16th Aug 2005

The conceptual rigour with which Khanna approaches his subjects has not diminished
and neither has the artist's unease for them.
AT 80, having just entered his octogenarian years Krishen Khanna is a magisterial presence whose works are not monologues seeking out a listener, they are instead eager to conduct a dialogue with the viewer.

"The only ism the Progressive Artists' Group had in common was their individualism," art critic Rudi Von Leyden had once remarked about the Progressive Artists' Group (PAG). Though Khanna joined the PAG just before they disbanded, he, in keeping with the explicit ethos of the group looked beyond the heavily perpetuated nationalism and in the direction of modernism and the vicissitudes that wrought it.

In a trajectory vaguely similar to that of the Post-impressionist Paul Gauguin, who before he realised his genius for the vibrancy of colours made a career out of trading at the stock exchange, Krishen Khanna when he first arrived in post-partition Mumbai occupied himself with a staid banking job in the city.

Having made his formal debut as an artist with the painting News of Gandhi's Death (1948), that had people standing around a traffic island in Delhi, reading newspapers, Khanna in the decades to come refused to let the initial humanism of his works fade away Though Khanna's present practice does not claim to be ensconced in the volatility of experimentation the artist has in the past undertaken parallel journeys that have led him to photography and murals.

The 34 canvases and a selection of small format works showcased at the ongoing exhibit are a return to the looming anxieties that have plagued the artist's scruples. Khanna's pictorial inquiries, within the scope of their modernist proclivities, constantly incorporate icons of his immediate milieu. So the wailing blue of the saree that Mary has draped around her eagerly corroborates the effect of the Pieta (2004).

The conceptual rigour with which Khanna approaches his subjects has not diminished and neither has the artist's unease for them Using his repeated concern for one of his most prominent subjects the bandwallas as a peg Khanna explains, "The early bandwallas comprised of free flowing brush work. In the years since my treatment of space and subject has been consciously refined."

In September 1989 Jagdish Swaminathan had commented thus on Khanna's bandwalllas, "Shabbily costumed when accompanying middle- class marriage processions in the cities, the band is a macabre comment on bourgeois existence." It would be worthwhile to recall here that Jagdish Swaminathan had launched scalding attacks against the PAG with his manifesto that was critical of art that did not follow closely the dictates of abstraction and / or minimalism.

Continuing from where Swaminathan left off one could propose that with the bandwallas, Khanna succeeds in commenting on both the proletarian and the bourgeois condition. Juxtaposed alongside a wedding procession the bandwallas are not a comment on the 'bourgeois existence' alone but also on the proletarian situation. Despite the heading of Bandwalla. in Frenzy (2004) one finds a lucid reflection of Khanna's quote on the 'refinement of space and subject' in the painting. In the works at the present exhibition there is a greater effort in the direction of delineation.

This delineation does not suggest that the figures are overdetermined. On the contrary in works such as Nazar Husain's Tea (2004) it appears as though the steam rising from the kettle has obscured the kettle, which in more ways than one is the object of focus. In another work Doubting Thomas and Christ (2004) a similar obscuration is found. The laceration on the body of Christ that doubting Thomas is reaching out toward is covert. With the present exhibition Khanna has laboured at informing his repeated engagement with the same themes, with the discipline of clarity and renewed impulse that energise his art.

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