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Krishen Khanna interview: ‘I’ll be painting right till the end – like my friend Tyeb Mehta was’

The 93-year-old artist talks about his devotion to art, the horrors of 1947 and his close friendships with MF Husain and Tyeb Mehta.

One of the last surviving modern Indian masters, Krishen Khanna responds to any intrusion these days with – “I don’t have time to waste. I want to devote every bit of it to painting.”

At 93, Khanna is still busy creating art. The artist whose work commands global attention was once a key presence in the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group. The post-Independence group comprising FN Souza, MF Husain, HA Gade, SH Raza, Akbar Padamsee, Ram Kumar and Tyeb Mehta, created a stir with their modern take on old and established Indian traditions.

A former banker, the Faisalabad-born Khanna was baptised into the group by Husain. To pay him back, Khanna opened Husain’s first-ever bank account. “People talk about us as if we are some war heroes,” he said, referring to the Progressives. “But the real heroes are our wives. They encouraged us to pursue our dreams. Look at Tyeb’s [Mehta] wife Sakina who took up a job to support him. Husain’s wife was such a strong woman.”

Ram Kumar’s death in April leaves us with only two legends from the bygone era. One is Khanna, and the other is his great friend Akbar Padamsee. Padamsee, at 90, is still active.

Even today, Khanna maintains a punishing work schedule. What else do you expect from a man who has dubbed the act of painting a “sacred” activity, never failing to say “a little prayer” before entering the studio? He spends a lot of time in his basement studio – the “gutter where art is produced” – and can be seen in his living room sketching in a diary with Renu Chatterji, his wife, for company. This is a typical scene in the Khanna household. She’s reading, he’s drawing and they chat and have tea together.

With his newer works displayed in the background (one recently-finished canvas depicts the Last Supper set in a Delhi dhaba and another is a familiar riff on St Francis two of his overriding passions) you are once again reminded of his prolific output punctuated by recurring themes – notably, the horrors of Partition and its human cost; Delhi’s street life; the underclass at local dhabas; sufi musicians and of course, the bandwallahs. As a refugee, however, the search for home may well be grandest theme of all.

Ever the colourful and meandering raconteur and the most Anglicised among the Progressives – perhaps, a remnant of his schooling in Britain – Khanna sounds more like a retired poetry professor than the painter that he is. Indeed, his admission that poetry “is the bedrock of my work” comes as no surprise.

In a conversation with Scroll.in, the acclaimed artist holds forth on wide-ranging issues – his recent works, old friendships and the impact of politics on his work.

Can you tell us what are you working on now? Any theme you are chasing?
Well, I don’t work on themes. But some themes do come back. Then, I don’t inhibit myself because if something is calling itself to be worked upon then I do it. I am not a theoretician in that regard. For example, the Bible and the life of Christ have been important to me, in the sense that Christianity being a humanitarian religion which lays down code that does not go into metaphysics, unlike Hinduism. Hinduism says that you only receive which you are capable of. Everybody’s not into metaphysical thinking.

Christianity has been in this country for centuries. I have done several pictures of Christ and St Francis of Assisi. I have been to Assisi and seen his chapel. [His story is] very moving – a rich man’s son who throws away everything to the winds and becomes this fantastic human being. When you see and experience people like that, either in literature or otherwise, they are living saints.

On the other hand, I have also painted the Mahabharata, which I think, has every emotion in the world that you can imagine.

What about Partition, the horrors of which continue to impact you as an artist and human being?
First of all, the human being and artist are not two separate characters, are they? It’s all one. Artists should try and just be humans first. Art is not a separate part of oneself, just as speech is not a separate part of one’s life. I don’t manufacture my speech.

Now, Partition. It’s like a dream. It surfaces periodically. I am grateful to god that we were not wiped out by Partition. My father was a professor. He taught history. We didn’t have much wealth. But the human cost was very much there. We were prepared to lose whatever we had in the house. I remember my brother Sarvi had put on an army uniform and went in an army truck, collected all our furniture and took all the things he could. Others were left behind. And what was left behind was then forgotten. It was a cataclysmic event. I went through it. I saw it, like Satish Gujral saw it. Both sides suffered. But nor do I think talking about it endlessly will serve any purpose.

