Acclaimed artist Krishen Khanna shares an indifferent meal, and incendiary gossip, ahead of a retrospective of his life’s work.
A student in Lahore, Krishen Khanna was uprooted by his “educationist father” and sent off on an L80 scholarship to “(Rudyard) Kipling’s school”, the Imperial Service College in Windsor. This was in 1938, and Khanna was 14 years old when the war broke out the following year, so his anecdotes draw on such experiences as when the sirens went off, signalling an imminent air attack — only, it turned out to be nothing more dangerous than a flight of ducks!, writes Kishore Singh.
Khanna revelled in the freedom Britain afforded him in spite of or perhaps because his school was the target of an incendiary attack, and as a fencer highly rated to win the championship, he was reluctant to leave the country at the end of four and a half years, but was forced to board “the last convoy leaving from Liverpool”. Back in India, having opted to study fine art, he began lessons in Persian since knowledge of a classical language was essential for the course. But an ear for languages, familiarity with poetry and the ability to paint were hardly suitable qualifications for a job. As luck would have it, an alumnus of his school fixed up a meeting with the chairman of Grindlay’s Bank, launching Khanna’s career in banking.
It was a job he kept for 13 and a half years, ignoring the blandishments that came with it — “I didn’t play golf, or go yachting” — so by the time he quit it to paint full-time, he was too set in his austere ways to affect any change. Not that there was money to begin with, but he’d befriended MF Husain — “I introduced his first bank account,” he reminisces of the painter who inducted him as an associate of the Progressive Artists’ Group — and through a series of happy coincidences, got a show at London’s prestigious Leicester Galleries.
Ahead of a retrospective of his work that opens this week in New Delhi, I’ve taken the liberty of booking a table at Spectra at the Leela Kempinski in Gurgaon where I’m hoping for a juicy T-bone steak, but Khanna — who has spent a lifetime painting street scenes and aam people — does a double-turn at the prices. I urge him to choose a wine, pick something extravagant off the menu. For my efforts, I’m served up a sermon: “People ask me why I don’t buy myself a Mercedes, but I can’t,” he explains, “I was brought up during the war…”
So, price column in view, he asks for Chinese sweet and sour pork, and I’m shamed into choosing similarly, opting for a red duck curry that, when it is served, turns out to be nothing like its Thai original. The meal is saved somewhat by a pungently sour som tham salad of raw mango that at least whets the appetite. Ordering out of the way, Khanna sets to sharing stories of a time when the art world was a less cynical, less competitive, more friendly place; when the Kumar Art Gallery “employed” some of them on a monthly salary of Rs 500 to paint; and where he arm-twisted the owner to pay Tyeb Mehta a similar amount and not the niggardly Rs 200 that had been the original offer.
“In 1954, Husain and I had a show in Delhi — it was the first time he would exhibit Zameen (considered one of his finest works). He was staying with me in Nizamuddin, we’d paint vignettes late into the night, breaking off only when he wanted to say the namaaz. “Thankfully,” Khanna chortles, “he got over that habit soon enough.” Their friendship had been sealed in Bombay where in a group show in 1949, Khanna’s painting had been placed at the centre of the exhibition that included works by KK Hebbar, VS Gaitonde, FN Souza and SH Raza. “I told Raza his painting was terrible,” Khanna recalls. His own painting, a bleak image of people reading about Gandhiji’s assassination, attracted notice but papers the next day reported, “Husain is a painter to be watched”.
Was he never bitter that his friend, as so many other friends from the fraternity, seemed to have overtaken him in the popularity stakes as measured by their financial worth? “No,” says Khanna unsurprisingly, “all this hype about prices … they’re manipulated...” Realising he’s appearing defensive, he qualifies, “The only thing a painter should bother about is having enough to carry on. If I’m doing well” — and he’s glorying in a supportive press as well as high returns in recent years — “it’s because of a lifetime’s work behind it.” But still, I murmur, hasn’t recognition been slow in coming in? “You pay a price for not being trivialised,” he snaps, “and to have the opportunity to do work that you enjoy. Painting isn’t a rat race, there’s no need to be competitive. In the studio, it’s just me and my canvas with no thought of subterfuge or how to beat somebody.”
He’s a naff dresser, elegant in a corduroy jacket, a striped waistcoat and, underneath, a purple shirt paired with a silk scarf. But despite a napkin tucked into his waistcoat, Khanna is a frugal eater, making just a show of eating his lunch. I’ve given up altogether in spite of the service staff’s frequent interjections, but the episodic career of a painter who is also a raconteur more than makes up for a boring — or perhaps badly chosen — meal. He does succumb to the offer of dessert though, settling for plain vanilla ice-cream, indication, once again, of his rejection of the ostentatious and the flamboyant, even though he’s best remembered for his series on the bandwallahs.
“I’ve painted the middle class and lower middle class not out of pity but because they are the people of this country. But I’m dumbfounded at the popularity of the bandwallahs,” something he attributes to the grand Indian wedding fantasy which has kept at least this one British institution — complete with red coats, brocade trimmings, hats, trumpets, “the whole jolly lot” — intact. “I’d been painting the truckwallahs before this, so the bandwallahs was a release of colour for me, it took over.” Yet, his streetscapes come with their share of colour too — the vegetable and fruit sellers, the roadside dhabas with their gupshup… “I like to paint a difficult situation because it makes work more interesting, that’s my forte. I think a great deal. The whole business of art anywhere is to awaken awareness.”
Yet, “given my background in banking,” Khanna thinks aloud over a tepid cup of Darjeeling tea, “my actions as a painter should have been thought out. I’m far too trusting and in dealings with galleries in this country, they’ve had the better end of the deal financially, it’s not been equitable.” But he course-corrects to suggest that “had I managed it myself, and better, then I would have been divesting myself of their interest in me”.
Of the retrospective now, he says the earliest work in it is “of a tree that I saw gradually dying” that he painted in Lahore, in 1945 — a work that was commended at the time even though “it was quite inept in many ways”. The exhibition includes the few landscapes he’s painted, as well as a painting he did in America “of a lady who looked after my mother when she was unwell in Simla. As soon as I had finished it, I received a letter from home saying she was dead. That felt — strange!”
The lunch has been doggy-bagged but Khanna won’t have it, so I take it home for the servants to murmur about the odd food they serve in five-stars. What I also carry back is the amazing energy the 84-year-old artist brings to his work. “If you’re painting in oil, it’s going to take your time,” he says of his daily rigours, “If I don’t go out much, it’s because I’m saving the energy to paint.” For, he insists, “You have to go on doing it till you get it right” — even though, as anyone could tell him, he got it right a long while ago.