EXHIBITION - Krishen Khanna (Aug 05-Oct 22, 2005) :

In viewing Krishen Khanna's work, it is his background as an artist and observer of a historical context that provides a backdrop with which to view this collection of recent works.

"In an output of painting that exceeds fifty years, Krishen Khanna the artist attracts more than one reading of his work... For some viewers, he has come to be seen as a genre painter, a narrativist who weaves and spins images out of fragments of time. On the other end of the spectrum he is an artist who encapsulates the climatic episode of myth or poetry into the painted image With the benefit of hindsight Krishen Khanna's paintings may be arranged into serial narratives, of areas of renewed interest that recur with unpredictable regularity. Krishen Khanna has tended to engage with his subjects as if in an extended and somewhat unstructured conversation between old friends, in which figures from another time often wander in and out of the frame.

Krishen Khanna's art practice is embedded in the unfoldment of his own life experiences. With his colleagues he belongs to the generation that experienced painting and independence, painting for independence and painting from a position of independence. In a clear paradox, his art springs from observation of life lived around himself but it is not an intimate act of confession or self examination. In this way, Krishen is central to his own practice as mediator and interpreter, but never as subject. He assumes the position of the narrator or katha vachak, looking outward to the other rather than the self. The central image then is of the artist as commentator, who through painted gesture and narrative seems to set up threads of connectivity.

From the late 1940's , guided by senior artists like SB Palsikar, Krishen began to exhibit his work at the Bombay Art Society, the well established if conservative site for modern art in India. Founded in 1888, it exercised considerable influence as an exhibition venue, that also awarded prizes in the competitive section. In 1949 Krishen was invited to show with the Progressives In a critical decision to become a full time painter and to abandon his career as a banker, Krishen came to Delhi in the early 1960's with a family of three small children and his wife Renu.

It was a period that witnessed three wars with China and Pakistan, and the growth of the city from a sleepy town to a city that mediated through covert power structures, of complex political alignments and an uneven process of modernization. Krishen's increasingly figurative bent with strong sociological observation, and a deviation from his early commitment to significant form in his painting can be traced to this period. While many Indian artists during these decades have slipped in and out of experimentation with other media, Krishen has remained faithful to painting and drawing as central to his art practice. Retrospectively, in a career that has spanned nearly six decades his large body of work places him at the apex of engagement with everyday Indian life. How he mediates this engagement, the parables and play that he brings into view are the determinants of how we may read his paintings."

This background on both, Krishen's personal situation and his response to a dramatically changing social, political and economic landscape, gives us a lens with which to view and begin to understand his work. His paintings have carved out spheres of iconic imagery that allow us, as viewers, to both isolate his subject matter, yet apply the imagery across universal situations and times. There are several important areas of iconic images in Krishen's work presented in this exhibition and three that will emerge as especially important are: Biblical references, the Hindu epic Mahabharata, and references to his childhood and memories of changing surroundings.

"Krishen's engagement with Biblical allegory and Hindu myth has served as his instrument of engagement during troubled periods in India polity. The fact that Krishen's labouring men are reimaged in the Christ cycle of paintings indicate how he brings the economically disenfranchised and the religious minority on the same plane. His early paintings on the Christ cycle, such as, Betrayal (1955) and St. Francis and the birds (1957) anticipate the more reflective and cogent Christ paintings of a challenging period in modern Indian history The decade of the 1970's with the Bangladesh war, the emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi and the resultant political turmoil challenged and demolished the Nehruvian utopia of the 1950's. From the late 1960's Krishen engaged in a series of paintings on the Christ that start with The Last Supper, and the Garden at Gethsemane and gradually culminate in the Betrayal, Christ's descent from the Cross, the Pieta, and Christ's reappearance at Emmaus. The series gains significance not only because of its appearance during the emergency, a period of midnight arrests, censorship of the press and a repressive state machinery, but because of the kinship it shares with Krishen's other work of the 1970's period, in a climate in which power masquerades as order, and colonial laws which are hostile to the subject are still operative.