Talk about the Bandwallahs. What do these colourful figures in reds and blues signify? Do you encourage people to see them as objects of humour or pity?
They were refugees like everybody else. It’s a sad affair. (Laughs) People [were] losing family and money during Partition and in the middle of it you can’t suddenly all have a band playing happy tunes. [The bandwallahs] are all dressed up like kings. Actually, they are in tatters. They are poor chaps. You see the fronts of their shoes are broken and their toes are twiddling away.

It proves that life is neither comedy nor tragedy all the way through. It’s tragicomic. It’s Chaplin-esque. It’s the philosophy behind it that makes it so powerful. It makes you cry and laugh at the same time. The bandwallah is an anachronism. He goes to a band celebrating somebody else’s wedding and what is he playing? British march tunes! Colonel Bogey March! It doesn’t fit.

And the back of trucks and labourers? You did some wonderful drawings and paintings on that subject.
At Nizamuddin, at night, all these trucks used to be there. More often than not, the truck was their home. The men would go out and have a bath at the public pump and then come back, have their roti on the truck or under the truck. Not only that, whatever they are carrying they become the colour of that. If it’s coal, they are black. If it’s cement, they are grey. I have painted that.

Why drew you to dhabas of Delhi?
This is life here. I am not talking about the middle-class and fancy restaurants. I don’t go there anyway. The dhaba actually is like a club. People meet there. People don’t go there just to order their three chapatis. They are waiting, as the tandoor is getting hot. People are gathering around and chatting. It’s an extension of your home.

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Trailer of 'Krishen Khanna - A Far Afternoon'.

Your experiments with abstract art in the 1950-’60s were hugely successful. Then, why did you stop?
I had three shows of abstract [art] in New York, Washington and New Delhi. Gaitonde said, “Why are you giving it up now? It’s doing so well.” See this picture. [He opens a book containing a yellow abstract from 1959] It’s a head. The head is grown out of what I did as I went on painting. It matured during the course of the work. It wasn’t laid out as a head first. I knew what it was going to be. But you approach the subject obliquely, not directly. So the painting has to have time to accumulate whatever it wants to and has to, to make it rich. You don’t have to say everything. Many things are implied.

What makes painting a sacred activity for you?
Look, a studio is like a gutter. (Laughs) But it is a sacred gutter. It’s my entry into the universe. I say a little prayer before I go in there. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I enter and the painting starts talking to me, telling me what the options are, etc.

People think that artists have to just draw and fill in the colours. I wish it was as simple as that. But when it becomes as simple as that it’s not worth looking at. For instance, there was this learned Bengali artist. When you look at his work, he knew every inch of what he was going to be doing. There were no discoveries to be made there. It’s meticulous. And then you ask the question, what is all this for? He knows it all. Then, why do it.

Isn’t life like that? If I look back how could I have foretold when I was in a printing press in Lahore that I’d go through 14 years of banking and one day I’d become a painter! And I wasn’t a bad banker. I didn’t leave banking because I didn’t like banking. I just liked painting more.

Apparently, the Progressives celebrated after you quit the bank and joined them.
(Laughs) Husain, Bal Chhabda and Gaitonde landed up at my bank in Bombay while I was inside at the clerk’s tea party. The clerks were making all sorts of wild pronouncements that one day I will be Michelangelo. Can you guess what the bank folks gave me as present? A ledger! I still have it. And these three guys outside were saying, “Nikal, nikal.” (Leave, leave.) Raza had a party for me that night in Paris.

That was the spirit. This was the group’s thing. Sab dost the. Aisa nahin tha ke kisi professional ko hi lenge. (We were all friends. It wasn’t that they were only admitting professionals.)

Bal Chhabda was an outsider like me. That’s why I say choosing the life of a painter is very important. As a painter, you are a creator. You are making things. You are adding to the sum total of existence.

