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Artist Profile2
Tracing the career graph of a celebrated Modernist
“Art can provide you with the metaphysical answers you have been looking for even whilst 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,” so has stated Krishen Khanna, elaborating on his philosophy as an artist.

Considered one of most acclaimed Modernists, he has had a profound influence on the Indian art scene. His deft deployment of paint masterfully portrays the human situation. They are akin to highly nuanced narratives in which the artist plays out his formal concerns, as well as the shifting and unfolding drama of human relationships. The thick impasto surface often appears like a prism through which one may discern figures, as if evoking memory or visiting remote areas of childhood. The works stand for his technical virtuosity, complex narratives, and his interest in human relationships.

Born in Lahore in 1925, he learnt art at evening classes conducted at the Mayo School of Art, Lahore. In the wake of India’s Partition, he moved to Simla, and thereafter to New Delhi. He came into prominence after he started exhibiting his work at the Bombay Art Society. He was invited in 1949 to show with the Progressives. In the mid-fifties he became a full time painter, giving up his career as a banker.

Krishen Khanna has had over 40 one-man shows at several leading galleries in India and abroad. He has participated in the Tokyo Biennale (1957, 1961), the Sao Paulo Biennale (1960) and in the Venice Biennale (1962). He won the National Award of the LKA, Delhi in 1965 and the Gold Medal at the First Triennale of Contemporary World Art, Delhi in 1968. He was awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India in 1990.

A kaleidoscopic showcase of his many iconic works as well as some recent paintings was recently presented at the Lalit Kala Akademi (LKA), Delhi. The retrospective charted his creative journey spanning several decades and many milestones. In his new series, Krishen Khanna rewound the clock back to his pre-partition life in Lahore. It was largely a recollection of events from his early childhood, when fight between Indian freedom fighters and the British rulers was at its peak. The large format oil compositions done in monochrome served as an extension of his memories in Lahore’s cosmopolitan settings.

The series included an oil drawing of an old homeopathic doctor and an ardent Congressman, Gurbaksh Rai, bidding goodbye to his family members after being arrested by the British police. One of the canvases depicted his uncle going to a neighboring town along with his family. He was stopped in the way by the police, and threatened to shoot him. Fortunately, they didn't! Another composition was about the blood-filled violence unleashed after the Partition. He used monochrome because, to put it in the artist’s words, ‘if there’s something I wish to say, it’s best to avoid the dynamics of color’.

As is evident, Krishen Khanna’s art always has had a specific biographical, historical and social context. For example, regarding his famous series of bandwallahs (musicians) in the 1970s, he has once explained: “Some people would have me disassociate the drawing completely from the actual bandwallahs to preserve some kind of 'Purity'. I cannot think that this kind of 'Purity' can add any kind of richness, so I neither obliterate my sources nor the transformations they undergo on canvas or on paper.”

According to the artist, his subject matter is of utmost importance to him, and (it) 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.” He has mentioned. “What is certain, and this gives me some comfort, is that a moment of my life was spent in such absorption which bypassed time.”

His drawings and paintings constitute a powerful psychological engagement, one that also serves to document the time and events witnessed in modern India. “In my compositions, I’ve always tried to capture human emotions, and not make life studies," says, Krishen Khanna, summing up his philosophy as an artist.