This is the full text of a presentation prepared by Ranjit Hoskote for the symposium, ‘Remembering Bhupen’, held at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi on January 27.
It seems faintly absurd to discuss the question of Bhupen Khakhar’s legacy in a country that legally regards one of the most defining aspects of his life and art as criminal behaviour.
Bhupen Khakhar was India’s first openly gay artist. From the 1980s onwards, he asserted a defiantly adversarial stance both as artist and as social subjectivity: he began to take the intimate and social fact of alternative sexuality as his dominant subject, articulating the everyday life, emotional states, fantasies, anxieties and aspirations of the homoerotic self.
Article 377 of Chapter XVI of the Indian Penal Code (1860) is unambiguous: “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to [a] fine.” Although convictions under this colonial-era provision are admittedly rare, its continued existence as law condemns a large number of Indian citizens to the shadowlands, their life choices stigmatized as being – in a singularly sweeping and theological phrase, for a secular nation-state – “against the order of nature”.
Bhupen was adept at camouflaging the radical and transgressive nature of his art in the guise of ludic eccentricity or the stylised whimsicality of the everyday. Nonetheless, he very legibly asserted the liberty of the individual to fashion his or her own life in defiance of prevailing norms, and also actively challenged the stability and validity of such norms through his work.
Can such an artist really find accommodation in the public sphere of early 21st century India, which has been held hostage by a violent and expansive politics that has invaded every aspect of human consciousness, behaviour, interaction and congregation? Assuming the form of an aggressive, illiberal, demagogic populism, this form of politics has exceeded the parameters of the State allotted to it by Enlightenment political theory, and overrun civil society and the market as well. Whether through mob action or through sanction from those in authority, it has menaced and placed in question the right of artists and writers to explore reality in an idiosyncratic or critical manner, to enter a discussion at an oblique angle or exit it at a tangent, to propose a dissenting view or a dissident perspective.
My fear is that, if India’s public sphere continues to be held hostage by such a politics of illiberalism, it is extremely unlikely that Bhupen’s art, thought and life will leave any mark on Indian culture at large. He will, of course, live on in the hearts, minds and books of his friends and admirers – this gathering offers eloquent testimony to the fact – but this will be strictly the special interest of the arts community.
Given these circumstances, I would congratulate the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, and its Director, Professor Rajeev Lochan, on the courageous decision to present a substantial exhibition of Bhupen’s work. This decision clearly springs from a desire to keep the gates of discussion and understanding open.
We on this panel have been invited to address the question of Bhupen’s legacy – a word that carries with it an aura of unbroken continuity, suggesting a productive relationship between a past that offers the gift of its achievements to a future that receives them appreciatively, as part of its memory and self-understanding. Unfortunately, the historical record is not uniformly encouraging on this subject. Amnesia, erasure and rupture have more often been the fate that great art has met.
There is no assurance whatever that the memory of great art will be preserved for posterity. The Old Stone Age caves of Lascaux would have remained buried forever, had a dog bearing the remarkable name of Robot not fallen down a hole made by the rain in 1940, obliging his owners to dig down into the earth. The Buddhist painted caves of Ajanta, executed between the 2nd century BC and the 5th century AD, had been reclaimed by the jungle and were lost to public consciousness for more than a millennium, until they were quite fortuitously discovered in 1819 by a British hunting party.
There is no guarantee whatever that the work of a great artist will turn into a benchmark for the future by itself, or by some fictional general consensus. Without the apparatus of museum retrospectives, mid-career surveys, monographic exhibitions and critical writing, many 20th-century artists would be destined to remain last among equals, or be consigned to the unexplored corners of the reserve collections of the world’s great institutions.
In brief, there is no such eternal and stable fact as collective memory, on which we may safely rely for the transmission of a legacy from the past to the future. The collective memory of a society is a fluid construct: the outcome of discussions and negotiations, the hybrid fruit of belief, ideological dogma and historical inquiry.
For myself, I respond most strongly to what I have elsewhere described as Bhupen’s ‘religious imagination’. I have spoken of Bhupen as an “icon-maker in an age without religious certitudes” – as an artist who found himself in a world of anomie, a world alienated and disenchanted by instrumental reason, routinisation and the fetishisation of cultural objects, and sought to re-enchant the depleted experience of being by transforming it into an utsav, a ceaseless and unpredictable festivity. He returned constantly to the rich, splendid and playful iconography of Krishna-as-Shrinathji, central to the Pushti-marga, and offered us his translations and adaptations of it.
Did Bhupen hope, perhaps, to retrieve the sacred from the monopoly of politicised religiosity, reclaim it from those who would fetishise and ossify it? Did he hope to bring the sacred back into public circulation as a lavish energy of redemption, which resists the names and forms in which the orthodox trap it? And what future might such a project have in a society where hard-edged, politicised versions of religious belief are rapidly gaining ascendancy in a demographic and territorial struggle that has nothing to do with spiritual experience? The erotic body of the voluptuary and the austere body of the renunciate, so often melded in Bhupen’s art, will perhaps always be held apart in such a society; we will measure the loss in a narrowing of our imaginative capacities, our human potentialities.