Painter Krishen Khanna appears at the doorstep of his red-brick house in Gurugram, clad in a beautiful white kurta. Crowned by his silver hair, looking perfectly dignified and pleasant despite the muggy July evening. At 92-years of age, the artist can afford to rest easy after his long and eventful journey as a banker-turned-painter, who has lived in both India and Pakistan, prior to partition. He was friends with Souza, Husain and Raza of the extended Progressive Artist’s Group before he joined them in a dramatic move, giving up his job as a banker. Khanna enjoys his evening tea, with his wife seated next to him, relishing the memory of his behemoth solo show at the Claridges Hotel, in November 2016, when Saffron Art launched their new space with a collection of Khanna’s best works, painted recently, mostly in black-and-white with graphite and charcoal.
One of the most important works that showed at the exhibition was titled Benediction on the Battlefield, a dramatic evocation of the consultation between the Pandavas and the legendary warrior Bhishma Pitamah, of the Mahabharata. A monumental 12 x 8 feet version of the small graphite drawing now resides in his studio. Khanna’s living and dining rooms are dotted with a wonderful collection of paintings by his contemporaries. We see some rare paintings by M F Husain, Akbar Padamsee and an F N Souza tucked away at his home. “This is only part of my collection,” smiles Khanna adding, “A painting is like an old friend, you meet them after a long time and then, since you have changed, they reveal new secrets to you,” says Khanna, who can recite W H Auden at the drop of a hat and loves to jot down little poems in the margin of his own drawings and paintings.
How did a proficient banker, who started his career at Grindlays Bank in Shimla in the 1960’s, get involved in art? Ask Khanna and he lets out a long sigh. “I was always interested in painting, from my childhood. I even took my exams at the Royal Drawing Society way back, when I was a youngster. But I never imagined I would become a full-time artist,” says Khanna.
“I was tutored in English at the Haileybury Imperial Public Service College, Rudyard Kipling’s old School and I got stuck in England during the war. It took me three months to get home to Multan where my father was the supervisors of schools,” recalls Krishna who lost a friend at sea during that difficult journey in 1942. He completed his education in Multan, excelling in sword-fencing and learning Persian and Urdu.
It was thus that he and MF Husain came to write to each other long correspondences in Urdu. But it is his letters with S H Raza that has been published in the book My Dear…But we are getting ahead of ourselves. How did he meet the Progressives? “You never plan things in life. They just happen,” says the artist. Post partition, Khanna came to Shimla banking on a hope and a prayer. “I was wearing my old school tie and that landed me a meeting with the director of the Bank,” he recalls. Working his way up he was posted in 1948 at the bank in Colaba in Mumbai, then Bombay.
“I used to visit art galleries on my lunch break. Sometimes I would drive by Kekoo Gandhy’s framer’s shop, Chemould Frames and pick up a painting or two. But I will never forget the exhibition I attended at the Bombay Art Society gallery,” he says chuckling mischievously. “I was going up the spiral staircase that led to the gallery and my way was blocked by two well-proportioned women. They were discussing how the exhibition was ‘dreadful. Just horrible!’ When I finally made it to the gallery, I realized they were talking about a Souza exhibition. There was Souza with his paintings of shocking nudes that usually sent everyone home in a hurry,” says Khanna.
Khanna was ushered into picking up the charcoal stick and paint brush by none other than art critic Rudy Von- Leyden and legendary painter S B Palsikar, who was the head of the painting department at the J J School of Art. “While Paliskar was critical of my draftsmanship, he really liked a work I had done of Gandhiji. He displayed the painting, in the center of the hall during the latter’s death anniversary, Silver Jubilee at the Bombay Art Society Convention Center. It was the same year that Raza was awarded,” says Khanna with a sense of pride. It was at this convention that he and M F Husain met. Khanna lent him Clive Bell’s book on art which Husain promptly lost in a taxi. However, that did not deter their friendship and Khanna collected Husain’s paintings, wrote for his catalogues and eventually joined the Progressives. The rest they say is history!
Khanna went on to have several exhibitions with Vadhera Art Gallery in Delhi and Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai among others. He has done several books of letters, poems and drawings capturing those great old days. “Art is no longer what it used to be. Unfortunately, everyone is just looking at the zeroes and not the artwork.”