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Dive into Indian modern art with this painting exhibition in Colaba

Updated on: 09 July,2024 09:00 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Shriram Iyengar | shriram.iyengar@mid-day.com

Bhupen Khakhar’s exploration of the male body comes to fore with a rare exhibition of watercolours at this art gallery

Dive into Indian modern art with this painting exhibition in Colaba

Golden Buddha In A Cave, watercolour on paper, 2003

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In the hierarchy of modern Indian art, there are few individuals who embraced the sense of absurd and tragicomic as the late Bhupen Khakhar did. The Mumbai-born Khakhar was a rare self-taught artist whose style transcended popular and critical aesthetics and delved into issues of class, gender and sexuality with nuance. The exhibition, Bhupen Khakhar: Body/Shrine at Akara Modern this week, looks into some rare works that offer some more insight into this key figure of Indian modern art.


Man With A Pitcher, watercolour on paper. Pics Courtesy/Akara Modern
Man With A Pitcher, watercolour on paper. Pics Courtesy/Akara Modern


“The exhibition covers a wide range of subjects,” shares Puneet Shah, founder, Akara Art. Khakhar was a Padma Shri-awardee and often called ‘India’s first pop artist’. “The focus is the male body, but it is not just limited to that. There is more to his perspective and undertones that humanises his work,” he explains.


The collection of 11 artworks stemmed from one central piece — Handsome Twins of Tatanagar. Shah reveals, “It is a wonderful work, and follows an interesting story told by Khakhar. It was about two men he came across during a visit to Tatanagar. While they were not great to look at, their smiles were beautiful, he said.”

A view of the gallery space
A view of the gallery space 

This perspective set Khakhar apart. Curator Girish Shahane writes, “People who look like this are not conventionally placed in narratives of passion but that is where Khakhar frequently located them. Beginning in the 1980s, the artist explored his sexuality with steadily increasing candour.”

For Shah, the works preceded the story. The exhibition is the result of attempts across several years to bring these paintings to Mumbai. “Four of these works come from a collector in The Netherlands who was a close friend and often hosted Khakhar and several Indian artists during workshops in the city. It was when the decision to host the four works were confirmed, that we then built around the theme.”

Among the works is a painting from the artist’s final years, made in 2003. It dates back to his trip to Sri Lanka with some friends, when his health had begun to fade. The painting captures a sleeping Buddha with vignettes of Buddhist rituals and learnings circling him. “Steep steps, overhanging rocks and flowing curved lines make for a complex painting that oscillates between restfulness and agitation. It is difficult not to infer that it reflects the artist’s state of mind in his final days,” states Shahane.

Man With A Pitcher, watercolour on paper. Pics Courtesy/Akara Modern
Man With A Pitcher, watercolour on paper. Pics Courtesy/Akara Modern 

Shah remarks that Khakhar’s individuality set him apart. The self-taught artist went from being an accountant to exploring styles after being influenced by David Hockney and Howard Hodgkin during a visit to the UK. “Bhupen is not coloured by academic training. His works are simple. Most of them are literal. They have many undertones and connotations that emerge, but his art was as you saw it.”    

The exhibit also captures the artist in his element, the founder adds. “If you take the works on exhibit at this show, they are all from the decade of the 1990s. This was a period when Bhupen had already come out of the closet. He had been comfortable in his own skin and his own artistic style and rendering of the water colours. Those emotions are visible in the works.”

Puneet Shah
Puneet Shah

For all the focus on his sexual identity, it was his perception and malleable style that made Khakhar unique in the annals of Indian modern art. As the artist had revealed during a speech at The Arts Council of Great Britain in 1983, “I think your own weakness should also be reflected in painting. One can’t hide oneself behind a painting.” For Mumbaikars, it will be a chance to witness these features again.

From July 11 to August 17; 11 am to 6.30 pm
AT Akara Modern, 32 Mereweather Road, Colaba.
Call 7208488979

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