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‘The Savage Heart' by Krishen Khanna


Powerful, determined, albeit effortless are the strokes, which burst forth from the pencil of a master. Krishen Khanna knows exactly how to express his mind and heart through deft images on paper. Mumbai-based Cymroza Art Gallery presents an exhibit of drawings, entitled ‘The Savage Heart' by the veteran artist.

His works have been executed skillfully from an almost photographically captured memory, bringing to life his journey through testing times. It must not have been an easy task for a young impressionable mind to comprehend the inescapable sordid happenings at the time of the country’s partition.

Born in Lahore in 1925, he mastered art at the 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. Many of his works are reproductions of scenes that have imprinted themselves on his mind. He was profoundly moved by the events he witnessed during the Partition of India in 1947.

The scenes he witnessed, almost over six decades ago, have remained with him, etched in his memory, and are replayed through the drawings that form crux of this exhibition. Migration with the bare necessities; forty-winks caught hiding in a farmers field; over-laden horse carriages; bidding good-bye and a poor man's solace, through music, are some of the powerful, grey narratives of his graphite drawings.

The masterly executed drawings give a new touch to the mundane everyday and tragic observations their due place in the history- be it the Bandwalla series or the scribe looking for his ancestors. There lies a strong bond between the artist and his chosen subjects - both on a quest to solve the mystery of human existence. The importance of India's vast working class is recorded in great detail.

All these facets have been meticulously recorded in a recent book ‘Krishen Khanna: Images in My Time’ (Published by Lund Humphries). It explains how the artist’s work engages the social, historical and political landscape of the country. The book discusses the socio-political context, which motivated a generation of Indian artists including Krishen Khanna. It places the artist's work in its biographical, historical and social context through the examination of several of his paintings.

In any discussion of his work the ‘Bandwallas’ series feature prominently. He has stated: “What has drawn me to the bandwallas is the context they come from. They are a legacy of the Raj. The British left the bandwallas in India and now all wedding processions look like parades. Everyone must fall in line. The bandwallas themselves wear glittering uniforms of a general and resemble the grandeur of the army except for their footwear. I see them as a relic of the past.”

The artist dabbled in abstraction as a member of the Progressive Artists Group, a brief movement by artists striving towards modernity and challenging India's caste-driven structure, but ultimately he returned to representational art. “They call it drawing. I really have no name for it. It's a compulsion, an itch. It is enjoyable but it can also hurt when nothing emerges but an incomprehensible mess…" These are his words to describe his art. He transfers his observations onto the canvas, with spontaneity and exuberance, without obliterating his subject matter.

Regarding his artistic influences, he has stated: “I don’t believe that there are any major influences on my work. On the other hand, I have met so many wonderful people and have been exposed to so much work by other artists. In fact, in my house you will hardly find any painting of mine. They are all works of other people. All these can influence you at one level. Art for me is the ultimate bliss. 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.”

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