Watch Now: The Timeless Legacy of Indian Jewels

Saffronart Co-founder Minal Vazirani and jewellery historian Usha Balakrishnan on the upcoming conference, The Timeless Legacy of Indian Jewels.

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An Evening with Krishen Khanna

Vidhita Raina reports on Krishen Khanna’s lecture on “The Progressives” at London’s Courtauld Institute

Krishen Khanna (centre), Prof. Deborah Swallow (right) and Zehra Jumabhoy (left). Credits: Grosvenor Gallery, London.

Krishen Khanna (centre), Prof. Deborah Swallow (right) and Zehra Jumabhoy (left). Credits: Grosvenor Gallery, London.

“Is the artist only interested in being a unique individual? If I had considered my work to be unique, then I would have continued trying to be unique… and that is not what art is about,” said Krishen Khanna at a talk held at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London on June 8, 2015. This sagacious insight into his artistic motivations was one of the many gemstones that Khanna—a leading Indian Modernist painter—showered upon a rapt audience, eager in attendance to witness one of the stalwarts of Indian art reminiscing about its heydays.

With Deborah Swallow and Zehra Jumabhoy from the Courtauld Institute, and Conor Macklin from Grosvenor Gallery also on the panel, this debate was conducted as part of the “Contemporaneity in South Asian Art” seminar series.

The symposium was full of anecdotes as Khanna brought out his personal archive of letters exchanged between him and his many associates. Khanna’s nostalgic stories about his Bombay Progressive peers were unequivocally the highlights; particularly those involving his erstwhile roommate and one of the most celebrated Indian artists, the late Maqbool Fida Husain. It is common knowledge that Husain introduced Khanna into the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group (or “PAG”, as they were generally called). But the evening revealed one more nugget of information—Husain, during one of his visits to Khanna’s then home in Churchgate, Mumbai, borrowed his copy of the English art critic Clive Bell’s 1914 seminal text Art, only to eventually lose it. This incident, according to Khanna, was a result of “certain forces which operate at the right time”.

Khanna’s association with the PAG, which was formed right on the heels of India’s independence in 1947, led to several accomplishments in his trajectory as an artist. He held major exhibitions in Mumbai and New Delhi in the late ’50s. The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research showed great interest in his work, and its founding director—the esteemed nuclear physicist Dr. Homi Bhabha—bought his very first painting. In 1960, Khanna had his first solo show with Leicester Galleries of London. Here Khanna drew upon a letter written by renowned British art historian, Sir Kenneth Clark, gloriously calling one of his major abstract artworks a “masterpiece”.

Khanna spoke at length about Francis Newton Souza’s role as the driving force behind the PAG, including calling the group as “Progressives”. However, the term was subsequently dropped as many of its members—which also included artists like S.H. Raza, Akbar Padamsee, Tyeb Mehta, V.S. Gaitonde, Ram Kumar, K.H. Ara, among others—felt that it had political connotations. It was a suggestion that rankled with Khanna, as the PAG never saw itself as a political group.

But even as the PAG was beginning to emerge as a new wave of artists in post-independent India unfettered by their political climate—and dissociating themselves from the nationalist spirit of the preceding Bengal School artists in the process—their art, Khanna’s in particular, couldn’t avoid resonating with social, economic and political undertones of a changing nation state.

Born in the city of Lyallpur (now Faisalabad of modern day Pakistan) in 1925, Khanna was, and is, no stranger to political turmoil. Following the Partition of India in 1947, his family moved to Shimla in northern India. Khanna himself accepted a job at Grindlays Bank in Bombay, a position he would hold for 14 years, before finally resigning to focus on his art completely.

Krishen Khanna on the 'Progressives' at the Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre, The Courtauld Institute of Art. Credits: Grosvenor Gallery, London.

Krishen Khanna on the ‘Progressives’ at the Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre, The Courtauld Institute of Art. Credits: Grosvenor Gallery, London.

A self-taught artist, Khanna created works that showed a strong preoccupation with the historical background of his time. For him, the humanistic element in a painting was a paramount. Khanna was deeply concerned with the condition of the individual. It’s an artistic anxiety highly evident in his paintings of tired workers piled in trucks, dhaba owners in twilight moments, and the uniformed “bandwallas”—the last vestiges of long-dead British imperial legacy. In her biography Krishen Khanna: The Embrace of Love, critic Gayatri Sinha has said: “the paintings constitute a powerful psychological engagement, one that also serves as a document of the passage of time in modern India.”

