Krishen Khanna - Drawing
In his 92nd year, Krishen Khanna has dramatically altered his drawing to reflect a different scale and ambition. Using Conté on canvas — a medium that implies the theatre of monochrome and the facility of scale — he has returned to his memory bank of images with a display of astounding energy, even grandeur.
Over nearly seven decades, it may be fair to say that drawing is a medium that Krishen Khanna has reserved for intimate memory, for reworking broad themes that underpin the structure of his work. The closest parallels would be stories retold and recounted in the tradition of the sub-continent by multiple claimants, that belong to the fireside narrative in a village chaupal as much as the grand epic. Within his practice there is no closure, however, because these narratives are a people’s legacy, handed down through time, complex in their reading of opposition and resistance.
The present exhibition comprises images which points to some new and unexpected areas of enquiry, but which broadly fall into two categories, of narratives of the battlefield and the journey. Varying in size and subjects, these unusually large drawings appear from the recesses of a nuanced imagination, to present a play about little and big heroisms, small ironies and monumental follies. At the apex appears the work, Benediction on the Battlefield, the moment of the Pandavas wishing farewell to Bhishma Pitamah before his death, an image that Khanna has worked on over the decades.
Victorious in battle over the Kauravas, the Pandavas speak with the great preceptor in his final hours. Propped up on his bed of arrows, Bhishma addresses Yudhishthira on the nature of kingship and different forms of truth: “Nothing sees like knowledge, nothing purifies like truth, nothing delights like giving, nothing enslaves like desire.” At this juncture, in the twilight of a battle in which there are no victors, Krishen creates a compact between two great textual sources, the Mahabharata and the Bible, with their narrative of adversarial conflict and persecution and the memory site of his own experience, the Partition of India.
This appears to be a compact that he has arrived at over years of practice: from his paintings of the Christ cycle in the 1970s, set in the bastis of Nizamuddin and Bhogal, to those of the moment of truth on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. And all through seven decades of intense dedication to draughtsmanship, there has been the subject of Partition.
Drawing as a medium loops back in time, and links to the earliest work of the artist. In 1947, as a young apprentice in the photo studio Kapur Art Press in Lahore, Krishen worked on plates using the wet collodion process that took hours of careful labour to develop. Carrying the heavy metal plates up to the roof of the press in the heat of the summer months of June and July, he sketched his fellow workers, mainly the Muslim labour at the press, and read Dylan Thomas. With impending Partition, the subject of mass migration and moving to an imagined homeland, displacement and the small and big acts of seeking refuge away from one’s home became an urgent subject. Krishen was 22 at the time of Partition, and the memory of the shattered peace on Maclagan Road, the site of the family home in Lahore, images of friends and neighbours in the travails of fleeing are still very vivid. When the family shifted to Simla, the mood was sombre and beset by uncertainty. During this time Krishen’s father sent him to Ambala railway station to receive some members of their family who would have arrived from Pakistan. What he saw, the manifest dejection, and the heaping of refugees in trains, most inconsolable at what they had seen on the way led to a marked shift in aesthetic sensibility, that was to stay with him.
Within months Krishen was given his first posting as an officer in Grindlays Bank, Bombay. Here among the Progressive Artists’ Group, whom he was to befriend early in his shift to the city, the conversation around drawing continued. “We met once a week at the Artists’ Centre on Rampart Row. Ara had arranged a professional model, who also modelled for students at the J.J School. We assembled there to sketch and paint.” During the 1940s Bombay’s cosmopolitan identity was, if anything, enhanced by European expats, migrants fleeing Nazi Germany, and the incursion of Indians from Karachi and other areas. Areas of concentration with the strong trade union base in the textile industry and the enormous growth in Bombay cinema enhanced the making of the city, its churning and mobile population. Krishen as a young banker at Grindlays dealt with a number of Anglo-Indians seeking to emigrate to England. His portraits of Aunt Flossie in her sola topi, or Miss Amery who taught his mother English, engage the Anglo Indian as subject, and the unsettled matter of identity.
Recalling his interest in drawing, of cycling to railway stations and sketching the huddled bodies with fellow artist M F Husain in the early 1960s established an artistic intention around the primacy of drawing. Husain and Krishen had held a two person show of paintings in 1954 in Delhi’s AIFACS. Ten years later, Krishen helped organise at Shridharani Gallery in Delhi, Six Painters in Black and White, a drawing exhibition with Gaitonde, Husain, Ram Kumar, Akbar Padamsee, Bal Chhabda and himself.
