when nothing emerges but an incomprehensible mess. Was I taught to draw? Silly question, really. How can one manipulate a compulsive itch? Try and leave be and see what happens. Ill-temper, depression and a sickness of the spirit. Emptiness."
That’s how Krishen Khanna, one of India’s best-loved artists, begins his reminiscences. Aptly subtitled ‘Memories, Anecdotes, Small talk’, this very readable book is just that - a motley collection of his memories, his experiences, the life encountered by him, artistic or otherwise.
And he writes in a way that is sure to draw the reader into these anecdotes. Khanna was part of the post - independence art scene, almost an establishing period for the artists as they struggled to establish not just themselves but also make art a viable means of livelihood.
Many of the big names of Indian art are encountered - Ram Kumar, MF Husain, VS Gaitonde, Bal Chabbda, Akbar Padamsee, FN Souza, HS Raza, KH Ara and more in humorous rather than in flattering light. With the numerous ‘strangest of things’ that happened to him, Padamsee occupies a fairly large share of the anecdotes - from the case against him ordered by Morarji Desai, then Chief Minister of Maharashtra for his ‘offending’ painting Lovers, or the strange ‘case of saving Indian honour’ in Paris, or his getting paid for a painting by citing his need to upkeep ‘a wife and four mistresses’.
The artists however occupy just one part of the book. The other, and perhaps more enjoyable part is Khanna reminiscing about his family and friends. Right from his schooldays in England and the awkward position he created by declaring his interest in art - almost unthinkable in a traditional Punjabi family to more recent memories.
We meet people from his childhood days spent at Maclagan Road, Lahore: Relatives like Lall Nana, whose live was a ‘monument to nothingness’, but which nevertheless makes for entertaining reading, Taya Gokul Chand, whose adventures with a rat caused one man’s offences to become another’s, the higher studies of Chacha Ram Saran Das, how the veena transformed Kartaribibi and Whade Bauji to a totally unintentional direction. This part of the anecdotes is remarkably human - simple, everyday situations that are guaranteed to hold the reader’s attention.
The book has a few of his paintings in black and white, though most readers would be greedy for far more. Especially paintings like the one done for Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman that landed up in an Indian Airlines godown and was later displayed at Museum of Modern Art, Oxford. Delhiites would identify with the role Nizamuddin played in the life of the artists, a role similar to Paris’ Left Bank.
By no means a comprehensive account of Khanna’s journey through life, this more a collection of some memories that he chooses he share. Read it not for the foibles of the art scene and the artists, but for the pleasant feel you bask at by the end of the book.