BHUPEN KHAKHAR (1934-2003)
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BHUPEN KHAKHAR (1934-2003)

The Banyan Tree

BHUPEN KHAKHAR (1934-2003)
The Banyan Tree
signed and dated in Gujarati (lower right); further titled and signed 'The Banyan Tree / Bhupen Khakhar' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
69 x 69 in. (175.3 x 175.3 cm.)
Painted in 1994
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner
India: Contemporary Art from Northeastern Private Collections, exhibition catalogue, Rutgers, 2002, p. 64 (illustrated)
Rutgers, Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, India: Contemporary Art from Northeastern Private Collections, 2002


Nishad Avari
Nishad Avari Specialist, Head of Department


Khakhar widely expanded the area of Indian life visible in painting, but a unique and consistent tone unites his body of work [...] Bhupen's paintings balance satirical distance and loving intimacy with his subjects.
- K. Zitzewitz, 2013

Trained and employed as a chartered accountant, Bhupen Khakhar was a largely self-taught painter whose artistic career did not begin in earnest until, well into his thirties, he moved from Bombay to Baroda. It was only after a few years of living in Baroda, surrounded by artists and intellectuals like his close friend Gulammohammed Sheikh, that “He arrived at a hybrid idiom, in which [Henri] Rousseau, [David] Hockney, Sienese pedellas, the oleographs of the Bazaar, the temple maps of Nathdwara and awkward observations of ‘Company’ painters, are all fused together. And with this idiom a new world opened, which no painter had ever dealt with before; the vast expanses of half-Westernised modern, urban India” (T. Hyman, A Critical Difference, London, 1993, p. 3).

In his work, Khakhar championed the underrepresented, confronting complex subjects like class, sexuality and the ageing and diseased male body, frequently in provocative ways that were inextricably linked to his own background as an urban, lower-middle class, gay man in India. The artist’s homosexuality, at first covert and then openly professed, played a decisive role in his creative process. Highlighting the significance of this aspect of the artist’s life, his friend and biographer Timothy Hyman noted that “Khakhar’s coming-out in the course of the 1980’s was probably the most courageous act of his life, and it may also prove to be one of the most consequential. He found himself speaking for a class and a world hitherto unregarded, unrecorded. The most striking change was that his art became explicitly confessional, and as often as not including a self-portrayal” (T. Hyman, ‘Sexuality and the Self (1981-95)’, Bhupen Khakhar, Mumbai, 1998, pp. 71-72).

In the present lot, a monumental painting from 1994 titled The Banyan Tree, Khakhar expertly balances the public and private, openness and intimacy in a series of vignettes played out against a vast, hilly scene. Appropriating the genre of landscape, the artist reimagines a traditional gathering spot in Indian towns and villages as a safe space in which he can finally and freely bring together and memorialize all his past lovers and liaisons, both real and imagined. Here, the large banyan tree with its wide, sheltering cover and hanging roots may be read as a microcosm of the artist’s life, representing a home, a school, a marketplace, a shrine, and, most personally, a secluded space for clandestine conventions. Among the activities Khakhar depicts unfolding in the shade of the tree’s dense branches are groups of men relaxing, worshipping, trading, and embracing. The few women he paints are seated in the distance with their backs turned on the rest of the artist’s motley cast.

While almost all of the men Khakhar paints here are shadowy and featureless, there are four slightly larger male figures seated in the foreground with more individualized qualities. Notable among them is a man with white hair, much like the artist’s own, who seems to be speaking and holding the attention of the others. This semi-autobiographical character appears in many of the artist’s large paintings from the 1980s and 90s. The critic Geeta Kapur reads a sense of detached or aloof observation in these appearances, noting “For while the life Khakhar paints is to an astonishing degree the life he lives, he is spiritually, something of a flaneur – half visitor half voyeur [...] And the paintings as a result sustain this baffling, comic-sublime, quality of disinterestedness” (G. Kapur, Six Indian Painters, London, 1982, p. 40). Notably, these four men are not hidden or shadowed by a tree. In fact, they sit by a tree stump, perhaps alluding to the new freedom Khakhar experienced on coming out, while acknowledging a certain intertwined sense of loss as well.

Reading the present lot as a nightscape, the critic Mary-Ann Milford-Lutzker locates it in relation to another major painting by Khakhar, noting, “In this large painting the darkness of night lends a clandestine sense of secrecy to the interactions of the small groups of men. The two men holding their arms out to each other, to the right, echo the highly suggestive relationship witnessed in Two Men in Banaras (1982), leaving no doubt as to the purpose of the work. The large banyan tree with its spreading canopy and falling aerial roots affords protection to the gathering beneath its branches. Such trees are found throughout Indian villages and provide local meeting places. Khakhar, with his keen interest in the ordinariness of village and small town life, includes such trees in many of his paintings, thus allowing the tree to be read in multivalent ways. The small indistinct figures grouped in the lower third of the painting, and the trees scattered in the background, align it with Jatra and The Goldsmith, both painted in 1997” (M. Milford-Lutzker, India: Contemporary Art from Northeastern Private Collections, Rutgers, 2002, p. 64).

The significant metaphorical opportunities trees offer to express various aspects of life, particularly in the context of artistic traditions in India, has always fascinated Khakhar. This is evident as early as 1969, when he published his ‘Visual Notes’ describing a luscious orange tree first among various sources of inspiration, and carries through to his more explicit late works like Tree with Flowers Grow from his Arse, painted in 2002, the year before he died. The banyan tree, specifically, reappears in his painting Son is the Father of Man (1997), and is central to the watercolor Banyan Tree in Mauritius (1999).

Apart from a communal gathering place and a site of worship, the banyan tree or bodhi vriksha is one of the most enduring and complex symbols in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain visual traditions. The tree is broadly regarded as a symbol of longevity, immortality, and the divine given its seemingly unending life and its capacity to spawn new trees from its roots. It has been variously portrayed over the centuries in Gandharan and Kushan sculpture, Mughal court paintings, tantric illustrations, pata scrolls from Bengal, early 20th century chromolithographs and Company School paintings to name a few. Declared the National Tree of India, modern and contemporary artists like Nandalal Bose, Mukul Dey, Arpana Caur, Reena Saini Kallat and Subodh Gupta have also incorporated its image and symbology in their work. Howard Hodgkin, a friend and great influence on Khakhar, also incorporated the idea of a banyan tree in his commission for the façade of the Charles Correa-designed British Council building in New Delhi. More recently, the banyan tree has also served as a metaphor for the Indian diaspora, a concept explored in exhibitions like Live like the Banyan Tree: Images of the Indian American Experience at the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, Philadelphia, in 1999.

Khakhar was a revolutionary figure, and his whimsical yet deeply moving portrayals of everyday life along with his unabashed love of kitsch and performance continue to inspire several post-modern and contemporary artists around the world. During his lifetime, Khakhar’s work was frequently exhibited in India and abroad, and was the subject of two documentary films. His work has been shown at the Hirschhorn Museum, Washington D.C. (1982), the Tokyo Biennale (1984), the Pompidou Centre, Paris (1986), Documenta IX, Kassel (1992), the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Renia Sofia, Spain (2002), and the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Mumbai (2003). He has also been included in group exhibitions at Tate Modern, London, alongside Howard Hodgkin, David Hockney and R. B. Kitaj. The first posthumous survey of Khakhar’s work opened at the Tate Modern in 2016, bringing together works spanning the five decades of his artistic career.

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