Another aspect of the debate, raised by Conor Macklin and Zehra Jumabhoy, was India’s relationship with Britain, and the impact of the European Avant-garde Movement on the PAG. Just as the modern art of Europe rose from the trenches of the World War I, the trauma resulting from the Partition of India also stimulated a new language of art production in its wake. In an effort to locate a new identity and language for Indian art, many of the modern artists such as Souza, Raza, and Padamsee—having studied or spent time in Paris—inevitably found themselves looking towards Western styles of art.

Khanna himself was a well-travelled and worldly artist: he was the first Indian painter to be awarded the Rockefeller Fellowship by New York’s prestigious Rockefeller Foundation in1962. As part of this fellowship, Khanna spent time in Japan where he found inspiration in the Sumi-e (Suibokuga) calligraphic style of paintings, practiced by Zen Buddhists during the 14th century. This led to a number of experiments in abstraction during the ’60s and ’70s, which Khanna reflected upon as “a series of events which formulate or assist in formulating the kind of action you have to take”. In the following year, he was invited as the artist-in-residence at the American University, Washington D.C., and exhibited at various museums and galleries throughout the United States.

Besides being a riveting trip down memory lane, the symposium was mainly a precursor to Krishen Khanna’s ongoing retrospective at the Grosvenor Gallery titled “when the band began to play he packed up his troubles and marched away”. A certain homage was paid to the presence of the seminar being held at the Kenneth Clark lecture theatre, named after the eponymous art historian and an old associate of the artist.

Khanna’s talk was one for the history books—significant moments during the early Indian Modernist phase were brought up, including when artist Bal Chhabda opened Gallery 59. It was Mumbai’s first, short-lived art gallery to showcase artworks by the PAG members in 1959. The group may be long gone, but they left an undeniable legacy for India and the world to treasure.

Asian Art in London 2013 (31/10/2013 – 9/11/2013)

Aaina Bhargava of Saffronart introduces Asian Art in London 2013

Asian Art in London

Asian Art in London. Image Credit:

London: It’s Asian Art in London week, the perfect opportunity to indulge in your appreciation for Asian Art and simultaneously engage with London’s vast network of art institutions that hold various events such as lectures, symposiums, exhibitions, and auctions solely dedicated to Asian Art.

A few South Asian highlights featured include, The Annual Benjamin Zucker Lecture on Mughal Art: Jahangir’s Gulshan Album and its marginal decorations at the Victoria and Albert Museum on Nov. 7th, a lecture on Orchha not Mandu, 1592 not 1634: A Revolutionary View of ‘Malwa’ Painting held at SOAS on Nov. 6th, and a symposium on The Art of Being A Part: Two South African-born Asian Artists in Dialogue – Clifford Charles and Anthony Key on Nov. 9th at the Courtald Institute of Art.

A number of exhibitions featuring South Asian Art are being held including: The Surreal in Indian Painting: Select Works from the Arturo Schwarz and other Private Collections at Prahlad Bubbar, God, Demons and Lovers at Rob Dean Art, Indian Court Painting 16th – 19th Centuries at Sam Fogg, A Prince’s Eye Imperial Mughal Paintings from a Princely Collection Art from the Indian Courts at Francesca Galloway, Modern and Contemporary Indian Miniatures at Grosvenor Gallery, Indian & Islamic Works of Art at Simon Ray Indian and Islamic Works of Art, An Important Group of Sculptures from India, Southeast Asia and China at Jonathan Tucker Antonia Tozer Asian Art, Nature at Alexis Renard and Indian Ivory and Imran Channa at Joost van den Bergh.

The Saffronart London team will be checking out the galleries participating in the Late Night Opening Mayfair tonight (Nov. 4th), hopefully we’ll see you there.

For more information regarding events visit Asian Art in London.

Black on Black: F. N.Souza, Race and Creativity in Post-War Britain

Ambika Rajgopal of Saffronart shares a note on the panel discussion centered around F. N. Souza’s Black on Black Paintings at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London.

London: The frenetic, art enriched environment of the Frieze week bought with it an intensely engaging evening at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London. The panel discussion drew together three different academics; all tied together through their knowledge of the prolific Indian artist Francis Newton Souza. The speakers: Gilane Tawadros, the Founding Director at Iniva, London; Zehra Jumabhoy, PhD candidate at the Courtauld Institute of Art; and Philip Vann, an art historian from Cambridge analysed how Souza’s paintings fit into debates about Black-ness in British Art from the 1960s onwards.

