On more than one occasion, I have heard Bhupen Khakhar, the artist perhaps best known in Britain for his portrait of Salman Rushdie as a Moor that now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, define himself as the "local talent" of Baroda, the city in western India where he lives. That is typically modest of him, the painter who is arguably the best-known international face of contemporary Indian art, with the possible exception of M. F. Husain.
Khakhar has shown extensively and is in major collections the world over, from Tokyo to New York. He has had several solo shows at the Cork Street galleries, important group shows at the Tate Gallery and the Institute of Contemporary Arts and at IX Documenta in Kassel, Germany. In spite of all the acclaim and adulation and a fair share of brickbats - he has been called a "caricaturist", "a pervert" at least and on one occasion his work was removed from the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi for its provocativeness - Khakhar remains his old self: generous with his time, warm, self-effacing, with a great sense of irony that includes himself; in other words, generally oblivious to the trappings of fame.
It was in Britain in the 1970s that Khakhar found open acceptance of homosexuality, which was still a taboo in urban India. This helped him confront his own sexuality. Bhupen's "coming out" in the 1980s with paintings such as Two men in Banaras or Yayati were momentous events in contemporary Indian art. In 1976, at the Serpentine Gallery show of Howard Hodgkin (who was among the first western artists to admire Khakhar), he met Timothy Hyman, painter and critic.
Hyman was himself engaged in a project to reinstate British figurative and narrative painting at a time when the high ground was held by non-figurative painting, and he recognised immediately that "Khakhar's difficulties with the Indian art world were very much those experienced by my own generation of figurative painters in Britain". He included Khakhar in the "Narrative painting" exhibition that he was then curating and found that the works "slotted surprisingly well" with those of R. B. Kitaj, David Hockney, Peter de Francia and Hodgkin.
Over the next two decades, Hyman visited India often, taught at Baroda as a visiting professor (in 1981 and 1983) and came to know Khakhar and his milieu intimately. It is this background that helps Hyman's deeply researched monograph, Bhupen Khakhar , attain its remarkable clarity and depth.
Khakhar came relatively late to art and is for all practical purposes self-taught. When at the behest of his friend, the painter and influential teacher Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, he moved to Baroda from Bombay and enrolled in the two-year "art criticism" course at the faculty of fine arts of the university, he was already 28 and a practising chartered accountant. He kept a part-time accountancy job until 1990. It was in Baroda that Khakhar found kindred spirits who were then beginning to turn the sleepy little town into the centre of a major "movement" in Indian art.
Khakhar does not exoticise the "kitsch" and the "garish" associated with the semi-urbanised middle and lower middle-class Indians that people his canvases. His gaze is not the detached voyeurism of a curious onlooker; he is in the thick of things with the loving care of an active participant, who makes "bad taste" vulnerable. Whether it is An old man from Vasad who had five penises suffered from runny nose or The Celebration of Gurujayanti encompassing a whole townscape, it is Khakhar's ability to surprise, his quirky sense of humour, integrity, love of detail and sheer courage that mark him out.
Among the recent spate of publications on modern and contemporary Indian art, Bhupen Khakhar is among the best. One only hopes that Hyman's book, with its 40 full-page colour and numerous black-and-white illustrations, gets to be seen and read by everyone interested not only in Indian art but in the figurative art of the second half of 20th century.
Indrapramit Roy is a painter who teaches fine art at the University of Baroda, India.
Bhupen Khakhar: (NB: Available from the Antique Collectors' Club)
Author - Timothy Hyman
ISBN - 0 944142 36 2
Publisher - Chemould Publications
Price - £24.00
Pages - 1