Twelve o’ clock is early morning for a gallery, especially if it’s a new one. The sun is pushing in through its glass doors and windows. A few large-sized works of Krishen Khanna, who in his 92nd year is one of the living legends of the Progressive Artists’ Group, face the wall. They are yet to be unpacked; a worker mulls how to hang them for maximum effect. On the AV (audio-visual) mounted on a temporary structure, the painter talks of drawing-fundamentals during a video interview. A visitor stops in front of Khanna’s ‘Captain Dentist’ and takes a few steps back to peer again at the details of another painting.
White walls, paintings in scale, soft-focus lights – what’s not to like?
Step into the city’s newest art hub, the Saffronart gallery occupying a 3,000-square-foot-space in the heart of central Delhi right inside The Claridges hotel.
For the past five years, the 1,400-square-foot Saffronart gallery had been housed in the Oberoi hotel. The move to The Claridges, because of the Oberoi renovation, has been a boon of sorts. The newer and bigger space “will be used to hold auction previews and viewings, exhibitions in collaboration with leading artists and a host of other exciting events”, says Hugo Weihe, CEO, Saffronart.
A new gallery naturally means a new exhibition, and it was Weihe’s intention to highlight senior artists, especially the leading modernists who set the course of the modern art movement in India.
“Krishen Khanna’s recent black-and-white works are a mix of monumental conté [works made by using stick/crayon comprising graphite, charcoal] on canvas as well as small paperworks. From his repertoire of recent works, we selected key works that not only showcased his artistic and personal concerns, but lent themselves wonderfully to the look and feel of our new space,” adds Weihe.
So what do we have here? Varying in size and subject are, the ‘Benediction on the Battlefield (Pandavas sitting around the doughty warrior and elder, Bhishma); the powerful ‘Gaja Moksha’ acrylic and charcoal on canvas of an elephant foot being gnawed by a ferocious crocodile mounted on the gallery’s sole exposed brick wall, and an entire series of men with beasts (‘Old Man with a Young Hawk’, ‘Falconer’, ‘Exodus 1947-Farmers leaving with their cattle’, ‘The Reluctant Cow’).
In the exhibition brochure, critic Gayatri Sinha observes that Khanna takes the traditional subjects of miniature paintings such as the elephant and the crocodile and frees them from their tradition. He places them against an undefined backdrop and opens them up for new interpretations.
“Here there is no background in the accepted sense, just the bodies in space, and the compact of energy and combat on display,” says Sinha.
But the show-stopper of the exhibition is undeniably ‘Benediction on the Battlefield’. It has been done by Khanna in different sizes. One version hangs on a saffron-coloured wall inside the gallery. The one with more details, hangs in the hotel’s lobby. A connecting door between the gallery and the main portion of the hotel, takes you there. It’s behind a black piano -- you can’t miss it – but you may have to go behind it to look at the details of the painting.
Visitors might also want to take a look at the artist’s sketches of his personal life. There is a portrait of Khanna’s dentist who has been drawn whiskered and cat-faced, as well as a portrait of Miss Emery, his mother’s English teacher. Both are fine examples of oil on canvas and they almost keep the other company, hanging close to each other, in the gallery.
How has the artist’s experience in this new space been? “It’s after a long time that I am doing a black-and-white show and somebody asked me this morning – ‘Do you only do black-and-white?’,” says Khanna, “And I said ‘no, I don’t, but black-and-white is a good peg’. And so in this show, when you are dealing with black-and-white, you are not sucked in or seduced by colour….” From artists’ points of view, that’s the interesting thing about galleries. You never know who you might meet each day. Somebody who knows all about you. Or somebody who’s just beginning to.
At: The Claridges hotel, 12 Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Road (earlier called Aurangzeb Road), till November 13. Open 10:30 am-7pm, all days.