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Krishen Khanna's London show blocked by Covid so he's painting in a video

by John Elliott

Krishen Khanna, 95, shown working in his home

Veteran artist tracks Indian life including wedding bandwallahs

Krishen Khanna, the veteran 95-year old painter, was to have had an exhibition at London’s Grosvenor Gallery in Mayfair this week. The works were packed and ready to leave, but India’s Covid lockdown meant there were no UK-bound flights to carry them, so the show has gone online and includes as a bonus four short videos of Khanna painting in his Delhi home.

Krishen Khanna painting in his room

It’s rare to be able to watch an artist painting like this, not for some high profile public relations exercise, but because his son Karan thought it the best way to show him at work in his sitting room – he’s recently moved upstairs from his basement studio.

Untitled, Oil on Canvas, 12 inches x 18 inches, 2021

The works in the on-line show, done over the past year, are of bandwallas, the brightly uniformed musicians whose drums and trumpets generate cacophony for Indian wedding processions, with the groom usually on a horse (or elephant) and guests dancing in the street.

Khanna has been fascinated by the culture of the brass bands since the 1960s when he was stuck in a Delhi traffic jam by a raucous wedding procession. “In a way bandwallahs are a relic of the past, a legacy of the British rulers, who now belt out Indian film tunes in traditional celebrations. The uniforms add grandeur and also give certain anonymity to them, almost like the military personnel,” he has said. “There is something sad and musical about them”.

Weddings now often opt for more modern electronic music. But the bandsmen remain a link with the past, especially Partition when – like Khanna and his family – many crossed over into India, continuing to play in raucous Punjabi and other weddings.

Born in what is now the Pakistani city of Lahore, Khanna is the last remaining prominent member of the Progressive Group of artists that was formed in Bombay in the 1950s. Introduced to the group by M.F. Husain, one of the best known of that generation, Khanna is now surrounded in his sitting room by works done by his old friend and others including Tyeb Mehta, S.H. Raza, and V.S. Gaitonde.

“It is a completely new experience moving away from my usual studio in the basement,” he says. “I have to look for paints on the ground which are all mixed up and improvise but it’s all a part of the game in the end.”

He started out as a banker with what was then Grindlays, a bank that catered initially for the British Indian army. He opened Husain’s first account in 1949, but left Grindlays after 13 years and became a full time painter.

Untitled, Oil on Canvas, 14 inches x 10 inches, 2021

His work was recognized with an exhibition at London’s Royal Academy in 2007, though he has never hit the $4m to $5m prices achieved by four or five other Progressives who dominate the top end of modern art auctions. His works have exceeded $320,000 (£225,000) and he dismisses the dollar difference, saying it is down to him doing the work that he enjoys. His current small (12 inches x 10 inches to 18 inches x 12 inches) oil on canvas works, pictured in this blog, are priced at £6,000 to £20,000.

Untitled, Oil on Canvas, 14 inches x 10 inches, 2021

Aside from his India-inspired works, Khanna has a continuing focus on Christianity, stemming partly, as with many middle-class Indians, from going to a Christian school. He read the Bible closely and became interested in theology.

“We were Hindus but we were not coerced into Christianity, though it was impossible not to listen . . . It fascinated me to see what happened and how clever Christ was,” he told me last month. “Christianity does not negate the Hindu or Muslim element – being a Hindu doesn’t mean this is an area that is out of bounds”.

To coincide with Easter, I was writing about Last Supper paintings including Khanna’s The Last Bite, which has Husain in Jesus’s seat and Khanna sitting opposite with other Progressives in place of the Disciples around the table.

Untitled, Oil on Canvas, 18 inches x 12 inches, 2021

Khanna has for decades portrayed daily India life more closely and sensitively than other painters of his generation, reflecting the hardships and the colour. Studies range from the struggles of Partition in 1947 to migrant labourers and truck drivers – and the bandsmen.

“In this current atmosphere, one can become very depressed, but fortunately for me there are the Bandwallas who are still making noise,” he says. “When I’m painting them, I have to concentrate fully on them. The Bandwallas take prime position in my life right now.”

[Reproduced with permission of the author, John Elliot from the article published on his blog, Riding the Elephant]


John Elliott is a veteran foreign correspondent, now based in London after over 25 years in India. He writes an India-oriented current affairs blog Riding the Elephant where he also covers art, usually the auction market.

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