Naive nude figures, provocative kitsch, vibrant urban scenes …

A major exhibition of Khakhar’s paintings at Tate Modern shows why the accountant from Bombay became a liberating force in Indian art

A detail from Bhupen Khakhar’s Barber’s Shop (1973)
A detail from Bhupen Khakhar’s Barber’s Shop (1973) © Jean-Louis Losi/PR Image

Bhupen Khakhar was born in Khetwadi in Bombay in 1934. His father was an engineer, and he died when Khakhar was still a child. Whenever I read Khakhar’s biographical details – he died in 2003 – I stop short at “Khetwadi”, where a Gujarati tailor my mother courted for his skill at making perfect blouses lived and worked in a room by a bridge. Khetwadi didn’t fit in with my idea of Bombay. Although it was notionally in South Bombay (the term didn’t exist when I was growing up, and now denotes the richest urban setting in India), it was distinct from it, as were the bazaar localities beyond Nana Chowk and Grant Road. Khetwadi was a small town in a big city, one of the many provincial settlements in a Bombay that made claims to be a great cosmopolitan metropolis. I ask my mother, who is now 90, the tailor’s name, and she says, without hesitation, “Madhavlal”. His face comes back to me: gaunt, bespectacled, his stubble kohl-dark, a pencil lodged behind one ear. When he came to deliver blouses in Malabar Hill, he had the air of arriving from a different state. He hardly smiled, though this didn’t necessarily mean he was unhappy.

Khakhar, too, was Gujarati. I recall that Khetwadi had a large Gujarati contingent. Unlike Madhavlal, he was born into a middle-class family. Had Madhavlal been better educated, he might have turned to one of the two vocations, or professions, that figured in Khakhar’s life: accountancy (Khakhar qualified as a chartered accountant in 1956) and art (he took an MA in art criticism from MS University, Baroda, in 1964, and was introduced to the art world there by his friend, the painter Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh). After all, the master tailor requires both the artist’s instinct and a head for measurement and precision (thus, the pencil behind the ear). On the other hand, it seems that Khakhar wanted, on some level, to be Madhavlal. It’s a droll middle-class fantasy – to want to be taken out of yourself in order to become whatever it is you’re escaping. Khakhar left accountancy for art and Khetwadi for Baroda more or less simultaneously. In the extraordinary paintings that followed, he would endlessly revisit the small-scale and the provincial, and gaze adoringly, from various perspectives, at the Madhavlal-like figure.


I’m reminded, looking again at the work, of the exceptional viability of the human figure in modern Indian art. Granted, the tradition produced abstract painters, and its ancient non-representational lineage contributed powerfully to western art’s turn from conventional realism and perspective at the end of the 19th century. For all that, the figure in the Indian art of the last hundred years must count among the richest and most unexpected inheritances of secular modernity, and Khakhar possibly its greatest and most generous, most seductive, pioneer. This inheritance arises from being both shaped by and severing ties with the European Renaissance, with its photographic realism and insistence on putting the human being at the centre. All the great Indian practitioners of the figure – Tagore, Amrita Sher‑gil, FN Souza, Jamini Roy, Paritosh Sen, KG Subramanyan – rejected what the prodigiously gifted, short-lived, sharp-tongued Hungarian-Indian Sher-gil called “academic naturalism”, which she characterised as a style that believes “the sole function of painting and sculpture is to reproduce a given object faithfully, that is, with as much cretinous minuteness and servility as is humanly possible”. Khakhar’s tailors and watch-repairers have expressionless faces not because of an inner ennui, but because they have been released from the “servility” of realism: they are essentially humorous. The figures’ neighbourliness (all the humans and objects are conjoined by ties of friendship, family, sex and appetite) makes them strikingly different from Hockney’s on the one hand, and Francis Bacon’s and Lucian Freud’s on the other. In Khakhar’s world we discover in abundance the freedom of space and play that Sher-gil so desired from Indian art and life.