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The Banker whose Art is Worth more Zeroes than you can Count

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Bandwallas

Krishen Khanna lives in a beautiful bungalow in the tony DLF 1 neighborhood of Gurgaon. As I ring the doorbell, I expect to be ushered in by the house-help. But the door is held open by the legend himself. Krishen Khanna. Art maestro. Genius. Padma Sri. Padma Bhushan. 92 years of age. Yet, ram-rod straight. With film-star good looks. A full head of classy white hair, gracefully parted. A twinkle in his eyes. A warm, welcoming smile lighting up his face.

We shake hands. He sizes me up. I am perhaps much younger than he expected. I tell him about my art column in The Free Press Journal. He riffles through some past copies. He stops to read my piece on Gurcharan Singh. “Old friend and colleague”, he remarks. I nod. He then stops to read my interview with Prabhakar Kolte.

A Stranger at Gyaniji’s Dhaba


Mention of Prof. Paliskar in the narrative ignites the interview. “I owe my artistic break to Paliskar. He was scouting around for new talent for the annual Bombay Art Society show at the Jehangir. I showed him a new work I had done on Gandhiji’s death.  It had people gathered around a lamp, reading about the assassination in the newspaper. There was an intensity about the image of those glum faces in the light that stayed with me and found expression on my canvas. Paliskar took the painting. He made it the center-piece of the show”. The 1948 painting, News Of Gandhiji’s Death, became young Khanna’s visiting card to the world of art, and it caught the eye of fellow participants, among them SH Raza, MF Husain, FN Souza and Tyeb Mehta. The rest, as they say, is history. Actually art history.

Tell me about the mural at the Maurya done 30 years ago? Is it your most memorable work?

The Procession Of Life was a mural painted over four years in the 1970s and 1980s on the domed ceiling of the ITC Maurya Sheraton hotel in New Delhi. Designed like a Buddhist rock-cut cave, the circular mural is a kaleidoscope of scenes, images and vignettes from the perspective of the 7th-century Chinese traveller, Hiuen Tsang, revisiting a contemporary and modern India. Painted from multiple perspectives and with many interwoven stories, the mural encompasses the four elements—earth, water, sky and fire—as well as the navarasas, or nine emotions, of ancient Indian aesthetics.

I gave the whole mural a humorous viewpoint. The mural offers live snapshots of India with all its wonderful contradictions and ironies: a woman scratches her ear in a temple surrounded by other devotees; a man picks pockets outside a mosque; a tiger hides in a mountain cave to pounce on grazing goats; merry Bandwallahs play at a street-corner, barbers and street performers ply their trade, and there is even an artist painting a portrait in his room.

There are personal jokes embedded in the mural. Not many people know that I had my friend the late writer Khushwant Singh depicted as serving tea in a dhaba, while the customers comprise author Mulk Raj Anand and myself! The painting is done with a measure of ‘secrecy’ and appears as an engaging story only to those who want to look for interesting clues.

Yes, the Procession Of Life is one of my most monumental and memorable works.

At 92, when you look back what is it that you would not have done, and what is it you have done more often?

My origins are from Lahore, though I was born in Lyallpur in Pakistan. I attended Imperial Service College in England from 1938 to 1942. I returned to Lahore, enrolled at and graduated from the Government College Lahore in 1944. For 2 years, I worked at a printing press and soon became its manager. Then partition happened. Like most families, we had to move across the newly created border. I went briefly to Shimla and then headed to Bombay.

Through a fortuitous turn of circumstances, I met an old college-mate from Imperial College who had been sent to India to take charge at the Grindlays Bank. A meeting was arranged with the Chairman who was visiting India. He asked me a straight question, “What makes you think that you can be good banker?” I responded with a pause, “No idea, sir. There has been a partition in the country and I require a job”. It was an honest answer. The Chairman liked my honesty. I got the job. I was supposed to be on probation for 6 months but was confirmed as a full time employee in just 3 months. I worked with the bank for 14 years.

Truck

I am a self-taught painter. All this while at the bank, I was painting alongside. I gave all my after work hours to painting. I became part of the Progressive Artists Group (PGA) to which I was invited by Hussain. I just never wanted to be left out of the company of other artists. I worked really hard to get along with all of them.

Tell us more about those early days in Lahore?

Well those were wonderful days. I was brought up in Lahore and lived there till I turned 21. Lahore gave me lots of knowledge, lots of friends, lots of hope. It was the beginning of many great friendships. At Government College where I was doing my English Honours, I was an all-rounder. I swam for the University. I was also involved in dramatics. I acted in 3 plays and people around me started thinking that I was planning to join the movies.

I have been to Lahore 5 times after partition. Every time, I have been treated with great love and respect.

How difficult was to it become a banker during day and painter by night?

Hard work. It was very hard work because I used to be working at the bank from morning to evening. Post dinner I used to paint till 3am in the morning. I used to paint regularly every single night. Next morning, I used to be in the bank on time. My schedule was very tight; I couldn’t afford to miss either. I was working a full day at my full time job at the bank, yet at the same time exhibiting my works with my painter friends.

