Krishen Khanna is one of India’s leading and last surviving modernists. Twenty-four new monochromatic works by Khanna were part of an exhibition at the recently opened Saffronart Gallery, The Claridges, New Delhi.
At 91, the handsome, suave artist still charms listeners in a jiffy with anecdotes drawn from a very interesting life. In a conversation with Firstpost, Khanna held forth on his deep friendship with the late MF Husain, his love for poetry, and how — sadly — his paintings depicting Partition have not had a cathartic effect.
Please tell us a little bit about your friendship with MF Husain...
I was very close to MF... It all began with him seeing my work. Then we kept meeting in Mumbai. He borrowed a book — Art, a very important document produced in Britain that influenced lot of painters and turned people towards the formal aspect of painting — from me to read. Three days later when I came back to my flat, I found a parcel with a painting from him. There was a note in it in Urdu saying: ‘Mujhe maaf kijiye. Woh kitab joh maine apse li thi woh toh taxi mei reh gayi.’ So he sent me one of his paintings in lieu of it. I thought, ‘Acha hua gum ho gayi.’ I still have that painting and I cherish it as a gift of friendship.
MF was friends with my father as well and would often visit us in Shimla. On one such trip, he reached late in the night and slept in the drawing room. My mother made him tea the next morning but he was not there. She asked me, ‘Where has your friend disappeared?’ I told her maybe he’s gone out for a walk and will return in sometime. But hours passed and MF was nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, I got a call from him. I asked, ‘Kahan ho?’ He said ‘Thaane mein.’ He had gone to Mall Road in his car and had been held by the police to pay a fine of Rs 60. There were also other people in the police station — a young woman with her sheep. She was being asked to pay Rs 40 which she did not have. So MF gave them Rs 100 and told the police to adjust the 40 rupees for the ‘bakriwali’.
Another time, he was driving in Mumbai when a man hitched a ride. He said he had lost money and asked MF for some. To which MF — who was driving barefoot — said, ‘Mai kya kar sakta hun, mai toh is gaadi ka driver hun!’ He had a great sense of humour!
Bal Chhabra bought a lot of paintings... MF was going to Japan for an exhibition and needed a few paintings to fill up the gallery since he did not have as many (as were needed). So Bal lent him those paintings he had bought from him. MF sold those paintings in Japan! He wanted to pay the money to Bal, but he never took money for those paintings.
Then, MF bought a Volkswagen when he was in Germany. He drove all around and then went to Paris to meet Akbar Padamsee. When he was coming back to India he wanted to sell the car and told Akbar to find a buyer. Akbar said he could buy the car. So MF promptly handed over the keys to him. No money dealing was ever done...
Money did not matter to any of us; there was so much love and friendship. We were all in the age group of 24-25 and there was a hunger to see and appreciate one another’s work. Several letters exchanged between MF and me, in Urdu, are now all lost. Those that were exchanged between Raza and I have been published in book form by the Vadhera Gallery.
Much like RK Laxman, your subject has been the common man. As an artist, what were your thoughts when you would begin to paint?
Hindustan is a big place. Most people are common people. It depends on how you look at people, at animals, around you. I just react to people as they are. My concern is to portray humanism. It’s about how much you empathise with people. In terms of graphics, there is tension in the painting where the cow and man are pulling in different directions.
Your paintings also dealt with Partition. Did they prove cathartic to your memories of Partition? Did they not provide a sort of healing?
There is no catharsis here. I’ve started painting these pictures now. Immediately after Partition, the question of survival was paramount. One doesn’t think of painting and colours. I got a job in a bank. They were happy to have me. There has been no healing. I have painted and those memories have entered into another physical existence.
You’ve said that “you’re not into the business of art”. But isn’t art all about business today — auction houses, expensive paintings, socialising, cocktail circuits?
It has definitely turned into business. But I don’t know how much people understand art today. I left a cushy job to become an artist. Money wasn’t important. On my first exhibition in Mumbai, I sold only one painting. Today it’s more about chasing success. In our time, that did not matter.
You used to paint abstracts earlier. What made you turn to depicting the human form that is similar in some ways and yet very different in your paintings?
When god makes human beings, no two beings are alike. I am no god, but I create different faces. The human form is there for all to see. The similarity in faces is all about style.
How was studying art at Lahore’s Mayo School, as compared to today’s art schools?
I didn’t study. I used to attend evening classes because I had a job. They used to have a model for you to see and paint. But I was against this model business. Today it is more mechanistic. They teach you how to make art. Art doesn’t happen like that. It is instinctive. Raza once said ‘When your painting is 40-50 percent ready, tab tak apka fan, jo apne seekha hai, usme dikh jaye and then the goddess should come and breathe life into it’. Until this happens, nothing can come alive.
‘A Far Afternoon’, the documentary by Sruti Harihara Subramanian captures your life on celluloid. How was the experience?
What is interesting is that this girl made a documentary for the first time. For me, it was a very quiet experience. She would sit and watch me paint and never intrude. The title was taken from Conrad Aiken’s poem ‘A Letter from Li Po’. The film got international acclaim, won two National Awards in the Best Art/Cultural film category and Best Music.
Do you also write poetry since literature is your other passion?
Literature is a passion and poetry comprises a compression of thoughts, a precision with a string of words, the way they penetrate your heart, the way the thoughts are woven; everything. I don’t write poetry but I certainly do remember a lot of poetry. I used to write when I was a boy of 18. There’s so much good poetry that it doesn’t need my intervention.
[He goes on to recite from Chaucer’s ‘Prologue to Canterbury Tales’.]
I want to write something — not poetry, but time is too short. Penguin produced a book of essays written by me — The Time of my Life — more than a decade ago.
Are there any images specifically that stay on in your mind and that you’d like to capture in your work?
For me it’s a season of repetition and return. The past is coming back to me now.
Do you have a favourite colour?
All colours are good when they find their appropriate place and any colour — however brilliant applied — where it is not needed, becomes ugly and violent.
Updated Date: Dec 17, 2016 09:56:29 IST