In his new series of works, leading Indian contemporary artist Krishen Khanna has travelled back in time to his days in pre-partition Lahore, which today lies in Pakistan.
“They are mostly a recollection of events that I have seen in my early childhood – when tension between the British rulers and Indian freedom fighters was escalating,” Delhi-based Khanna told IANS in an interview.
The 84-year-old artist is preparing for a retrospective exhibition at the Lalit Kala Akademi Jan 23 to be organised by the Mumbai-based online gallery Saffronart.
Khanna has completed five large format oil compositions in monochrome, which he says are an extension of his memories of Maclagan Road in Lahore, where he lived in a cosmopolitan neighbourhood “with Parsis, Sikhs, Christians and Muslims”.
“The series begins with an oil drawing of Gurbaksh Rai, an old homeopathic doctor saying goodbye to his family after being arrested by police. He was an ardent Congressman. I have used monochrome because if there is something I want to say, it is best to avoid the dynamics of colour. Then you are not dealing with the man – the subject matter – any more,” Khanna said.
The artist then moves on to terrorists “trying to find a target in the way Bhagat Singh scouted for one” and also “reminisces about an English lady who taught his mother how to read and speak the language”.
“One of my canvases depicts my uncle going to Pakpattan, a neighbouring town, with his family. He is stopped by the police, who threaten to shoot him. Fortunately, they don’t.
“Another composition is about the ethnic cleansing that took place soon after partition where a woman finds herself at the bottom of a horse cart during the ethnic cleansing and a former Parsi armyman turned dentist in Lahore,” the artist said, describing his new body of works.
The retrospective spans six of Khanna’s works from 1943.
“One had to be choosy about the art works, but several of my compositions – especially the black and white series – are abroad in the US and Europe. There are a lot of holes in the chronology,” Khanna said.
Walking down memory lane, the artist said he enjoyed working on his black and white series of ink sketches that he started on while in Honolulu.
“I worked in a bath tub because I feared messing up the room. Most of them were shapes that I saw at the bottom of the tub. I used to pour water through the sides of the papers in rivulets to smudge the colours on the surface for a blurred look. It was a convenient method. I took most of my black-and-white works for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and at the Charles Egan Gallery,” Khanna recalled.
“You can see five of them at the National Gallery of Modern Art in the capital, which is also planning another retrospective,” the artist said.
Khanna lamented that “his friend Tyeb Mehta, who grew up with him Lahore, could not manage a retrospective”.
“I am lucky that I did,” he said.
Born in 1925 at Faislabad in Pakistan, Khanna grew up in Lahore. He studied art after graduating from the Mayo School of Fine Arts. In 1947, his family moved to Shimla after partition. It found a way into his early works.
Most of Khanna’s works are figurative. “I used to do abstractions earlier, but now I have moved to human forms,” he said.
Khanna has always “loved connecting to the masses through his art”.
“In the 1970s and the 80s, I painted a series of trucks ferrying workers – and coloured them with the shades of people and goods the vehicles were carrying. They were mostly monochromatic pictures,” he said.
Around the same time, the artist started working on Christ as a subject. “I was looking at Jesus Christ as a holy and otherworldly person striving and going through existence. He was a carpenter’s son and the state rose against him,” Khanna said.
“I know the Bible,” he added.
“If you look at my series on the Bandwallahs – whom I remember from my days in Lahore where the sahibs and the memsahibs used to listen to them – there is something sad about those people despite the colourful compostions. I have always tried to capture human emotions in my compositions – not make life studies,” Khanna said.
The artist, who has exhibited all over the world in his career spanning more than six decades, has been bestowed several honours, including the Lalit Kala Ratna from the president of India in 2004 and the Padma Shri in 1990.