Through a lack of physical detail, the paintings aspire towards a quality of timelessness. This figuration and facial type, common to his Christ figures, the labourers packed into trucks on Delhi's dark bleak roads, or the wayside figures hunched over a cup of tea in the street dhaba are hewn out of the same forms of hard endurance. Krishen Khanna is probably the first painter of the unromanticised subaltern who does not lend it the redeeming rhythms of his contemporary Husain or else the abstracted spaces and forms of Tyeb Mehta. The manacled Christ, the tangle of the sleeping apostles in the garden of Gethsemene or the rough men supping with the Christ at Emmaus show a kinship with his exhausted labourers sleeping beneath their dusty trucks. Biblical narratives have been variously interpreted by the Progressive Artists Group and bear out interesting points of comparison. In Francis Newton Souza’s work the narratives of the New Testament serve like a form of aggressive self definition. Souza's saints are iconically rendered like Byzantine figures defined by the dark outlines of artist Rouault, rendering them disturbing, even menacing His painted Christ shifts in register from the sexual to the violently persecuted, often supported by powerful Pieta figures The other Modernist who engaged in a series of paintings of the saints, Akbar Padamsee, presented them with a fixed iconcity and a deep, sombre dignity. These paintings form an interesting point of comparison as post colonial subjects. Certainly in both Souza and Krishen Khanna’s work the Christ becomes emblematic of resistance to persecution, and what Krishen speaks of as "the tragic and perfidous in man" . As artists, they bring to the Christ cycle the coherence of narrative and an explicit conflict with figures of authority, symptomatic of public life in the subcontinent.

Further the fact that Krishen locates the passive rebellion of Christ not within the mainstream faiths of post colonial India, but in the Christ narratives speaks of a politically defined climate of minority persecution, in which resistance becomes not only individual but cultural. By stripping his images of specific location Krishen in fact problematizes the idea of cultural identity and resistance, the great epic.

Krishen's other engagement with the fabric of myth has been with Indian epics notably the Mahabharata. Typically Indian epics and mythic narratives codified as the Puranas that further elaborate on narrative cycles contained in the great epics comprise an episodic structure, in which each episode begins and then ends with a question. The condition then is one that challenges closure and instead creates a climate of doubt. The heraldic presence for his readings lie in stray paintings such as Sati (1964), Durga (1966) and Kalinga (1977), until there arises more sustained engagement with the subject of the great war of the Mahabharata in the decade of the 1990's. As in the Christ paintings his chosen episodes from the Mahabharata are not of glorious resolution or the spoils of kingship, it is rather the climatic moments of extreme provocation or doubt that he paints.

A large part of Krishen's paintings emerge from the recesses of memory often appearing like serial contemplations on the same subject. His childhood and its sharply etched recollections of Lahore emerge in a body of impressionist works. The unselfconscious pleasures of childhood spill into his frequent subject of Children eating Watermelons, where a the large wedge of fruit yields its juice; the sensuous pleasure of cool sweet sustenance."

This childhood imagery is a drastic shift Krishen's recordings of the 'common man' in India's every-day existence. His depiction of the unattended issues of a changing or "modernising" urban India are disturbing at best, but form an important milestone in his oeuvre.

"Krishen's paintings of the subaltern are also an engaging psychological document of the changing character of the city of Delhi. These works are not concerned with the subject of interiority or indeed of the exterior as subjects - fleeting details appear only in so far as they affect his human subjects. The artist sketching alone in the small tea shops of Bhogal recreates the figures that construct the city of the 1960's and 70's as it heaves and lumbers uncomfortably into a developing third world capital, of replicated government colonies, institutions and offices blocks that virtually characterize New Delhi In a series from the late 1960's and 1970's he painted the men of the city streets, the small wayside cafeteria in Ramu ka Dhaba, sleeping exhausted men covered with the fine layer of cement dust, the paintings Nocturne, and labourers, crowded into the back of trucks in the series Rear View. All of these are street sites of restless movement. With the men's faces covered against the heat, their limbs and clothes apparently dust laden in the hot incipient city, these paintings evoke the city only through acts of excruciating labour.

Entering his oeuvre, only in the 1990's, the scribe represents the artist in repose. The agitation of expressionist impasto brush strokes impacted with paint, the roiling noisy scenes of the bandwallahs, the rumble of the trucks and the clatter of the street dhaba fades. The scribe is not a visionary like the risen Christ at Emmaus or the dying patriarch Bhishma, but testimony to a life lived in quiet perseverance.

Sitting in profile at his takht, with a stylus in hand, he appears to listen intently, or write as his patron speaks, an oft painted figure in sepia tones, on the edge of definition. "I am more and more interested in middle tone painting partly because more of my contemporaries do it. I like a quality of a certain uncertainty," says Krishen."

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