Painted allegories

Different strokes

Painted allegories

It is not often that one hears of an artist who is pushing 90 and having a solo show. That is exactly what Krishen Khanna (born 1925) did recently when the Grosvenor Gallery held a month-long exhibition of his drawings and paintings in London.

Intriguingly titled When the Bands Began to Play He Packed Up His Troubles And Marched Away, it was in a way homecoming for the celebrated artist who reportedly had his first one-man show in the UK way back in October 1960, at the Leicester Galleries.

Earlier this year, displayed at India Art Fair 2015 in Delhi was one of the largest works ever painted by the indefatigable artist. The 22.5 ft by 5 ft painting showed a lively North Indian street scene complete with a wedding procession accompanied by a group of boisterous bandwallahs.

Truckwalahs, bandwallahs, vegetable vendors and other ‘street professionals’ have regularly featured in Khanna’s works. Interestingly, the veteran artist,  whose long and distinguished career has spanned over six decades, did not receive any formal education in arts.

Born in Lyallpur (now Faisalabad, Pakistan), Khanna moved with his family to Shimla following the Partition. Later, he graduated from the Imperial Service College, Windsor, England, and returned to India and served as an officer with Grindlays Bank between 1946 and 1961. His stock as a banking professional grew alongside his creative pursuits which included exhibiting paintings in India and abroad. When he decided to chuck the well-paying job and become a full-time painter, “there was only my month’s pay, chutti and good luck to the future.”

Fortunately, he also had the support of his father (who was on the verge of retiring from his professorial job); and his wife,  who had started teaching in a school. A father of three children himself at that time, Khanna endured a crammed existence in a two-bedroom flat with his parents, and a widowed sister with her two children. “It wasn’t tough. When right decisions happen, they aren’t painful.”

A chance meeting with M F Husain in Bombay (when Khanna still worked for the bank) culminated into a lifelong friendship. “Husain made me a member of Progressive Arists’ Group,” remembers Khanna. “And in exchange, I opened his first-ever bank account!”

It was Husain who sold Khanna’s first painting for Rs 150 to nuclear physicist Dr Homi Bhabha for the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research collection. Over the decades, as he became rich and famous, Khanna himself built a sizeable collection of art which included 16 early Husain paintings procured for “a song and sixpence”. Khanna also gratefully acknowledges that it was Husain who urged him to quit the bank job.

Besides Husain, Khanna developed close bonding and long-lasting kinship with several other artists of the era, including S H Raza, Vasudeo Gaitonde, Akbar Padamsee, F N Souza and others. “Finally, the course of events focused us on our own individual paths. Different times, different places and the development of different attitudes determined our individual destinies, yet keeping our friendships and affections intact.”

Grace & restraint

Khanna’s art is characterised by his sensitive drawings and multi-hued paintings resonating with social, cultural and political undertones. Having the directness of reportage and historical narrative, his works are also known to imbibe the values of classical restraint and grace.

Critics have observed how, as a master of contemplative allegories, Khanna revels in the complex game of subtle subversions; and how his choice of subject has mostly been inspired by the experiences of the daily life and pathos of the common man. Critic and Khanna’s biographer Gayatri Sinha feels that his paintings constitute a powerful psychological engagement, and serves as a document of the passage of time in modern India.

On his part, Khanna says that “all great art has to be local” and at the same time, “transcend the ordinary and strike a moment in infinity.” He also believes that good things and good paintings just happen in life; they are never manufactured. “And no amount of training can produce a good painting.”

Among the recurring themes in his art are the horrors of Partition which come from Khanna’s personal memories. “I left my friends in that part of Punjab,” he movingly recalled while creating a set of black and white drawings on the subject in 2013-14. “The memories still haunt me. Through these works I ruminate the past and the sense of displacement I still feel.”

Mellowed poignancy

Most importantly, people remain at the core of Khanna’s paintings which are often tinged with hues of mellowed poignancy and subtle irony. While exploring the vagaries of the human condition and its moral predicament, he draws inspiration from the episodes of Indian epics and the New Testament with the same intensity as the everyday drama played out on the suburban street; a way-side dhaba, or during a passing wedding procession.

Among his most intimate protagonists are the garishly dressed bandwallahs beating their drums and blowing their trumpets. “What drew me to them was the context they come from. They are a legacy of the Raj. The British left the bandwallahs in India and now all baraats look like parades. Their grandeur has the semblance of the army — except for their chappals... I am moved by such Chaplinesque situations that involve dual emotions. On the face of it, they can be very funny, even ridiculous. But there is a kind of pathos underneath it all.”

A prolific and widely exhibited artist, Khanna has received several awards and honours including the Padma Shri (1990) and Padma Bhushan (2011). Way back in 1962, he had become the first Indian painter to be granted the Rockefeller Fellowship by the New York’s prestigious Foundation.

If one were to go back further, Khanna’s very first venture into art reportedly happened when he was barely seven years old; he had then tried to make a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper from a reproduction brought home by his father.

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