Trained and employed as a chartered accountant, Bhupen Khakhar was a largely self-taught painter whose artistic career did not begin in earnest until he was well into his thirties, when he moved from Bombay to Baroda. In Baroda, surrounded by artists and intellectuals like Gulammohammed Sheikh, "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)
This monumental painting explores the idea of darshan, or the experience of grace achieved through the viewing of a deity. In this case, the deity that the worshippers are waiting to see is Srinathji, a manifestation of Krishna and the patron divinity of the city of Nathdwara in Rajasthan. Khakhar has drawn from the ancient artistic traditions of Nathdwara from the late 1960s, most notably represented by such paintings as People at Dharamsala (1968) and The Deity (1982).
"Though Khakhar may not believe in organized religion per se, reconnecting with tradition through the regenerative powers of spiritual and communal bonds and through a reinvigoration of vernacular culture, historical myths and current symbologies is vital to his work." (K. Kapoor, 'A Subversive Rasa', Bhupen Khakhar, A Retrospective, Mumbai, 2003, p. 18)
The artist uses this work to investigate the practice of darshan on two different levels. Firstly, he examines the physical act of darshan which requires pilgrimage. Secondly, he comments on the performance of painting as an act of seva or an offering to god. In a sense, Khakhar metaphorizes painting with prayer. Khakhar's vibrant palette, and the decorative borders and cusped niches with floral details directly reference the devotional miniature and pichhwai paintings produced by Nathdwara artists from the seventeenth century on.
In one of the painted niches, Khakhar portrays Krishna lifting the hill Govardhan on one of his fingers, a classic subject of Nathdwara paintings. After Krishna convinced his fellow villagers not to perform their annual offering to Indra, the god of rain and thunder, he lifted the hill to shelter the entire village and its cattle from Indra's wrath. When read in a philosophical context, this was seen as a reformative act that helped transcend the appeasement approach to worship, and ushered in a more spiritual understanding of duty and reverence. With his typical wry sense of humor, Khakhar perhaps suggests that contemporary worshippers, like the ones he has portrayed, have succeeded in reversing this development, and represent a return to a more primitive philosophy of beholding and offering.
Among the worshippers Khakhar portrays are his artist friends from Baroda, including Gulammohammed Sheikh and the bespectacled Amit Ambalal. They are joined by Sunil Kothari and other familiar characters from his earlier works. The artist's own figure, discernible only by his telltale white hair, is hidden behind the others, surrounded by family, friends and lovers. Khakhar also acknowledges the critical role that viewers have played in his life and work, reaching out to them through the hands of two of his figures that extend beyond the painted frame.
One of the last major canvases Khakhar painted before the progression of his illness made it impossible to work in oils on a large scale, this painting is both sentimental and celebratory. Devoid of the violence of other works from the period like Beauty is Skin Deep Only (1999) and Bullet Shot in Stomach (2000), Waiting for Darshan is self-affirming; an epic summation of Khakhar's illustrious career as an iconoclastic painter of modern India.