The present exhibition, marked by a monumentality and ambition of scale ventures into the domain of the mural, a genre widely preferred in the Indian traditions of cave paintings and the embellishments of the interior surfaces of palace walls, temples and other structures that engaged the publics. This is a continuous arc from Ajanta to Sittanavasal, to the painted murals of Datia and innumerable structures of the 18th and 19th century. What Khanna attempts in his large drawing of an elephant and crocodile, or the elephant and lion draws from such traditions, opening up the conventional subjects of miniature and mural painting to wider interpretation. Here there is no background in the accepted sense, just the bodies in space, and the compact of energy and combat on display.
In contrast to these large flowing muralesque works, his treatment of human figures is suggestive of advance or retreat from narrative, and the recesses of memory. “The painter thinks in pictures and when he paints them, he shifts their stage from within his consciousness onto the other side of the limits of his body,” wrote Stella Kramrisch, on her analysis of Ajanta. Krishen draws on his twinned inheritances of the literature of the Bible and the Mahabharata, a legacy that draws from his own education in England, and the grand issues of state craft and kingship that are central to the great epic, a subject that he has been preoccupied with in the last two decades.
On reading and within their forms of address, the two texts are widely divergent: the humble carpenter and his followers drawn from the community of fisherfolk, with their narratives of allegory stand at a distance from the philosophical and ethical questioning posed by scions of the Houses of Kuru and Pandu, on the blood drenched battlefields of Kurukshetra. The shared message however, and the link across the millennia may be one of a universal ethical position.
Krishen Khanna attempts something remarkable by stitching together these narratives in his oeuvre. As pictorial referents or episodes they remain separate parts of the whole, but are conjoined with the glue of Partition — visual referents which alight like a metaphor on the doomed heroisms of his past. In Benediction from the Battlefield, possibly the central work of the show, the dying Bhishma Pitamah lies propped against his chariot, the wheel appears prominently foreshortened, recalling Krishen’s paintings of the cannon Zamzama. A landmark of pre-Partition Lahore, residue of colony, it was reduced in Krishen’s childhood to a play thing of children. In this painting, the wheel of the chariot links together the theatre of war, the fleeing migrant with his bullock cart, and Zamzama, a symbol of many wars and struggles for freedom, the compact of conflict and of occupation of the subcontinent. In the lengthening shadow of the last days of the battle, as Arjun and the Pandavas seek forgiveness and blessings from Pitamah, the shadow of Zamzama enters the frame, perhaps a harbinger of events to come.
In this narrative of the uncertain heroisms of the centuries, Krishen draws attention to the hard issues at stake: the battle for Indraprastha, the seat of ancient Delhi becomes synonymous with the struggle over the Partition of India, and its mass fratricide, tales of migration and loss of the homeland. For the artist as a student in England who had returned on the last ship to leave for India during the Second World War, the sense of displacement was very real.
Typically the tone of high seriousness is punctured by the milieu that Krishen sought as fraternal and identifiable — that of the ordinary worker, the man on the street, the daily wage earner. Through the 1960s, ’70s and beyond, during the years spent in Bhogal, Krishen sought the figures that marked a city in dynamic movement and transition — loaders on city trucks, carrying building material by night, dhaba walas or street-side food stalls that had sprung up with the influx of refugees, masons and carpenters. These men, always in dynamic gesture or exhausted sleep, bear witness to a nation in transition, and stay on the fringes of its large and small narratives.
Among the group of modernists to emerge from the post-Independence euphoria in Bombay in the late 1940s, Krishen was to develop the most consistent engagement with the figure of the urban subaltern. He allows for his drawing and painting to traverse the stuff of epic poetry and then return to contemporary contexts of the street, seemingly unmarked by the passage of time.
In the present series Krishen Khanna brings the subaltern again into play. Krishen frequently depicts statist authority as instruments of war. In his work the Anatomy Lesson (1972), a reference to Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (1632), depicts a group of generals in conference over a cadaver on a table — the critique of institutional authority is clearly rendered. The general recurs in a drawing in the present series: Krishen’s rendering of the work is shadowy, the general devoid of features, his functions not identified with an assignable cause, yet extremely credible in the extensive violence across the West and South Asia. At the other end of the spectrum, Krishen portrays the victim of the holocaust of Partition — the ordinary man fleeing, bearing bundles on his head as he coaxes a recalcitrant buffalo to cross a water body.
