is conveyed by a sort of bafflement on the face of the master.  The image marvelously embodies Khakhar's own transaction with his older partners.  Throughout the 1980's, the loved one whose features constantly recur is Vallavbhai, a retired building contractor whom Khakhar first met in 1965, but came to know well only a decade or so later. 'Man Wearing Red Scarf' is the wonderfully hieratic icon of Vallavbhai's severe, pursed almost puritanical profile.  'My Dear Friend' presents them joyously together under a quilt, the bespectacled Khakhar gazing raptly at the other's somewhat skeletal features.  Below their upper room (cut-away, so that it resembles the simple cowshed of a Christian nativity) one sees the various activities of a typical Khakhar town.  But on the roof are two male figures, who spy down upon the lovers - and whose gossip will have to be faced.

Khakhar's strange sexual predicament is made most explicit in 'Yayati', whose ostensible theme is a myth from the Mahabharata:  the king who, rather than grow old and impotent, asks his son to give him his youth.  But before this theme crystallized, Khakhar had been working on a sequence of a science-fiction drawings; a man sitting on a verandah, visited by a winged figure, "a being from outer space".  The first impact is of an enormous vertical plane of flat pink.  (Only on closer scrutiny does one perceive its constant modulation from alizarin through orange to purest rose.)  This radiance creates a world with its own laws,  where the winged figure's green and purple skin becomes credible, almost inevitable - the raising of the color key in itself the metaphor for the miraculous experience.  These near-life size figures could appear schematic or blank, were it not for the sudden shift of scale and direction at the top, into the landscape strip which locks the image into place.  Held within this tension, the figures act out their astonishing story:  a self-portrait as angel glides erect into the embrace of a man almost dead.

Khakhar acknowledges that 'Yayati' is "about me" and that the prince/angel is recognizably a self.  Yet at 53, Khakhar already has felt (and in Indian terms was) elderly.  He suffered from a "loss of vitality".  "I thought for some time that my sex life was over.  The response of another person becomes vital...In the beginning, the title was Touch.  It is through the caresses of young men that old men get vitality". The image turns out to be not so easily reducible; it may embody the gift of youth to age but also the artist's own awareness of aging.  Above all, perhaps, it celebrates the energies and illuminations detonated in sexual intimacy.  Each of these images has dealt with two men, held in balance.  It might be argued that each depicts a special kind of relationship and bond, which avoids polarization, and is not available within heterosexual relations.  In this sense, the way the figures relate within the picture, their gestures and their posture, is specifically homosexual.  Remarkably, Khakhar has created a new homosexual iconography, neither salacious nor voyeuristic, but embodying his own struggle to find freedom and autonomy within a sexual relationship.

From this point on, much of Khakhar's work will be, in one way or another, fantasy.  As Khakhar explains, "with old people, whose sexual capacity has withered, fantasy plays a greater role".  But his pleasure in painting has always involved, he says, a "fetishist" dimension (for instance, of representing the clothes of the beloved).  And thus, in many works, "the act of painting turned into the act of making love".  'Yayati' preserves some of the "popular" character of Khakhar's earlier work, and its poster-like design still recalls the earlier work of David Hockney.  The same graphic formality is present, his increasingly large-scale figures set against flat fields of bright color, enclosed within a painted frame.  It is almost as though Khakhar's white-haired professional took up where Hockney's Californian beach boys left off.  But whereas the youthful Hockney never lost his irony, Khakhar is now in earnest.  He defines their essential difference in terms of Christian and Hindu  attitudes to sex:  "Hockney is concerned with physical beauty.  I am much more concerned with other aspects, like warmth, pity, vulnerability, touch...."

Should one distinguish between such visionary works and Khakhar's jollier homosexual "romps" or "frolics", such as the beautiful 'In a Boat'. The large squarish etchings made in Baroda shortly after are "fantasies" in a more relaxed sense than 'Yayati'.  Their flat tonal aquatint creates grandly monumental shapes, so that each image holds the wall with exceptional authority. Figures entwine under water, or from a small standing man, a thread of urine emerges, and the trickle becomes a river.  'Intimacy' is as simultaneously blatant and hidden as Poe's 'The Purloined Letter'.  The white shape that presses in from the top left corner makes such an enormous inroad that we only slowly identify it as belly, thigh, phallus.  (Khakhar deliberately made the other man's smiling profile darker, "so as to bring out the white."  When the image is resolved (when we see, literally under his  nose, the dark shaft of the penis, and it's white glans) it's a shocking double take.  But the white shape registers also as heat; the sense here is of indolent eroticism in full sunlight, of wanton open-eyed enjoyment.  This fellatio is about to take place by the water's edge, with a small temple close by; Khakhar seem to associate sex with water and often, with lush vegetation. 'Green Landscape' is an intimate reverie.  Out of the black ground, a whole world of remembered or imagined sexual encounters has emerged:  fragments of kissing, watching, displaying, idylls at a fountain, in a hut, under a tree.  Perhaps we also recognize Khakhar's own bespectacled self-portrait.  But all converge into the central green area, so that the picture becomes a kind of half-abstracted essence of all those hill-stations, tropical beaches and river banks which are the locales of Khakhar's dalliances.

'Gallery of Rogues' is likewise, as Khakhar puts it, "memory lane."  The composite structure is a makeshift altarpiece to bring together "all the people with whom I had relations, who I remember...Quite many people!  I'm not sexually active as I was, but one remembers...." Among this collection, one makes out an exceptionally tough, hard-nosed and shift version of the self.  Khakhar would never separate himself from the rogues.


Timothy Hyman is an English painter and writer who has visited and lectured in India often over the past twenty years. He has published several essays on contemporary Indian art, and is a frequent contributor to The Times Literary Supplement, London Magazine, Artscribe and Modern Painters.  In 1998, his monograph on Bonnard was published by Thames and Hudsen. Mr. Hyman first met Bhupen Khakhar in 1976. This exhibition was based upon 'Sexuality and the Self, (1981-95)' originally published in Bhupen Khakhar, by Timothy Hyman. First published in India by Chemould Publications and Arts, Bombay, 1998. Distributed in North America by Antique Collectors' Club.  

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