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Krishen Khanna: Celebrating passion for Art and Life

Delving into the paintings of Krishen Khanna is like retracing the history of India through its jubilant Independence from imperialism, the trauma of Partition and the humdrum of subsequent challenges, represented in vivid colours, a feature heavily inspired from the European movement of fauvism. All of these aspects of India’s past were lived experiences for the contemporary artist and shaped his work and ideologies as he experimented with his brush over the years. Krishen Khanna was born in 1925 in Lyallpur, now known as Faisalabad in present day Pakistan, and in 1947 was forced to move to Shimla as a result of the Partition, subsequently moving to Britain on the RMS Strathmore to pursue his education in English at the Imperial Service College, London between 1938 and 1942. He returned to Lahore in 1942 to continue his education in Literature at the Government College, while taking art classes at the Mayo School of Art in the evenings, post which he took up employment at a branch of the Grindlays Bank in Mumbai, working there for the next 14 years. It was in Mumbai that Krishen Khanna was introduced to artists like M.F. Hussain, Akbar Padamsee and Tyeb Mehta, and was later inducted into the Progressive’s Artists Group in 1950 by Hussain, who remained one of Khanna’s closest friends; Krishen left his bank job in 1961, and went on to completely dedicate himself to art. Interestingly, his first painting was sold before his resignation, after Hussain popularised his work at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in the late 1950s; the painting was sold to the revered scientist Homi J. Bhabha.


Krishen Khanna often claims that it is the painting that has a stronger hold on him rather than the other way around; art is an impulse that kept him going without breaks and halts. His sheer fascination with art is often revealed through his words, “They call it drawing. I really have no name for it. It's a compulsion, an itch. The more I scratch, the more I want to continue. It is enjoyable but it can also hurt when nothing emerges but an incomprehensible mess. Was I taught to draw? Silly question really. How can one manipulate a compulsive itch? Try and stop it and see what happens. Bad temper, depression and a sickness of spirit. Emptiness.” Khanna believes that art is a tool to express the inner thoughts and feelings of the artist, disregarding all ambition for fame and popularity, an individual’s personal statement of truth that reveals his character and ideology; he wants his paintings to subtly put across his perspective based on his perceptions and observations, which are usually strongly coloured by his experiences during the nascent and subsequent years of free India. Partition was an especially painful time for the artist as he was not only rooted out of his home but was also exposed to the mass trauma and violence that was characteristic of that period. Equally poignant were his impressions of the Second World War, the wars with Pakistan and China and the neo-colonial wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, which shaped his perceptions on how brutal the world could be. For him, politics and identity were closely intertwined, and together worked to build a sense of humanity that was fluid and transient, an idea that the artist tries to portray through his hazy yet distinctly marked figures featured on various backgrounds and with numerous tools and instruments. Krishen Khanna has painted hurtling trucks carrying weary labourers and construction tools, politicians and leaders rounded around tables playing with the future of humanity, Christian symbolism usually centred on the last day of Jesus, colourfully dressed marching bands leading processions to their flowing tunes and animals shielded by grass and vegetation displaying their prowess and might through silenced gestures. The choice of each of these scenes and figures is based on some story or experience, which the artist is always eager to narrate, in his pursuit to retain and sustain the sincerity and narrative beauty of art. For instance, Khanna claims that his fascination with Christian imagery can be traced to when he was a six-year-old, when his father brought back a copy of the Last Supper from his trip to Milan. One recurring motif in several of Krishen’s paintings is the Bandwallah, a person who plays the band at weddings and joyous occasions. “Twenty years ago, when I painted in a studio at Garhi in East of Kailash every day, I stepped out on the street one afternoon to see this very colourful troupe of Bandwallahs totally blocking the road. They stopped me from moving on that galli – and yet, they also broke me out of my monochromatic palette that I had been using for several years. Their images lingered long in my mind,” Khanna was once quoted saying.


Krishen Khanna often fondly recollects his days with the Progressive Artist’s Group, the alliance that encouraged the artist to give up his corporate job and give himself to painting, as a profession and an interest. Among all the artists in the Group, Khanna was most attached to M.F. Hussain, the man who not only inducted Krishen into the group but also facilitated the first sale of his painting. Krishen often jokes, “He made me a member of PAG and in exchange I opened his first ever bank account” and recounts how Hussain used to store a large number of his paintings in Khanna’s house, some of which were later bought by the artist and his wife. Another anecdote that is a popular part of Khanna’s stories is from 1954, when Hussain and him decided to conduct an exhibition and used to spend nights together painting in the Barsati studio on Mathura Road, with Hussain taking a break only to offer namaaz, a practice that he soon gave up much to Khanna’s relief. Working and observing Hussain’s works had a huge impact on Khanna and shaped some of his styles and attitudes, resulting in a strong friendship that lasted intact even when the artists drifted apart in the pursuit of individual roads.


For the last 57 years, Krishen Khanna has fiercely engaged himself in painting and even today, at his veteran age, continues to wield the paintbrush with grit and tenacity. He has attended a large number of biennales at Venice, Havana, Sao Paulo and Tokyo as well as the Triennale in New Delhi; his art has been displayed at numerous exhibitions and shows across the world, including places like New York, New Orleans, Honolulu, Oxford, Washington D.C., Geneva and Japan. Since the 1960s, Krishen Khanna has received several plaudits, beginning with the Rockefeller Fellowship in 1962; he was the Artist in Residence at the American University between 1963 and 1964. In 1965, he was recognized for his work with the National Award from the Lalit Kala Academi and with the Fellowship of the Economics and Cultural Affairs, New York. He won a gold medal for the First Triennale of Contemporary World Art in New Delhi in 1968, following which he was specially invited by the West German government to the visit the country in the same year. In 1986, he received the President’s Award at the International Festival of Art at Baghdad, Iraq, and became a member of the International Jury at the Baghdad Festival of Art in 1988. The next year, he was lauded with a gold medal at the First Biennale of Art in Lahore, Pakistan, followed by an award from the Sahitya Kala Parishad, New Delhi. He received the Padma Shri in 1990 and the Padma Bhushan in 2011.

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