You Can't Please All: Bhupen Khakhar at Tate Modern

This past fall, I attended Tate Modern’s retrospective on the life and work of Bhupen Khakhar, a highly influential contemporary Indian artist who died in 2003. The retrospective, entitled You Can’t Please All, was framed around Khakar’s exploration of the Aesop fable involving the miller, his son, and the donkey.

Khakhar, an openly gay Indian man, who explored sexual acts between men and the male body in his work, held a deep understanding of the moral virtue of being true to one’s self, rather than desperately trying to please others. Khakar lived in a country that criminalized homosexuality, and his career spanned a period of time where overt explorations of this form of sexuality in art could be challenging.

The Caravan — India’s premier arts, culture, and politics magazine — provides an excellent profile of Khakhar and his work in response to You Can’t Please All that I am sure will be illuminating on both Khakhar and the contemporary art scene in India:

You Can’t Please All, the fine new retrospective of Bhupen Khakhar’s art at the Tate Modern in London, which comes with a superb hardback catalogue featuring reproductions of his paintings along with photographs from his life and some excellent critical essays, gets its name from his take on [Aesop’s fable on the miller, his son, and the donkey]...  

The Tate’s exhibition features a short film from 1983 where Khakhar talks about his life and art. “In life,” he says, “we all the time make social adjustments to please people around us. We forget our duty towards ourselves. What we should do in art and life is do exactly what one likes.” This can sound on first reading like a merely selfish remark, but every single thing we know about Khakhar tells against this reading.

To “do exactly what one likes” can mean any number of things; it depends, obviously enough, on what one likes, and finding out what one likes can be the business of a lifetime’s reflection. “We forget our duty towards ourselves,” Khakhar says, choosing his words carefully. Duty, as he sees it, isn’t imposed on one from the outside—by society or the gods. Duty, in Khakhar’s idiolect, is a word for what one most fundamentally needs, an imperative that comes from the deepest self. It is not an ought, but a must. It can be destructive—as, indeed, can morality—but it needn’t be. Nor need it be selfish or callous to acknowledge the proper claims of the self. There is a place between selfishness and martyrdom, and much of human life is lived in it. All of Khakhar’s art—perhaps most good art—depicts that place. 

Amy Sanderson14/12/16