Krishen Khanna has, over the years, depicted a range that defies imagination — he has tackled subjects of ‘Pieta’ with just as much power as scenes from Indian epics such as the Mahabharata. His depictions of truck drivers in works such as Rear View, and that of roadside tea stalls and bandwallas stand as masterpieces. However, if you were to find a thread amidst his vast body of work, it would have to be his depiction of the human condition.
While in the Christ series, done in the 1970s, Khanna focused on themes of persecution, in the paintings inspired by the Mahabharata, he explored ideas of gender dominance and power. “Central to his paintings of the great Indian epic are the figures of Draupadi, wife of the five Pandavas, and Bhishma Pitamah, as leader of the Kauravas in battle, whose duty to those with whom he is aligned is in conflict with the larger question of ethical conduct,” elaborates Gayatri Sinha in the book, Krishen Khanna: DAG Masterpieces of Modern Art.
Take, for instance, The Humiliation of Draupadi (1969), which draws from a catalytic moment in the epic. Khanna’s depiction of the public shaming of Draupadi touches a chord with the viewers, and makes them a witness to this act of violence against a woman. “Krishen Khanna very masterfully paints the melancholic mood using a lavender colour, which is rare for him, and is also rarely seen in a non-celebratory scene,” elaborated Kishore Singh, senior vice president (Exhibitions & Publications) at DAG when the painting was showcased as part of Navarasa-Nine Emotions of Art in Mumbai. “It is interesting to see a male artist putting across a very feminist perspective.”
Many have called Khanna a creative disruptionist for his path breaking depiction of human values. But to understand his oeuvre better, one has to delve deep into his journey with art. Khanna was born in 1925 in Lyallpur, Pakistan, and grew up in Lahore. He studied art as part of the evening classes held at the Mayo School of Art. In 1947, his family had to move to Shimla following the Partition. Like many artists at the time, such as Satish Gujral, Khanna too was deeply impacted by the human tragedy that followed this event. And that could be seen in the way he handled human figures throughout his career.
After moving to India, Khanna got a job with Grindlays Bank and shifted to Bombay. There, he got introduced to the Progressive Artists’ Group and was invited to participate in their exhibition in 1949. This marked the beginning of close friendships with some of the members of the group such as M.F. Husain. In one of his depictions of The Last Supper, he brought together this bond with his long standing fascination with Biblical themes —he was introduced to these as a child studying in a Catholic school in Lahore. In his version, he substituted the Apostles with his fellow artists such as Husain, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee and Bhupen Khakhar.
Khanna was never really drawn to abstraction and preferred the figurative. He chose to represent people and their response to the environment around them. There was no looking back for him after the 1949 show. In 1955, when his job took him to Madras, he had his first solo at the USIS. After moving to Delhi and taking up art professionally, the Rockefeller Fellowship took him to the US and he was artist-in-residence at the American University, Washington D.C. in 1964.
When he returned to India, Khanna started engaging with the metropolis, and the characters that inhabited its many nooks and crannies. These were the people that were engaged in the real task of building a city, and yet were often ignored by its dwellers. They disappeared behind the dust and grime, making them invisible to the very city that they were constructing.
While depicting the subaltern figures, Khanna also remained a keen observer of the sociopolitical events unfolding in the country. Art writer and author Ritika Kochhar wrote in a 2021-piece about how Khanna used figures from Hindu and Christian myths to reflect the turmoil of the 1970s: the midnight arrests; censorship of the press; the repression and hostility of the state machinery. She further elaborated on the friendship between Husain and Khanna, who in their own unique way, commented on the state of people around them. “In the early days of their friendship, Husain and Khanna would sketch refugee families at the New Delhi railway station. Bhogal’s wandering population and its proximity to the crowded tombs of Nizamuddin helped Khanna use it as his personal observatory of the changing character of Delhi and to tell stories of displaced refugees and humanity on the streets,” she writes. It is this close observation of the panorama of the streets that later found its way to the mural, ‘Great Procession’ at ITC Maurya New Delhi’s dome in the lobby.
1970s onwards, Khanna painted the labour, truck drivers, the chaiwallas, and more. “I got involved with painting the rear of trucks with the huddle up and dehumanized cargoes of labourers, a common enough sight in the country,” the artist told art critic and curator Uma Nair in an interview. “Since the men at the back acquired the character and colour of the cargo that they were carrying, it was only appropriate that they and the tortuous machines be painted in monochrome. A series of grey and dusty pictures were painted.”
The bandwallas started making an appearance with greater frequency in his works from the 1980s onwards. To him, they remained a thread that tied British India with a newly-independent nation. The bandwallas, with their bright uniforms, were remnants of the British marching bands, and had shifted from that role to become a common sight at weddings in Delhi. However, instead of the monochrome greys that marked his earlier paintings of truckwallas, Khanna started employing a more vibrant palette for the bandwallas.
“[Khanna’s] palette for this series is dominated by red: the red of their clothes, their flushed ruddy faces and the sanguine sense of energy that they exude … The fact that he persisted with the subject of bandwallas for several years, in the thick impasto technique with a palette predominantly of pinks, white, red or gray, also confirmed his interest in the formal and contemplative rather than figurative aspects of his subject,” writes Gayatri Sinha in Krishen Khanna (2001), page 135, an extract from which is available on the Sotheby’s website.
As years have gone by, Khanna has resolutely held on to the bandwallas. In 2021, as part of the exhibition, Krishen Khanna: Paintings From My Sitting Room, at Grosvenor Gallery, London, he showcases smaller paintings made during the pandemic at his makeshift studio in his living room. In these he has imagined the bandwallas in a pensive mood, as festivities and events are at a standstill in the country.
There are some remarkable works as part of this series—especially the ones done in grey such as the Untitled (Grandad Playing the Triangle). It is a rather poignant work, showing an ageing bearded bandwalla tinker with the triangle, as if reminiscing about better times. There is a wistfulness about the image that is really touching. Like with all of Khanna’s works, there is an empathy to this figure that reaches out to the viewer. And it is this sensitivity that endears his works to one and all, across generations.