At 84, artist Krishen Khanna has lost none of his trademark sense of humour that not only enlivens a conversation with him but also lights up the nearly 120 works that will be shown at a Saffron Art hosted retrospective show at Delhi’s Lalit Kala Akademi beginning this weekend. Even his dismay at not being able to source some of his best works from the Jehangir Nicholson Trust in Mumbai and National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi, is cloaked with a wry wit that adds to his composed aura.
“Every situation has several sides to it,” says the artist who credits his funny bone to his English Literature education at Imperial Service College in England, “and I am drawn towards the funnier side.” The thought process of finding humour in rather sombre situations is evident in his works painted on the subject of Mahabharata which will also be part of the retrospective. In one such work, Khanna turns mythology on its head with an irreverent Draupadi making fun of Bhishma as he lies on his bed of arrows speaking on righteousness to the Pandavas.
What tickles him more, however, is his painting titled ‘The Last Bite’, part of one of his most coveted series of works and a spoof on Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’, a theme he has “revisited several times due to popular demand.” The 40x60 inches painting shows friends like FN Souza, VS Gaitonde, Akbar Padamsee, Bhupen Khakhar, Tyeb Mehta among others gathered around a Christ-like Husain at an empty dinner table, looking far from conspiratorial. “This was my way of having supper with my friends, only that I am not there in the painting myself. I escaped,” laughs Khanna, fondly reminiscing his days with his peers from the Progressive Art Group in Mumbai.
“The group was a dedicated lot. They chose not to do other things that would have been far more lucrative. Painting was a choice for them, not a suffering,” says Khanna, who himself chose to quit a cushy banking job in Mumbai before he joined the group in 1950 and turned to painting full time with his first solo show taking place in 1955 at the USIS, Chennai.
“We would meet at each other’s homes, discuss our art and even offer criticism. We were certainly not as competitive as artists are now,” he says remembering how his senior SH Raza shared his entire list of art buyers when Khanna had his first show in London. This friendship has obviously sustained over the years as Khanna punctuates his conversation with frequent references to Husain and Raza.
It is this sense of nostalgia that also reflects in his work that depicts the subject of India’s Independence struggle and the impending Partition, an incident that compelled Khanna, then in his 20s and his family to leave their home in Lyallpur (now Faislabad, Pakistan) and head to Shimla. Pointing at one of his latest paintings on migration, titled ‘Exodus’, he says: “I have visited Lahore several times and find that I harbour no animosities at all. In fact, I find so much common between us — the calligraphy, language and people.” In fact, some of his pencil drawings on paper through which he revisited the event were shown at his last solo in Mumbai at Cymroza Art Gallery in 2008, as nostalgia-imbued as he sounds now. Some of these drawings will also be shown in Delhi.
Talk to him about the 4000 sq feet mural at Delhi’s ITC Maurya Hotel, another of his landmark work, and his eyes light up as he shares that even before he was commissioned this, he had done a large mural on Chola migrations for Cholamandalam Hotel, Madras, a digital image of which will be part of the show. “I made this mural in parts and was never able to see the whole work at one go.” He rues that mural making is not given the importance it deserves considering it “brings together artisans, architects, artists and industry that can help promote art.”
With such a large body of work behind him, Khanna may well be the inspiration for several younger artists, but his own stimulation comes from people and incidents that he observes around him. After the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, he painted ‘News of Gandhiji’s Death’, which showed people poring over the newspaper the day after Gandhi was shot. “I have never exaggerated anything through my canvas. The images I paint are what I see and feel. And slowly, the work takes shape till you subjugate your entire ego to the work and become one with it,” he says.
Khanna has achieved this sense of spirituality by painting ordinary people around him. In the 80s, he did an entire series depicting trucks loaded with construction material and labourers which took form during his stay in Delhi’s Jungpura Colony where trucks would be parked constantly. “I saw how people who drove these trucks took on the truck’s very personality. They lived in it, slept in it, ate in it while the symbol on the trucks would see OK TATA. I wanted to say it’s not okay! I like using these mixed metaphors to say that ordinary people are everywhere.”
Another body of his works on the bandwallas, which he has almost become synonymous with (“people know me as a bandwalla artist,” he smiles), happened when he got caught in a marriage procession on his way home. “Stuck in that jam, I noticed how bandwallas were such an integral art of our North Indian weddings. In a way, they are a relic of our colonial past and yet have such a contemporary appeal. So grand in their embellished uniforms and yet so anonymous, I was fascinated by them,” says Khanna mentioning that several of his paintings from the ‘Bandwallas’ series would also be shown.
This and lot more is part of the retrospective which Khanna feels has come at the right time. “I am over 80 now and am happy I can take stock of all that I have worked on through this show.” Ask him what next and he chuckles, “Wait and watch… lots!” If that is not a spirit that soars above the rest, what is?