“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: Rabindranath Tagore, Jamini Roy, Amrita Sher-Gil, M.F. Husain, K.G. Subramanyan, Bhupen Khakhar, Tate Gallery, 1982, p. 40)
Always conscious of controversy without needlessly seeking it out, Bhupen Khakhar’s work champions the underrepresented. His practice is inexorably linked to his own background and sexuality, himself marginalised as an urban lower-middle class homosexual in India. This constant awareness of social, political and sexual taboo has been a source of strength, from whence his inspiration emanates. Khakhar avoids the repetitive quest for the universal in the personal in favour of relating to the viewer via dialogue through his own experiences.
Khakhar’s figures in Night seem plucked from some unknown story, they are simultaneously autobiographical and fictional. The same biographical features in the subjects are repeated as if a module to be used again and again. These marginalised characters are at once the same and different as they are represented as friends and heroes united by the night. The notion of “night” itself injects a sense of freedom; from judgment, from archaic social taboos and the limiting conventions of the everyday. This is a place both for silent contemplation and revelry, without retribution. “This is Khakhar’s private triumph, rescuing the friend from the oblivion of his undistinguished birth and from the kind of morality where he may be taboo.” (G. Kapur, Tate Gallery, 1982, p. 38)
Night significantly uses the language of collage to break up the surface of the image into separate pictures and thus perpetuating a vibrant visual conundrum. In doing so Khakhar borrows from both the Eastern and Western histories of art, renewing and adapting them to his own practice. For example it is clear, “Khakhar has looked at the Italian primitives […] in the way the narrative unfolds, in the way the lives of humble people.” (G. Kapur, Tate Gallery, 1982, p. 40) Similarly, whilst each separate canvas in terms of size may be suggestive of the tradition of classical Indian miniature painting, holistically Night is also reminiscent of the fractured language of Cubism. The composition of each individual canvas laid onto this unifying board suggests a puzzle to be pieced together. The individual portraits spill over into each other creating a surreptitious symbiotic dialogue. These whimsical figures, from the chatting group sitting on the beach, to the sacred cow to the solitary character alone on the river bank, to the group of frolicking men skinny dipping in the waters, each segment relates to the whole. Each picture plane becomes part pixel part building block where Khakhar’s composite chronicle of this riverside sequence becomes a monument to the disenfranchised.