From Partition to Covid pandemic, Krishen Khanna’s canvas encompasses it all
“Of course I still paint,” says Krishen Khanna, the last of India’s surviving modernists, a little surprised he is asked the question at all.
In fact, said the artist who celebrated his 96th birthday earlier this month, he is always working on something, still finding out things, still thrilled by the very act of painting.
“Art is not just about making faces or drawing this or that. It’s the churning of the spirit inside, which is far more important. Everything else then falls into place,” Khanna told PTI in a phone interview, the sheer excitement of painting today and every day to come evident in his voice.
If ‘age is just a number’, the artist, who spans the history of contemporary India from Partition to the pandemic in his works, is the one who epitomises it.
In May this year, Khanna was scheduled to travel to London for an exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery. That got cancelled due to the second COVID-19 wave, and he subsequently hosted a virtual exhibition, “Krishen Khanna: Paintings from my sitting room” from his Gurgaon home.
“I am always working on something. It might be a drawing or a painting,” Khanna said in response to a question on what he is working on. To him, creating a work of art is akin to a spontaneous but long conversation between the artist and his creation, a process that has been central to his entire existence.
“…sometimes you go straight into a painting. It won’t wait for any deliberations… you have to attack it. And once you start, then the painting starts talking back to you. And it’s a long conversation.
“It's not that you will always know what to do. You don’t. And I think that is the absolute thrill of painting. You are finding out things all the time. That’s beautiful.”
Having lived through Partition in 1947 and now the COVID-19 pandemic, and everything in between, Khanna has seen it all. It is perhaps this rich life experience that has inspired his versatile oeuvre comprising paintings, drawings, and sketches, both figurative and abstract.
But he doesn’t have a favourite medium or form. “It’s not like a marriage… I have known so many women, but the ultimate is my wife,” he laughed.
Born on July 9, 1925 in Faisalabad in present-day Pakistan, Khanna went through the trauma of being uprooted from his home when was in his early 20s, an experience that influenced a large number of his works.
His series on the ‘bandwallahs’ of Mumbai, truck drivers, and paintings inspired by his experiences of Partition are among his best known.
After moving to India following Partition, the feeling of being dislocated from a place that one calls home seemed ever present. He saw this feeling of being displaced in the hundreds of truck drivers travelling in and out of Delhi, and in the nameless, red uniformed ‘bandwallahs’ in Mumbai.
“I internalise what other people are going through…that is what I am going through also. I am not illustrating their lives. I used to see these fellows everyday… hundreds of trucks in Bhogal (in Delhi where many Sikhs migrated to after Partition, most of them becoming truck drivers) and talk to them. It was their livelihood.
“They were also people who were victims of Partition and they had no place to live in, so they lived in the trucks. They ate in the truck, and the truck was their home. The same thing with the ‘bandwallahs'. They were dislocated like everybody else was. I have great sympathies with these people,” the artist said. Khanna talks with the same compassion about the lakhs of migrants who lost their livelihoods and were forced to travel back in trucks, on bicycles and also on foot back to their villages due to the pandemic.
“Even today, when Covid has pushed so many people out of their jobs, and they have gone back to their villages…you know it is not a very happy situation.” Whether the artist’s sympathies for those who were part of this human tragedy have transformed into works of art yet, he did not reveal.
Khanna took up art professionally when he was in 40s, after 14 years of working as a banker. “(But) I was doing art all the time. From the age of seven or eight or nine, I think, and it was encouraged by my family. My father liked it. He himself used to paint, and it just grew out of that.
“I was in school in Lahore where I sat for some examination, which I did not know at the time was for the Royal Drawing Society in London. I got two certificates from there… that’s about as much as I received from my art training in a sense,” he said. His job at Grindlays Bank that took him to Bombay (now Mumbai) where he joined the iconic Bombay Progressive artists group in 1950 that encouraged the advent of avant-garde art in India. In 1962, he received the Rockefeller Fellowship, becoming the first Indian artist to do so.
Recalling his early days with contemporaries such as M F Husain, F N Souza, S H Raza, V S Gaitonde, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee and Ram Kumar, he said they were the “closest of friends”.
Life has gotten a little bit lonelier.
“When one painting was done, it would be seen by all. There would be discussions. And they were honest discussions. It wasn’t just ‘patting you on the back’. “We were the closest and dearest of friends, and the most honest to each other…something would happen and Husain would say, 'yeh kya kar diya' (what have you done?) I had all of my friends who are gone now. So, in a sense I am a little lonely on that score,” Khanna said.
To them, he said, art never was the “industry” it is made out to be today. “It’s not an industry. They are trying to make it…people with galleries… It is nice, of course, to have galleries, but the people who run these galleries also have got to be of a certain kind of spirit,” he said.This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.