The Pioneer: Epic Narratives

Article on Krishen Khanna by Uma Nair




Epic narratives

For Krishen Khanna, politics and identity remain fluid in the larger quest for humanity. Uma Nair profiles the artist who turned 93

A 93-year-old artist whose work engages the social, historical and political landscape of India, Krishen Khanna, the think tank of contemporary Indian art, needs no introduction.

Krishen is an erstwhile banker who sold his first painting to Homi Bhabha for the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. He is also the creator of the historic mural Procession of Life painting at the dome of ITC Maurya Hotel, Delhi.



Compositional integrity can be a curious thing. And meandering through his drawings and paintings, that go through a host of themes from life and literature, myths and social mores, this solidity is unshakeable. Artist, writer and iconoclast Jagdish Swaminathan penned the pulse of Krishen Khanna’s overview of an artistic life with a sensitive reading when he wrote: “From the series on the truck — the ramshackle juggernaut hurtling into space piled up with construction materials and brutalised labour, to the generals and politicians negotiating peace around the table with the skeleton of humanity lying under it, to Jesus and his betrayal, to the cacophonic irrelevance of the marching band, Krishen has been preoccupied in his work with the state and fate of man in our times.” His earliest work of refugees on a train present this predicament aptly.



Krishen has made drawings of Christ and Rumi to everyday inspiration from the mundane icons of city life like trucks and bandwallahs. Reminiscing over his poignant bandwallah series, Khanna said, “I am moved by Chaplinesque situations which involve dual emotions. On the face of it, they can be very funny, even ridiculous. But there is a kind of pathos beneath it all. I see the bandwallah as a relic of the past, appropriated by Punjabis and the northern population in general for their marriage processions and the like. They turn into areas of colour and have little correspondence with those who instigated them. Their cacophony too turns into a clash of colours, which I think is more coherent to the senses. It follows that my subject matter is important to me and is not fortuitous. Dependent on this choice are the means which will reveal it. Nor is it ever certain that every venture will be successful. What is certain, and which gives me some comfort, is that a moment of my life was spent in such absorption that bypassed time.”

Khanna wanted to put the spotlight on individuals who often belonged to society and contributed in humble ways. Bordering on the narrative, his work captures moments of history, much like photographs do, but the artist’s technique is far from photo-realists. Khanna transfers his observations on the canvas with spontaneity and exuberance, keeping the representational elements of his subject matter intact. The artist’s use of colour and his expressionist brushwork make the mundane rise to the challenge of the creative.



The residue of time remains submerged in Khanna’s art and the horror of the haunting past pulses beneath the outwardly calm surface. Fathoming his art and life, critic-curator Ranjit Hoskote mentions, “Krishen Khanna was a witness to these cataclysmic events at first hand, and gradually embarked on the course that would establish him as a distinguished member of the first generation of post-colonial Indian artists. As a connoisseur of extreme conditions, he invokes not only the desperate and the damned, but also the quixotic, and the sublimely mad. His portraits of dervish-like figures, and of saints with matted hair and rough garments exploring the wilderness, have a dual origin, which is, if they owe much to the artist’s measured engagements with the history of art, they also spring from the quirkiness of his personal experience.”



Krishen excels at monochromatic drawings. For him, it’s a continuous discipline about which the master practitioner quips, “I invite chance.” His line, wavy and scraggly by turns, gets spiky and sometimes unpredictable or at other times, generative of a precise geometry. Serving as the perfect probing device to satiate his artistic quest, it’s not predicated upon a semblance of conceptual closure and formal completeness, unlike the painting that tends to initiate a conversation and leaves its interpretation to the viewer’s own imagination.

His drawings give the daily observations their due like in Benediction on the Battlefield, a painting derived from the epic Mahabharata that shows Bhishma Pitamah, the warrior teacher of the Pandavas and the Kauravas, dying on the battlefield. The acrylic and charcoal on canvas depicts the teacher propped up against the wheel of a chariot, surrounded by the Pandavas. Like several other works in this show, benediction follows a monochromatic pattern, which according to the artist, is “Because if there is something I want to say, it is best to avoid the dynamics of colour.”

Krishen revels in the power of the narrative and uses the contour as a potent medium of communicating apparently ordinary cultural happenings that he makes noteworthy through his acute observation and execution. Summing up his philosophy as an artist, he narrates, “Art can provide you with the metaphysical answers that you have been looking for even while you are involved in its creation. 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. Yet, for me, art is the ultimate bliss.”

“The function of art is not decorative. True art defeats time, place and people. Art must go beyond a pretty picture. My gaze is independent of my pencil-holding hand. I think I could shut my eyes without ceasing to scribble. Someone says, ‘A map of an unknown galaxy’, ‘The pencil has become an extension of the nerves of my hand’ and other such nonsense. Sustained scribbling achieves only a small inroad which may dislodge an image. Sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? But it isn’t always so. I would repeat the contours of a subject I have tackled before, which is not to say that I would not go back to the same subject in the hope of discovering another dimension,” said Krishen Khanna, a long time ago.



For Khanna, politics and identity remain fluid in the larger quest for humanity. His paintings constitute a powerful psychological engagement, serving as a document of the passage of time in modern India. Biblical themes have been a part of his repertoire. He has done  a series of paintings on Jesus Christ, like The Last SupperGarden at Gethsemane, Betrayal, Christ’s Descent from the Cross, Pieta, Emmaus and The Raising of Lazarus.

Krishen’s Last Supper has a changed dynamic where he creates characters sitting at a square table. These are the dark tones that set the mood while it speaks to us about modern day renditions. Of great intent and insight is his Pieta created in Prussian and midnight blue tones. Christ is the character of conversations but it is Mary and Magdalene who give us the evocations.

Concentration and deepened passion merge into one as you study India’s master. He once said, “The Christ series was set here in Nizamuddin in Delhi and appears as current happenings. I created Christ as a modern figure, wandering among us or sleeping with us... I painted Jesus, not in the form of the image given by European painters but as one of the fakirs one sees in and around Hazrat Nizamuddin.”

July 17, 2018