Bhupen Khakhar, 1934-2003, Indian painter

I was recently struck by a news item from the International New York Times. A painting by Bhupen Khakhar had been sold at auction for the price of considerably more than one million dollars. For a tiny fraction of that sum I once bought a gouache of his, then a relatively unknown painter. At the beginning of the millennium he was being discovered. In India his exhibitions were still censored.

He visited my home in Leiden in 2001. I looked into my diary for a note about this visit. I found the following fragment in Dutch, that I translate here.

27 June 2001

The most remarkable thing during the last few days was the unremarkable visit by Bhupen Khakhar, the painter from Baroda, India.

The visit had been prepared by a fax message from India in which he expressed his fear that I would be in Italy in June. He had surprisingly registered my casual mention of half a year ago when we met each other in Delhi. I went there because Prince Claus was unable to give him the award in person. After the fax I could not reach Bhupen again in Baroda to tell him that I would love to see him and would be available. I was told he had gone away to Dubai. In reality he was on family business. After the death of his elder brother, he had – he said with a hesitant laugh – become the head of the family and also the lung cancer of a niece had spread and there were other family matters to be taken care of. With his partner for life, it was also not going well after his partner’s fall on the evening of my first meeting with Bhupen. These worries, and there were more, were presented with fatalistic understatement and afterwards stored under the heading of inevitabilities. No, he was still fond of travelling, his eyes twinkled and his face lit up.

It had been like E. M. Forster’s description of a typical Indian rumpus, this appointment of his to visit me at my home. The wish was his but he preferred to come on Monday. I told him that I was quite ready to put aside two appointments and in this way, our meeting changed to Tuesday morning. Consequently he phoned me several times to reaffirm the appointment for Tuesday morning, but also to shift the hour and amend the circumstances. Finally he decided that he would come on Tuesday morning but only after he had first phoned me. As a result of this precondition, I was already awake at five o’clock in the morning to be at hand for an eventual visit at eight o’clock. I cannot sleep with alarm clocks or deadlines and moreover the evening before had a late and unnecessary meeting in Rotterdam. Towards ten o’clock he phoned me to say that he was now leaving Amsterdam. One and a half hours later when I was getting worried that he had gotten lost, the voice of an Indian lady informed me by phone that he had some business at a exhibition in Amsterdam and would come later. “He will be somewhat late. He has work to do.” I went to sit in the garden, waited, dozed off into a slumber and woke up refreshed. A few moments later an unknown Dutch man rang at the front door with Bhupen standing behind him. This Dutch man informed me that he, with his Indian guests, was on the road to the Breughel exhibition in Rotterdam. Khakhar could only be left with me for one hour, because otherwise the exhibition would close. It was indeed already 2pm. I was neither angry nor disappointed and went to sit with the painter on my garden bench, only six hours too late.

Now there was little time left. We exchanged at high velocity and without much circumspection some secrets of the heart. I asked him if the very uncommon decision to report about his homophile experiences in his paintings was related to the demise of his formidable mother. This was not the case. He was above all prompted by a visit to Europe to no longer hide his gay nature. He had never encountered more tolerance in his circumstances in India than the supposition that he was ill and that a psychiatrist would be able, no, obliged to heal him. He had never been able to live together with his dearest friend. Also, from poverty, Bhupen lived together with some other artists and they did not allow his dearest friend to visit. His dearest friend was an elderly man from a well-to-do community in Africa. Bhupen also could not visit his friend’s home frequently. This friend Shankarbhai died in 1975. Bhupen must have been 42 years of age at that time. He told me that he wept for many days. I told him of my first trip to Italy after Leslie’s death, the first time without Leslie, and how I wept for 1750 km.

Was his work accepted today in India? He doubted that. Not much had changed. Some years ago in Bombay, people had wanted to exhibit a retrospective of his work but without his gay paintings. He said in that case he would decline. “I won but they played a trick on me. I was in Mumbai for three days. These days they exhibited the pictures. When I went, they took them down.” His homoerotic stories. of which he had written two books, are not appreciated too. Having been published in Gujarati, one of them is now being translated into English.

I question him about the great work (Yayati) in which an angel drifts above an old and sick man against a pink background, and the two penises nearly touch each other. He tells me that this goes back to a Vedic tale. A king had three sons and was dying. He entreated his sons to bestow on him their vital energies. Two sons refused. The youngest on the other hand was ready to give his life to his father and even take over his death. Bhupen says “I made this happen by the touching of the two penises.” I asked him about the figure of the angel who is absent in Indian iconography. He said that the angel has become iconic by way of Dutch biblical representations that were imitated in Mogul times. But the angels were always women. Not in Bhupen’s case.

He tells me about the big exhibitions that are in the offing, amongst others in the Reina Sofia of Madrid in the summer of next year. He asks me to be present at the opening.

After his request for wine I pour him the last drops of a half century old bottle of port that I was drinking with so much pleasure two weeks ago together with Bruno Stagno and the two Correas. He was excited by the idea and he enjoyed the drink: “the best I have ever had!”

Bhupen is precise and accurate. He has not forgotten that he has not visited the whole house and that he had not seen his own work. It strikes me that he enters the room without looking at his big painting which is opposite the entrance and that forms the backdrop to the Buddha. Or is he feigning? I don’t believe it. He observes in detail the many other paintings and also the Tibetan tiger tapestry that he appreciates. He is content with the placing of his own painting and he doesn’t object to the fact that the Buddha partly obscures it. I tell him that in the evening light the landscape becomes aglow with a golden hue. He says that this golden glow (notably in the upper part of the painting) also was observable in the landscape of Umbertide when he was painting it.

While we are going to the next floor, the bell rings. We quickly take leave during which I see him suppress a brief movement. He says I have to come to see him in Baroda. I say he will always be welcomed here.

He has told me how difficult it was to paint Rushdie in eight days. I am asking myself how he would paint me. He has an accountant-like objectivity in his reasoning. He only paints with oils in his studio in Baroda because that demands time. On the road, he uses water colours and smaller formats. I ask myself what he has stored in his visual memory about this visit and if it will ever have a consequence.

I would have liked to have shown him the portrait of Leslie and also my water colours on the upper floor. There was also no time to see Walter Nobbe in the Hague who was tackling the same subject but very different from him. Nobbe is all painted surface à la Vermeer.

After Bhupen’s departure I browse a bit in Hyman’s biography of him. Bhupen appears in a few parodistic photographs: already a free man.