On June 10, Bhupen Khakhar’s Two Men in Benaras (1982) sold at Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art sale for Rs 22.39 crore ($3.2 million), setting a new auction record for the artist. Of course, it’s just a co-incidence that June is Pride Month this year, and Two Men in Benaras is considered one of the most important modern South Asian artworks to depict homosexuality, and also that Khakhar was India’s first openly gay artist. Still, the role of this work, and much of Khakhar’s oeuvre, centring around human body, in all its miracles and failings — especially that of the gay Indian man — cannot be overlooked.
Body as icon
As an artist, Khakhar was inclined towards storytelling and the stories that he was most committed to narrating — apart from the autobiographical — sprung from the world around him. Among his early significant works were the ‘Tradesmen’ series, including works such as De-Luxe Tailor (1972) and Janata Watch Repairing (1972). There wasn’t anything glamorous in these works but Khakhar’s commitment was towards telling the stories of anyone, no matter how low they were on the social and economic scale. In the process, he turned the bodies of these ordinary men, earning their daily bread, into icons.
Khakhar had worked out that he was gay fairly early, but it wasn’t until he travelled to the UK in 1979 that he became aware of the gay rights movement. It emboldened him to embrace his identity and, finally, come out of the closet in a work of such spectacular force that, to this day, few other artworks from the subcontinent can match it in raw emotional power. You Can’t Please All (1981) was a work of immense courage, depicting Khakhar’s own nude figure, leaning out over a balcony while below him, Aesop’s fable about how you can never please everyone, unfolds in the figures of an old man, his son and their donkey.
Khakhar never shied away from depicting human frailties, especially his own, in his paintings. With white hair and loose sagging skin, even the artist’s depiction of his own aging body, was unsparing till the end. In Yayati (1987), which shows two male nude figures — one young and one old — he worked out his own anxieties about aging and loss of vitality, while Man with Cataract (1979) is a self-portrait in which arrows in the eyes depict the years of trouble that Khakhar endured due to cataract in both eyes.