My bank collogues at that time were joining the Yacht Club, or, playing golf as in banking circles socializing in these places helps a lot. I had to cut all of this out to balance my love for painting. Later the very same bankers started acquiring my paintings.

You are good friends with Akbar Padamsee and other contemporaries. Tell us more.

Akbar is a great buddy. He is great thinker and a very well-read man. He has better knowledge compared to most other artists. He is always keen on discussing the theoretical aspects of paintings. I met him when I was a part of the art group formed in Bombay. When I resigned from the bank I was going to Delhi. At that time Akbar came back from Paris and was planning on coming to Delhi. So we drove together and had a wonderful time talking about 20 million things. He is a very fine painter.

Krishen Khanna with Author

Hussain and I became friends as he was the one who invited me to join the Progressive Artists Group. And Souza was the sharp tongued fellow in the group, but we were always good friends.

Did artist Gurcharan Singh have a role to play in the creation of the Procession of Life?

It took me 5 years to complete the Procession of Life. Gurcharan Singh helped me do parts of it. He came to me at Garhi where I used to work. Manjit Bawa got him along to meet me one day. Manjit came saying that his young friend of mine wants a break. I asked Gurcharan if he wanted to help me in the mural I had just been commissioned to do. He agreed. Gurcharan was an intelligent and a sharp young man. I told him we are going to work on scale and we needed to work in unison. It was fun working with him.

It took me one year to figure out how to start, where to start. I kept asking myself whether the mural should be oil, wood, metal, canvas or what. It after all needed to sustain in the lobby forever. Many things came to my mind. I kept thinking about the mother color of the installation. It was like I was making a special tonic. For making that you need to have several ingredients. Getting the mother color right was therefore very important to me. I used to write everything down. The quantum of colors also had to match the colossal size of the mural. I learnt every day.

It required huge patience and perseverance to complete the mural. It was not a linear 50-yards painting. I was also required to maintain the artistic integrity of the work. I wanted one voice talking all over the lobby; too many patterns could have made it a hollow rendition.

I am proud of the fact that young Gurcharan who started out with me so many years ago is producing such good work today and is famous in his own right.

What is this fascination you have with your signature Bandwallas?

The Bandwallas are a lot like people who migrated from Pakistan post partition. People were finding ways of surviving in a new environment. People who had big business in Pakistan were driven to penury. What could they do?  They started repairing cycle punctures; started playing Bandwallas in weddings. Earlier, the same people used to perhaps play in the choir at the church. They kept their self-respect of belonging to an aristocratic background intact. They continued to be well behaved, disciplined and put out a brave exterior despite having become very poor.

You have been in art for nearly 70 years. What has the change been like?

Well in the beginning I spent 3-4 years doing photography. I even did an exhibition at Pundole’s and there is a whole room dedicated to my black and white’s at the Gallery of Modern Art in New York. That’s now ancient history as far as I am concerned. Art has transformed at every stage; the relevance just got redefined. Opportunities are always there. You just need to take advantage.

Do you still have connections with artists in Pakistan? Is their art as evolved as art in India?

I really don’t know how to equate. Some of the works in Pakistan are really good. They have a good hand and they put in the right amount of emotions in their works. Our art has however evolved a bit better in all these years compared to Pakistan. I do have friends in Pakistan. I have old friendships post partition. I am still in touch with them.

A cricketer and even a singer have got the Bharat Ratna. Why not a painter?

I have never asked anybody for any award or for any recognition ever. Awards come from the government. There are more awards coming from outsiders too, private institutions and private organizations. I can’t even count the number of awards I have received. I have done enough and I am happy with what I have done and achieved.

During the interview in Gurgaon, I am also fortunate to be introduced to Mrs. Khanna. The graceful old lady was a teacher at the Modern School, Barakhamba Road, New Delhi many many years ago. A chance remark in Punjabi gets her to ask me where I am from. I say I am from Patiala. There is an instant bond of empathy and kinship. The Khannas make me feel as if I have known them for years.

The Khanna home is a treasure trove of great art. The walls are full of works of Khanna’s legendary contemporaries. A Hussain there, a Tyeb Mehta up there. A Padamsee in that corner. A big Raza filling up the side of the wall there. My eyes wander. My heart soars. Being in the company of Krishen Khanna is both elevating and exhilarating. He is both living history and history as work-in-progress. I promise to send him a copy of the interview soon as it is published. He asks me to stay in touch. I feel honoured by his attention and his love. They no longer make guys like Krishen Khanna any more.

2016 Global Rankings
  Artist Rank
1 V S Gaitonde 116
2 Akbar Padamsee 163
3 F N Souza 177
4 M F Hussain 203
5 S H Raza 210
6 Amrita Sher-Gil 231
7 Tyeb Mehta 393
8 Ram Kumar 674
9 Krishen Khanna 696
10 Nasreen Mohammedi 1094
11 B Prabha 2044
12 Anjolie Ela Menon 2247
Source : Artprice
Credits : Carol Goyal, Business World 2017

Pictures courtesy: Krishen Khanna & The Kailasham Trust; Mukul Rai Bahadur