You have often talked about Husain, Raza, Souza and Akbar and how you all stayed in touch even after being in different continents. What about Tyeb Mehta? What sort of friendship did you share with him?
Tyeb was a wonderful painter and a remarkable human being. He went to London and tried to get a job. At a time when he was struggling to paint, his wife stood by him. She worked with Thomas Cook. He refused the British government’s grant saying, “I didn’t come to this country to get your money. You get me any kind of job.”

He got the job of a gardener in a hospital which meant he did all sorts of things – taking dung out of a truck, going up five flights to carry dead bodies down. He never talked about it. When he met me at London station, he said, “Chalo chai peeye.” (Let’s go drink tea.) We went and had tea. I offered to pay. He said, “You are my guest in London,” and paid two shillings and six pence.

Not only that, he took me around all day and finally, when I was taking the tube to come home, he bought my tickets. I will never forget that. These gestures coming at a time when his finances were strained. Two-and-a-half years before he died, he was able to buy a car. Muskara ke kehte hain, “Yaar, humne bhi gaadi lee hai. Aao sair karein.” (He would smile and say, “I also bought a car. Let’s go for a drive.”) I went to Tyeb’s father’s burial. He was like a brother to me.

Do you work slowly as a painter?
One painting at a time. But I don’t force myself. I have an AC downstairs, though I never use it. Too much comfort is a bad thing for work. If you are really interested in your work you will learn to forget all discomforts. I am not like Husain. When I was doing the Maurya mural, he was like, “Jaldi kar na yaar. Khatam kar.” (“Hurry up. Finish it.”) I said, “Mere se itni jaldi nahin hota.” (“I cannot work so fast.”)

Do you know when a painting is finished?
A painting takes its own time. I can’t tell you that I will finish this painting by so and so time. Because the painting dictates that and then you tell yourself, “There’s no hurry anyway. So let’s carry on doing it.” Until you stop – until the painting stops. When the painting tells me it’s finished, it’s finished. When you look at it and there’s nothing further you can do with it. That’s it.

But then, painting also continues into other paintings. Remember, the craft is important but it must not override the emotion you are portraying. There’s got to be a balance somewhere between what you feel has to be said and the craft mustn’t become crafty enough for you to say, “Dekho yaar yeh toh mere baayein haath ka khel hai.” (“This is now easy for me.”)

Photo credit: YouTube.com
Photo credit: YouTube.com

I was looking at your work on military interrogation and wondering how you approach politics in your paintings.
Of course, politics is there. Nobody can avoid politics. That’s a big painting… It’s my reaction to the military taking over a country [Bangladesh]. You know, I was in a military school. I passed military exams and got a certificate signed by the war office. I could have been a General by now – or one of the General’s close confidantes, at least.

As a refugee, what’s your reaction to today’s Pakistan-bashing sentiments and the current political climate?
Personally, I think people who fought for this country’s Independence, men like Pandit Nehru, Gandhi, Ambedkar and Rajagopalachari were of sterling worth. They always emphasised that the wealth of this country is in its immense diversity. There are so many people and cultures and we don’t want to stream-roll and say there will be only one culture. Water is something that finds its own path. It can’t be controlled. [On the other hand] you can’t tell people to go back to Pakistan simply because you don’t agree with them. And what is Pakistan anyway? Woh bhi toh hum hi the aur hain. (It was once a part of us.) This country belongs to all of us. And remember, our strength is us.

You were born in Pakistan and lived in Lahore as a young man. What have been your trips across the border like?
I have been [there] some five times. There is a lot of love between the people. Partition need never have happened if we had shown a little more latitude towards each other. In Lahore, the Hindu-Muslim population was almost 50:50. Let’s face it, Islam has had an influence on the northern part of this country. A culture is a culture. Jab koi bole salaam-alaikum, hum bhi bol dete hain waalekum salaam. (If someone says salaam-alaikum, I also say waalekum salaam.) It doesn’t make you a lesser Indian.

Finally, tell us what keeps you going? What’s left to paint?
There’s so much! I’ll be painting right till the end. Like my friend Tyeb was.

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