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Artist Profile2
A spotlight on ‘Padma Bhushan’ Krishen Khanna
Veteran artist Krishen Khanna has been conferred with Padma Bhushan, the country’s second highest civilian award, for his exceptional and distinguished career. His work constitutes a powerful and passionate psychological engagement that also evocatively documents the time and events of modern India. “In my compositions, I’ve always tried to capture human emotions, and not make life studies," he has once revealed.

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. The young artist came into prominence after he started exhibiting his work at the Bombay Art Society, and 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. 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 also awarded the Padma Shri in 1990.

Apart from over 40 one-man shows at several leading galleries in India and abroad, his work has been presented at the Tokyo Biennale (1957, 1961), the Sao Paulo Biennale (1960) and the Venice Biennale (1962). Among his selected group exhibits are 'A Collection', Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai (2010-11); '10 x 10', Gallery Threshold, Delhi; ‘Black is Beautiful', India Fine Art, Mumbai; 'Essential, Eclectic,...Ephemeral', The Harrington Mansions, Kolkata (all in 2010); 'Bharat Ratna!', Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; 'Master Class', The Arts Trust, Mumbai; 'Kalpana', courtesy ICCR at Aicon Gallery, London (all in 2009).

A kaleidoscopic show of his iconic drawings and paintings was hosted last year at the LKA, Delhi. The retrospective charted his creative journey spanning several decades and many milestones. The veteran artist 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.

One of his most significant suites of drawings, entitled 'The Savage Heart', was showcased in 2008 at Cymroza Art Gallery, Mumbai. Krishen Khanna gave shape to this series through the haunting medium of darkness. More than charcoal or graphite, the judiciously applied smudge or the passing touch of pastel, it was through this deadly darkness that he traversed a time span of six decades, to revisit the horror and trauma of Partition, prompting him to speak of the unspeakable. The tragic human drama he saw almost six decades ago, which remained with him, was replayed through the drawings, enveloped by the bloody turn of events in which two warring nation-states, India and Pakistan, were created. The geographical division translated into a massive human tragedy, uprooting several million people, forced to abandon their ancestral homes forever, and thrust into an uncertain future engulfed by anguish and exile. His drawings summoned up all the receding horizons of stark memory. They choreographed history a carnival of destruction, as a danse macabre and selfhood’s diminution. The frames burst with bewildering figures entrapped in flight: refugees hit by the shocks of relentless assault, displacement and alienation.

Tracing this trajectory of exploration, he was also gripped by memories of India’s freedom struggle and the conquest of colonial rulers. In his drawings, he also dwelt on his favorite figures for decades: truckers in vehicles, resembling crumbled war chariots. Lauding his artistic excellence, Pheroza Godrej of Cymroza noted: “The controlled movement of each line, accompanied with a meaningful stroke of his pencil, communicates his refreshing thoughts, poignantly captured long ago in the artist’s mind. This dexterity presents a delightful treat to the viewer. Powerful, determined and effortless are the strokes that burst forth from the pencil of a master, who knows exactly how to express his mind and heart on paper. For a young impressionable mind, it was no easy task to comprehend the inescapable sordid happenings witnessed at the time of the Partition. His works have been skillfully executed from an almost photographically captured memory, bringing to life his journey through time.”

The residues of past remain submerged in his 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 postcolonial Indian artists. 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: if they owe much to the artist’s measured engagements with art history, they also spring from the quirkiness of his personal experience.”

The drawing is a form at which he excels. 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 unpredictable sometimes or generative of a precise geometry, at other times. 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: it tends to initiate a conversation and leaves its interpretation to the viewer’s own imagination. His drawings give the everyday observations their due like in the Bandwalla series. A strong bond marks the artist’s relationship with his subject matter as part of a quest to unravel the mystery of existence.

Art is his potent medium of communicating apparently ordinary cultural happenings that he make noteworthy through his acute observation and execution. Summing up his philosophy as an artist, he narrates: “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.”