Getting in a flashback mode

Krishen Khanna and Jehangir Sabavala, two doyens of contemporary Indian art, recently came face to face with art lovers. The interactive session at the Windsor Sheraton, Bangalore, had the two artists sharing thoughts about their work and their views on art, in general.

Both the artists recalled their early days and how they were initiated in the art world, and then went on to speak about some of the issues related to today's art world. Krishen Khanna recounted that when he took up painting in the early 1960s, money was never on his mind. In fact, when he gave up his decade-long career in banking and when he started painting, nobody talked about money, he added to say, giving an insight into the mindset of the artists of his generation, "The process of painting was in itself complete."

The versatile artist, whose life and work has been well documented in the book 'Krishen Khanna: A Critical Biography', by Gayatri Sinha, Krishen Khanna is known for his wide-ranging oeuvre through its many phases, from the charming innocence of his initial efforts to his flirting with abstract expressionism. The transitions have been many-fold through realism, his subaltern twists, his preoccupation with the tragic figure of Christ and Biblical themes (in the context of today), his celebrated bandwalas and migrant workers and more lately his nostalgia-imbued works.

Among Khanna's more ambitious and courageous works is the mural, 'The Great Procession'. Created for the huge dome in the lobby of the ITC Maurya Sheraton Hotel in New Delhi, it is a painterly epic of our times. Khanna, who traveled the world on a scholarship from the Rockefeller Council and became a resident artist at the Washington University, had a few words of advice to young artists as well before he summed up. "Get a foothold in this country before looking for accolades and acceptance elsewhere," he said. "This is where you belong and this is where you gain your cultural sustenance." To illustrate his point he narrated an incident when he once asked another great artist, F.N. Souza, who had already gained recognition in the West, whether he would like to return to India. "Of course, I will," was Souza's immediate response, "to recharge my batteries!"

Along side Jehangir Sabavala too went into the flashback mode. When it was his turn to speak, he remembered: "When we started painting, we were only looking to create that special quality and character in our works, and nothing else mattered. We certainly did not paint just to please anyone - either the prospective buyers or the critics. It was difficult to get even a one-line write up in the newspapers those days.

But we did carry on as a small band of artists, associating ourselves with people from other professions - writers, thinkers, and even philosophers. A very rough road has been traversed. Now, it is very nice to see a flood of young people who are having it relatively easy. But then, that is their due."

The veteran painter is known for his paintings that have a gentle, pleasing, dreamlike and charming quality about them. They soothe, they transport one to a higher plane. Arun Khopkar had made a memorable film on Sabavala and his work. A book on him by Ranjit Hoskote and Richard Lannoy titled "Pilgrim, Exile, Sorcerer" traces Sabavala's life from his rather privileged upbringing, to his apprenticeship in some of the leading studios in Europe, and then to his return to a newly-independent India. It is not a book to be read at one stretch, rather to be dipped into, every now and then, while appreciating some of the well-reproduced paintings that accompany the text.

Sabavala's studies and travels in France under the apprenticeship of Andre Lhote and the influence of Flinenger resulted in a classical cubist style. The artist, who maintains this style to this day while painting his ethereal landscapes, felt that the West is yet to wake up to Indian art. 'If you have a show abroad, out of an audience of 100, you will see only four or five Western faces. All the rest are Indian. But others from the East, say Chinese or Korean artists, command better acceptance and recognition because they are older in the Western world compared to us." Sabavala is confident, though, that "the day is not far off, when they don't think of you only as an Indian artist, but respect you for the true value of your works.'

Their advice to prospective art collectors: "To be a collector, you must first fall in love with art. It's as simple as that!" Khanna went on to say: "I would even say, you must resist buying it in the first instance. Let it follow you, tease you, and cajole your senses so much that you start loving it. Then you can resist no more and you will start feeling obsessed by it. Acquisition, then, happens naturally. And because you love it so much, you will also find it difficult to part with it," he concluded.

View Krishen Khanna's catalogue

View Jehangir Sabavala's works

view all articles