Bhupen Khakhar

by Ruchir Joshi
August 2003

I read about the death in Baroda of my friend, the painter Bhupen Khakhar. The news came, as it does nowadays, on the net. And, even though a passing away at the age of 69 shouldn’t come as a huge shock, it sent a jolt of sadness through me. The sense of loss that I would normally have felt at the death of a friend, a man who was one of the most vibrant artists India has ever produced, was compounded by the fact that it is at this moment that he left us.

Bhupen was deeply, religiously, irreverent. He mixed a sharp, ruthless observation with the most gentle warmth. He was, equally, a wonderful singer of bhajans and a writer of ribald prose, he was a chartered accountant and a poet, he was the quintessential small-town man and supremely urbane. He was as gay as they come, and in the latter part of his life as open about it as anyone in the world. He was the kind of person many people on both sides of the Wembley picket hate, because his basic creed in life was to de-stabilize accepted notions, whether these ideas be of morality or sexuality or of line and colour.

Even through this blood-heavy shambles of Gujarat, there has always been the hope that we would all, like-minded Gujarati friends, artists, writers, poets, actors, film-makers, all somehow survive this pestilence and be around to contribute to its inevitable destruction. There was, and still is, a hope that one day we will witness the successful criminal trials of the murderous people who are in power today, see the culpable policemen in handcuffs, see any bent benchmen defrocked, participate in a genuine redressal for the victims, and then, like the Gujjus we are, eat ganthias and phaphdas and drink vodka to celebrate, if not some great new dawn, then at least the passing of a horrendously dark night.

In this imaginary gathering in my head, Bhupen always sits at the centre, chortling with laughter, poking little pins into any balloon of pomposity he can find. Even as I talk about this future party I can hear him saying to me: “Ei you, vagina-worshipper! Painter turned film-maker turned writer! You can become a caterer later. First go do your work properly. Shout at buildings if you must, but do your work!” And I take his point.

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