Dipping into monochromatic memories with Indian modern artist Krishen Khanna

Review of a new permanent gallery inaugurated by Indian art auction house Saffronart in New Delhi

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Untitled; Krishen Khanna (Source: Saffronart)

Home to some of India’s best-known art galleries and museums, New Delhi witnessed the inauguration of a new permanent gallery in the centre of the city last week. The gallery opened at The Claridges hotel on Thursday, and is owned by Indian art auction house Saffronart. But it isn’t just another gallery where socialites and connoisseurs alike schmooze about artworks over cocktails. While the socialising bit may be an imminent possibility at any art event, what this new gallery does is celebrate works of one of India’s last surviving modern artists – Krishen Khanna, who was once a member of the radical Progressive Artists Movement.

Known for his larger-than-life expressionist style of figurative work, with its flat forms and extremely bold colours, Khanna turns to monochromatic drawings in his latest exhibition. His use of graphite (or Conte as a medium) and charcoal on the canvas creates an impression of a man “returning to his memory bank of images with a display of astounding energy, even grandeur.” (Gayatri Sinha, exhibition catalogue.)

“I have used monochrome because if there is something I want to say, it is best to avoid the dynamics of colour.”
– Krishen Khanna

About 30 artworks have been mounted at the present exhibition. Ninety-two-year-old Khanna, known for being an unschooled artist, made these drawings over the past four or five years. The works have been sourced from private collections. The exhibition comes after a recent series of his works at Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery, showcasing a mix of his black and white drawings, and some colourfully exuberant oil paintings.

The underlying motifs of Khanna’s present series are journey, dispossession, conflict and narratives of the battlefield – all rooted in historical events (India’s partition in 1947, which he witnessed when he was 22) and mythological/religious texts (the Mahabharata and the Bible) that have inspired him a great deal. In some of his works, the narratives of the real and the textual fuse together, and take the form of a kaleidoscope of the human condition. As he stretches the limits of the human form and animals (drawing on his expressionist influence), the canvas offers a peep into the artist’s consciousness. By implication, the artist transforms real-life events and a career-long preoccupation with these texts into an intensely subjective artistic experience.

“I have always tried to capture human emotions in my compositions – not make life studies.”
– Krishen Khanna

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‘Benediction on a Battlefield’ (Source: Saffronart website)

In ‘Benediction on a Battlefield’, a diptych painting, Khanna shows the Pandavas wishing farewell to Bhishma Pitamah before his death in the Mahabharata. It’s an image that the artist has worked on for decades, according to Sinha, and stitches together the narrative of the partition into the epic themes of heroism, conflict and “monumental” errors.

In the Benediction painting, Pitamah is seated on a chariot as he blesses the Pandava brothers. The wheel of the chariot has a special figurative significance not only because it is a recurrent motif in Khanna’s works, but serves as a pre-partition reminder of an important 18th century landmark in Lahore city. The “majestic canon”, also called the Zamzama, represents conquest and war. It may have been, Gayatri informs us, “reduced in Krishen’s childhood to a play thing for children.” After all, Khanna was born in Faisalabad (earlier called Lyallpur) in 1925, not far from the city of Lahore, a former British colony.

If the Zamzama is a reminder of the battlefield, it’s also a catalyst for displacement and mass migration, a common occurrence during India’s partition – which witnessed one of the greatest migrations in human history.

Like pre-partition born artist Satish Gujral, the bifurcation of India in 1947 is a dominant theme in Khanna’s oeuvre, who often draws migrants and their cattle undertaking a journey through patches of agricultural fields and water bodies. Given the magnitude of the artist’s canvas, his depictions offer a cinematic quality to these real-life events, without ever romanticising a tragedy. In the sheer scale and ambition of his partition series, what is conspicuous is the tentativeness, the uncertainty and the secrecy of such journeys, that may or may not lead to a home.

As Khanna marks a thematic shift from the epic/heroic to the everyday/mundane – although both are depicted in massive artistic proportions – he comes across as a champion of the subaltern on the canvas. While the engagement with the subaltern is the product of his left-leaning Progressive Artists Group, his works are distinctly un-abstract, compared to some of his peers from the collective.

“I used to do abstracts earlier and I have now moved on to human forms. I thought that the person or the individual is being neglected – the person in a particular situation who is influenced by the conditions around. I want to now emphasise the human beings caught up in their particular condition.”
– Krishen Khanna to Saffronart

Somewhat influenced by the Indian miniature painting and childhood memories of the hunt, Khanna draws the falcons and their masters – as if to suggest that themes of hierarchy, persecution and journey exist not only in historical events or grand epics, but on the streets as well.  A similar artistic and thematic trope is deployed in the largest artwork at the exhibition, a triptych, which shows a lion and an elephant engaged in a wrestling fight. Both the animals are common subjects in Indian miniature paintings. Another drawing, ‘Gaja Moksha’ (The Elephant’s Liberation), shows a crocodile slaying an elephant, who is bigger than the reptile.

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Untitled (Source: Saffronart website)
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‘Gaja Moksha’ (Source: Saffronart website)

In a career spanning around seven decades, Khanna, somewhat like another modernist Bhupen Khakhar, has found artistic inspiration from people who belong to the fringes of the bigger social and historical narratives. For example, he has drawn the loaders on city trucks, daily wage earners, dabba walas, refugees, masons and carpenters. His Bandwallas series, seen at the Vadehra Art Gallery, particularly stands out in its treatment of exuberant colours with a “muralesque” touch. In fact, the quality of the mural, far exceeding the idea of an art form as purely a living room showcase, is seen through much of his oeuvre, including the present exhibition.

The subaltern in Khanna acquires a metaphorically layered representation when he draws Draupati being dragged by Dusashna, which is an episode from the Mahabharata. The two characters, locked in a potentially sexual conflict, are seen wearing working-class clothes which makes the whole scene resemble a street side crime or violation. In the “subalternisation” of an “epic crime”, Khanna reinforces his artistic intent of unmasking the realities of the human condition, instead of going abstract.

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Untitled; Draupati being dragged by Dusashna to his lap (Source: Saffronart)

In the end, one can argue, Khanna takes a leap from his (historically and literary rich) storytelling to drive home certain fundamental truths – the impermanence of life and lurking death, irrespective of social background, class and even era. In “The Graves – A Fine and Quiet Place,” bodies of a man and a woman are kept shrouded inside a coffin, with their hands clasped to each other.

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Untitled; Signed and inscribed ‘Krishen Khanna/ K Khanna/ Garhi-1999/ Andrew Marvel “The Graves A Fine And Quiet Place” (Source: Saffronart website)

While the theme of death is unmistakable in the drawing, the clasped hands and the subtitle (The Grave A Fine and Quiet Place) are an unambiguous departure from restless narratives of Khanna’s other drawings in the same series.

From displacement, migration, loss of home, conflict and persecution, the artist finally moves onto the landscape of home (in death, however), belongingness, and a sense of things settling down. The artwork serves as a metaphorical culmination of the narrative of journey that has fed Khanna’s artistic imagination.

(Note: The exhibition will be on view until November 13, 2016 from 11 am – 7 pm. A series of works by artist Ram Kumar will be mounted at the gallery from December 14 – December 31, 2016. The gallery will also host more exhibitions and auction previews, apart from art talks and events with other galleries.)

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Published by

Ankush Arora

Delhi boy; dreamer, nature lover, photographer. Development communications professional. Ex-Reuters, NDTV. This is a personal blog.

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