Bhupen Khakhar

Artist celebrated for his startling, visionary images of homosexual love
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The Independent Online

Bhupen Khakhar, painter: born Bombay 10 March 1934; died Baroda, India 8 August 2003.

A man of exceptional courage and generosity, of radiant charm and mischievous humour, the Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar became celebrated for his startling, visionary images of homosexual love. His art is founded on two interwoven themes: his concern for "ordinary" people and objects; and his quest for a visual language by which the experience of the partly westernised middle-class Indian, the "Insignificant Man", might find expression.

Khakhar grew up in a crowded Gujarati market neighbourhood in central Bombay. His father, a heavy drinker, kept a small clothshop, but died when Khakhar was four; his mother vested her ambitions in her youngest son who dutifully pursued, through years of university and articleship, a career as chartered accountant. Khakhar was already in his late twenties when he took up the suggestion of a friend, the painter-poet G.M. Sheikh, that he should attend India's leading art school.

At Baroda, unable to afford the five-year fine art course, he enrolled for two years' art criticism; he never received much formal training as a painter. He shared a flat with a student fresh from the RCA in London preaching the gospel of Pop; and he became part of a ferment of painters and writers, co-editing with Sheikh the magazine Vrischik ("Scorpion"), in which Geeta Kapur first published her call for a new "indigenous" art. Khakhar was awakened to the beauty and vitality of contemporary Indian street imagery. The lurid oleographs associated with those urban shrines he had roamed through since boyhood became the basis of his first collages, exhibited in Bombay in 1965 at Gallery Chemould, his dealers throughout his career.

In Baroda, Khakhar worked each morning as an accountant; he would scoot over to the same factory for almost 30 years. "Going to the office for two or three hours gives me the feeling that I have done my duty to society and I feel, now I can go and paint."

When at last, in the early 1970s, all the hybrid constituents of his art fell into place - 19th-century company paintings and modern "uplift" posters integrated with Léger and Rousseau - it was as though a door suddenly opened. He entered upon a vista no painter had ever penetrated before, the vast terrain of half-urbanised modern India.

A sequence of beautiful signboard-like canvases resulted, including such early masterpieces as Janata Watch Repairing (1972), View from a Teashop (1972), and the larger and more complex Man with Bouquet of Plastic Flowers (1976). Ceiling fans and fluorescent light-bars take on a crystalline formal clarity. The bleakness of these lives is, through an act of identification, made tender and vulnerable.

These pictures caught the attention of the English painter Howard Hodgkin, whose friendship was instrumental in bringing Khakhar onto the international stage. One-man exhibitions with Kasmin and other London dealers were followed by museum shows at the Tate, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and elsewhere. In 1992 Khakhar would become the first Indian artist to be represented in the international show "Documenta"; last year Enrique Juncosa mounted a Khakhar retrospective at the Reina Sofia in Madrid, which came in a cut-down version to the Lowry in Salford last October.

But the centre of Khakhar's existence remained always the studio-house in Baroda, where he would struggle for months on end with one picture at a time. Often he would paint surrounded by intimate friends: a poet, a bootlegger, a businesswoman, all sitting side by side, served tea and snacks by his ever-faithful servant Pandoo. This relaxed, sociable atmosphere I found inspiring when I first visited Khakhar in 1981. He had just completed an eight-foot townscape and was preparing the equally ambitious You Can't Please All, now in the Tate.

Khakhar's deepest devotion was reserved for elderly men; Vallavbhai, a retired building contractor, was his partner for over 20 years, dying a few days before him. Khakhar had come out as a homosexual, the first public figure to do so in India, after his mother's death in 1980. In You Can't Please All, he represents himself naked above the cityscape; the ostensible narrative, an ancient fable, conceals a deeper one. (Juncosa interprets it as "the story of someone who buries a burden when revealing his sexuality.")

Over the next two decades, Khakhar would create the most challenging gay iconography of our time, in which the sexual and the sacred are often conjoined. His colour, always bold, becomes intensified. The six-foot swooning pink sky of Yayati (1987) discloses an astonishing drama: the self glides winged and erect into his elderly partner, conferring upon him a new lease of life.

Lighter sexual frolics may occur in a crowded boat, or beside some idyllic shore, as in the fellatio of Intimacy, one of a sequence of superb aquatints completed in 1993. The floating washes of watercolour released some of his freest fantasy, most memorably the Old Man from Vasad Who Had Five Penises Suffered from Runny Nose (1995, exhibited at Tate Modern in 2001). He also experimented in other media: ceramics, installations, glass-paintings, as well as writing and designing a comedy.

When I wrote a monograph on Khakhar in 1998, it was the homage of a younger to an elder, an English to an Indian painter. Across 20 years I had felt a convergence, a shared territory, which bridged our differences of cultural background. Khakhar's work has continued to be of interest to a new western generation.

Among his works in British public collections are his portrait Salman Rushdie: the Moor (1995) at the National Portrait Gallery, Death in the Family (1978) at the V&A, and You Can't Please All, to be shown at Tate Britain in late September.

Timothy Hyman