In Krishen’s extensive engagement with the journey or the procession as a subject, we may seek the kernel of his poetics, both artistic and literary, which has fed and delighted his imagination. Central to western thought is the journey of the Israelites in the Old Testament, a structure replicated in subsequent quests for a promised land. The roots of the procession as a conceit in western literature trace to the notion of exile and return, the master paradigm of exitus and reditus, the procession in its outward flow and return. Given that a Great Procession is not just a period of transition, but symbolic of life itself, the artist draws upon it as a stage in flux, petrified in the moment by the idiosyncrasies of the travellers. Like his painting which veers from the small and the contained to the expansive, Krishen has experimented with scalability. Central to his reading of the journey or procession is Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, an influential text which he read in England as a school boy, also one of the most copiously illustrated texts in the English language. Krishen Khanna acknowledges his debts to Chaucer: his imaging of the great procession has all the elements of a timeless theatre of life, a motley group that appears in the garb of a wedding procession or the great exodus of Partition, with all classes of people, conjoined together in the journey. Even Krishen’s unusually large paintings on the subject are like ‘fragments’ — much like the ‘Fragments’ of Chaucer’s writings. Within this medley he creates characters that weave in and out, marking the decades, from the advance and the recesses of memory. Although none of the manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales that survive are in the hand of Chaucer, two were copied by Adam Pinkhurst — a scribe, a figure that appears to annotate transitions in Krishen’s work.
Krishen appears to be completely in sympathy with the structure or ‘frame’ of the pilgrimage, its reading as an existential quest — a journey that extends indefinitely outside the frame. It is a journey that implies a spiritual quest, but one that is completely belied by the eccentricity of the procession. In making his figures, Krishen draws upon everyday life as an ‘open studio’ — an unfoldment of figures, movement and gestures and the observation that this implies, as well as memory and imagination. In Krishen Khanna this state of movement as a reference to Partition must inevitably be seen as a secular diaspora which emphasises not the carrying of emblems and fetishes, not even the promise of land, but rather the journey itself, as an act of making meaning of life. The term for exile in Arabic (mahjer), in Urdu (mohajir) and the commonly used term ‘refugee’ — for status, for individual, for colony — packed into bullock carts, pushing on foot, the bodies bent or half contorted in exhaustion has a sickening rerun through our present times. When the procession mutates into a wedding march however, it acquires the quality of prarabdha — of a Karmic cycle — which must be fully enacted.
There is here a seeming ambivalence and a contradiction, as the sites of the pilgrim/refugee/migrant vary with dramatic urgency. The lessons of migration for the artist appear to be the certainty of recurrence, of an understanding of the condition of exile as a universal phenomenon. In this, the vision of the catastrophe is softened and even deflected by the act of the journey itself, but never wholly abandoned.
Thus, at intervals between the journey as a multiple ‘frames’, the artist interjects with images of the man with a hawk, the avian predator outlined in heavy dark tones. David Frawley sets up an interesting comparison between ancient cultural symbols of the European, Celtic and Indic traditions, such as the falcon, the cow and the lotus, as common to these ancient peoples. Krishen’s references to the baaz or falcon would be from Indian miniature painting as much as to his own childhood in Multan and the memory of the celebration of the hunt. It is against this figure of authority that states of flight and persecution within the artists’ oeuvre are well understood.
As they weave their way forward, what Khanna’s figures have is their identity: a subject of imminent transformation. In the great cycles of the journeys of Asia, of Nanak, Kabir, and Buddha, the journey is transformative; it loops back into instruction, its travails elided over by an epiphany. For the migrant, when there is no return, however, the journey marks identity bereft of location.
Krishen Khanna has continued to paint and sketch and draw the migrant, the journey in quest of a home. On the body of the traveller he would seek to image the fracture of land, the burden of the colossal tragedy of that time in human history. In the huddle of moving bodies in his paintings, structures of families hang by a thread, as they cross over states of dispossession into uncertainty. But in every step, the certainty that there will be no return is embedded deeper. The journey, seemingly random and awkward, becomes an end in itself.
New Delhi, August 2016
P Lal (translator), The Mahabharata of Vyasa, Mumbai: Vikas Publishing House, 1980, p. 311
David Frawley, Gods, Sages and Kings: Vedic Secrets of Ancient Civilization, Twin Lakes: Lotus Press, 1991