Many artists, according to Krishen Khanna, are less than thrilled at the idea of a retrospective show of their works. This is because they see it as a farewell of sorts, where they are being told to “pack (their) bags and go to sleep”. Khanna says that he is not among them. In fact, he is quite looking forward to his retrospective at the Lalit Kala Akademi in New Delhi, and for the same reasons as everyone else—a chance to see the paintings he has made over the years displayed under one roof.
The oldest works on display at the show, put together by the Saffronart online auction house, will be the ones he painted in 1943-44. The latest will include the paintings done last month.
Khanna speaks the kind of good English—in complete, grammatically correct sentences, often using words and phrases that are falling into disuse—that goes back to a time when fewer people knew the language. In an extended conversation over the phone, his sense of courtesy comes through, even, for instance, when he expresses his disappointment over “quasi-government bodies” that are not allowing some of his paintings to be shown for “bureaucratic reasons”. These works, which are listed in the show catalogue, and were packed and ready to be shipped, were withheld at the last minute. Khanna’s desire to include in the show works that are in the National Gallery of Modern Art collection also ran into bureaucratic hurdles and he finds the situation “frustrating and sad”.
Classicist: Khanna welcomes the new trends in the art world, but with an air of caution. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
“We talk about our culture but we don’t really believe in it,” he says, recalling how the late Tyeb Mehta had been promised a retrospective which never happened. “We don’t accord it the kind of importance that we should.”
He says he is looking forward to the show in the hope of gaining greater self-knowledge. There will, for instance, be the opportunity to see the recurring themes in his works—such as his series of paintings of trucks and his depiction of the apostle Thomas, who refused to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead until he felt his wounds with his hands. Khanna reads an East-West divide in this story—he feels that in the Indian tradition “faith is the bottom line”, whereas Europe, with its philosophical tradition, demands proof in the manner of Thomas.
Another instructive shift for Khanna was the transformation of his generals into bandwallahs. He explains how he started out, by painting military people—“showing the teeth of the State”—with their uniforms, caps and epaulettes, but somewhere down the line moved to depicting wedding brass-band players. They share a certain similarity in attire with the generals but lead an altogether more precarious existence. “Colours take over here (in the paintings) because their uniforms are very colourful,” Khanna observes, recalling a line by the poet Shelly: Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.
Khanna had no formal training as an artist, and was working at a bank when he decided to quit his job and pursue painting full time. He recalls fellow artists M.F. Husain, V.S. Gaitonde and Bahu Chawla waiting for him outside the bank when he quit. Khanna became a younger associate of the famous Progressive school of artists, which included Husain, Gaitonde, Mehta and S.H. Raza—all artists with their own distinctive styles who came together because of their adherence to the sense of form, or the idea that the “picture had to be formally correct.”
To say that the art scene in India has changed radically since then would be an understatement, and Khanna is cautious in his endorsement of the changes. “There are debits and credits,” he says of the money that has poured into art over the last decade and a half. “We never thought we would get the amounts of money raised,” he says. “We did all right.”
But he believes that the commercial boom in the art mart lulled young artists into a false sense of well-being. “When the sad times came they were left high and dry.”
Khanna sounds similarly ambivalent about new media in art—installations, video art and the like. It is, he points out, a bigger challenge to be a painter today. “It is tougher to continue with painting, seeking changes from within the medium, than abandoning the medium and seeking a new one.” His own inclinations become clear when he recalls visiting fellow artist Akbar Padamsee in Mumbai once. Padamsee handed him a brand new movie camera which he had received as part of a fellowship, and asked him to film whatever he wanted. Khanna took the camera, kept it for a week and never used it.
Having witnessed a lifetime worth of changes, Khanna chooses to keep the faith. “Good painting will prevail, I am very hopeful,” he says. “Even the best of us can paint a bad picture. It is part of a search. Some (works) succeed much more, but that doesn’t invalidate the ones that don’t…” A viewer, he feels, should “have the insight and the compassion to see the works in this light…with empathy”.
The Krishen Khanna retrospective is on at the Lalit Kala Akademi, Rabindra Bhavan, Feroze Shah Road, New Delhi, until 5 February.