Silence and soliloquy

Quddus Mirza

On any road in the South Asia, you come across a few men wearing bright colourful uniforms, balancing their musical instruments, while riding in a rickshaw or van. These professionals, the bandwallas, perform at weddings and other celebratory events. This is a sight that evokes pity, compassion and excitement – all at the same time.

Clad in the Scottish or white Western dresses, of varying ages and backgrounds, they play various instruments and typically march ahead of wedding processions. In the scorching heat, pouring rain or freezing cold, their attire – often loose, wrinkled and stained – is unchanged. These people signify merriment. They also represent some power, because a group of men in uniform, is bound to invoke power, especially in heavily militarised countries having a history of dictatorship and colonial rule.

These bands, earning meagre bread, are a relic from the past. Both the musical instruments and uniforms were introduced by the English masters in India, and continued after the Independence. The tunes they play have been expanded to include national anthems, popular songs and folk music. The bands also illustrate a class divide in the society. Those at the top end are part of national day parades and recruited and trained in the Armed Forces. Lesser ones are hired by affluent people, and the lowest of the lowly (usually from small towns and villages) ply their services for minimal compensation.

On the outside, they embody grandeur, order and excellence. In reality, they are a parody for all these notions. They are poorly paid, perform in terrible conditions and are treated like servants when it comes to serving food - yet they entrain people. Looking like well-dressed labourers who possess a unique skill, this section of society is an enigma for many reasons. Not surprisingly, they have attracted a number of creative individuals.

Krishan Khanna is one of them. Fascinated by the bandwallas, he has used their images in his solo exhibition, Paintings from My Sitting Room, (held online from May 21 to June 3, 2021, at Grosvenor Gallery, London. The works couldn’t be dispatched because there were no UK-bound flights from India during Covid lockdowns). The grand old master of Indian art painted the brass bands in oil on canvas – and all in 2021. Khanna observes: “In this current atmosphere, one can become very depressed, but fortunately for me there are the bandwallas who are still making a noise. When I’m painting them, I have to concentrate fully on them. The bandwallas take prime position in my life right now”. However, these professionals remained a favourite subject for the 95 years old artist, who portrayed them in 1999 and 2000, too. In fact, his attention can be traced to 1960s, “when he was stuck in a Delhi traffic jam by a raucous wedding procession”.

Figures in caps, coats and trousers, and holding their trumpet, bugle, flute, tuba, drums, sousaphone look like ghosts playing in a space beyond/devoid of time.

Born in Lyallpur (present day Faisalabad), Krishan Khanna spent most of his early life in Lahore. Living at 2, Maclagan Road, he went to the Sacred Heart and Cathedral Schools, and earned his BA from the Government College, Lahore (1944). He was awarded the Kipling scholarship and attended Imperial Service College in UK that trained young men to join civil service. Khanna was from a different mould. He loved Persian poetry, English literature and drawing. In 1946, he participated in the annual exhibition of Punjab Art Society.

After migrating to India in 1948, Khanna met several artists from the Progressive Artists Group, including FD Souza, MF Husain, VS Gaitonde, SH Raza, Tyeb Mehta and Akbar Padamsee. Primarily a self-taught painter, Krishan Khanna became an important voice in the new art of India. In his book of memories and anecdotes published in 2002, he narrates interesting episodes about artists, Indians as well as others like Roberto Matta and Rufino Tamayo.

In the book, Khanna describes art or drawing as “a compulsion, an itch. The more I scratch it, the more I want to continue.” He has continued with the image making practice for almost 70 years. His recent canvases, in a sense are ‘painted drawings’ because smearing, smudging and scrawling define the form. Figures in caps, coats and trousers, and holding their trumpet, bugle, flute, tuba, drums, sousaphone look like ghosts playing in a space beyond/devoid of time. The haunting expression of these characters in peak caps and formal attire (signs of power) turn them into the most powerless, if not pathetic, individuals you encounter in paintings, films, literature and life.

The disfiguration of these music-makers may seem strange only if we detach their ceremonial dresses – which echo another type: of the top brass that controls a number of countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Rubbed out faces, flattened features, distorted contours bring to mind a wider content – than merely a representation of the bandwallas. Artists – and writers, often pick a simple and familiar form, but convey something more complex, personal or political.

In Khanna’s case, a 95-year-old referring back to his already tried theme of the bandwallas, one feels that what he renders in 2021, is not the workers who require our sympathy, attention and love; but may be him and his (dead) friends. The fact that Krishan Khanna attended an institution in England that prepared its pupils to dig trenches and put a “greater emphasis on matters military”, resulting in his passing “Certificate A of the British War Office”, has something to do with reverting to uniformed band players. Perhaps it is a means to resurrect the institution of power, because as the artist says, their “uniforms add grandeur and also give them a certain anonymity, almost like the military personnel”. Khanna’s bandwallas look like caricatures of themselves – just as the Scottish (or formally clad) legacy is a mimicry of the English model that was introduced and faithfully, if futilely, followed here.

On a personal note, probably one of the last surviving members of the Progressive Artist Group, he paints band players as a yearning for his long-gone group of companions and friends. To an extent Paintings from My Sitting Room are ‘paintings from my memory’, the memory of life; or The Time of My Life, the collection of his writings and drawings.

August 11, 2021