When Bhupen Khakhar’s Two Men In Benares (1982) was first shown in 1986, it shocked audiences and critics in Mumbai’s art circles. The painting depicted two naked men locked in an embrace, with the holy city of Varanasi referenced beside them. The older man’s face is partially covered by the younger man’s but it bears a resemblance to the painter himself. There are accounts of how the owners of Chemould Gallery, where it was on exhibit, faced a protest from the Cottage Industries authorities, on whose premises the gallery was located. Two Men In Benares was stashed away in a storeroom just two days after the exhibition opened.
On 10 June, the painting, from the collection of Swiss collectors Guy and Helen Barbier, sold for £2.54 million ( ₹22.5 crore) at a Sotheby’s auction in London. The sale set a new record—it’s officially the most expensive Khakhar painting to be sold in an auction. His earlier record was for De-Luxe Tailors (1972), which sold for ₹9.71 crore in 2017, also at a Sotheby’s auction.
Two Men In Benares is an evocative celebration of same-sex love, and, in a happy coincidence, has set a record during Pride Month. Khakhar was born into a middle-class Gujarati family and this painting has long been regarded as a way by which he announced his homosexuality. He died in 2003.
Yamini Mehta, Sotheby’s international head for modern and contemporary South Asian art, says, “Khakhar and his young lover are depicted at almost life-size, both inside and outside the frame, just as they were both inside and outside the norms of their society. They are hiding and yet in plain sight. The fact that they are illuminated in a manner like icons and depicted in the holy city of Benares further underscores the sense of divinity that emanates from the act of love where the sexual and the sacred are intertwined.”