This discussion was timed to coincide with Grosvenor Gallery’s exhibition, F.N Souza: Black on Black Paintings, which was on view till 28 October. A selection of the Black on Black Paintings were also featured in their gallery’s booth at the Frieze Masters. The exhibition attempts to resurrect Souza’s 1966 exhibition Black Art and Other Paintings at Grosvenor Gallery. Since then, this is the first time these black monochromatic works have been presented together. Created in London, between 1964 and 1965, these artworks marked a significant period in Souza’s career.

Black is the most mysterious of all colours. Renoir found it impossible and said a spot of black was like a hole in the painting. I cannot agree: colour is now disturbing in a bad way. –F. N. Souza, Paint it Black, Review of Black Art and Other paintings, The Observer, May 15, 1966

The panel discussion discussed Souza’s amalgamation of Indian modernism with the Post-War climate of grimness as the source of inspiration of his Black Paintings. Souza’s time in London, from 1949 to 1967, involved spending a great deal of time at the National Gallery, confronted by works of European masters, most notably Rembrandt, Vermeer and Goya. Some critics think that Francisco de Goya’s Pinturas Negras or black paintings, painted in the final years of the Spanish artist’s lifetime, had an enormous influence on Souza’s Black Paintings. Other critics argue that it was Ad Reinhardt, who also did a series of black works, who influenced Souza. Though the source of inspiration behind these works is disputed, one thing that stands clear is Souza’s intention to jolt the consciousness of the viewer.

Another important aspect of Souza’s work that the discussion brought to light was the role that race played in the creation of his Black Paintings. Souza’s work existed in the structural framework of Post-War British politics. At this time incidents like the Notting Hill race riots of 1957 and general discriminatory attitudes towards non- British perhaps played in the mind of Souza. His paintings could be seen as the culmination of his interest in the politics of colour.

Stylistically difficult to execute, as well as view, these works provide a dimension to the artist’s own troubled life which was filled with financial difficulties and personal problems. This body of work requires a lot of participation on part of the viewer in order to reveal itself. The interaction between the light and the textured brushstrokes require a certain angle, which can be caught by the eye only when viewed from certain positions. Souza’s partner at the time, Barbara Zinkant wrote, “Souza would place lamps around the paintings and would view them from different angles”

The talk provided a structural framework through which Souza’s Black Paintings could be viewed. The discussion was followed by a question and answer session, which was led by the Director of the Courtauld Institute of Art, Professor Deborah Swallow. The audience engaged in the discussion by providing alternate points of view to the discussion.

Musical and visual collaboration with Dayanita Singh and Talvin Singh

Ambika Rajgopal of Saffronart shares a note on Dayanita Singh and Talvin Singh’s interaction at the Southbank Center, London.

London:  Words took second seat to visuals and music on 9th October 2013, at the Purcell Room at the Southbank Center, London. I was uncertain of what to expect when I found out Dayanita Singh would collaborate with Talvin Singh, in an interaction mediated by Chief Curator, Stephanie Rosenthal.

Talvin Singh, Stephanie Rosenthal and Daynita Singh in conversation. Image Credit: Ambika Rajgopal

Talvin Singh, Stephanie Rosenthal and Daynita Singh in conversation. Image Credit: Ambika Rajgopal

Dayanita Singh is adamant in her claim that she is first a bookmaker, and then a photographer. Her website also testifies this fact by describing her as a ‘bookmaker working with photography’. She used photography as a tool through which she can make books. Disappointed by the static nature of display of single framed photographs hung on the wall; Dayanita started creating portable ‘museums’. “Putting a picture on a gallery wall felt too passive. I wanted people to relate to my images in a more physical way”, she said.

Dayanita Singh photographed in her 'Museum of Chance' at the Hayward Gallery. Image Credit:

Dayanita Singh photographed in her ‘Museum of Chance’ at the Hayward Gallery. Image Credit:

These museums were essentially wooden structures that could display 30 or 40 images with up to 100 in reserve, meticulously being pulled out from her archives. She compared these structures to giant hardback books with flaps that open out to create walls. This display enabled her to change what was being displayed during a show.

The idea probably evolved from a ritualistic travel custom she performed. Whenever she travelled anywhere with her friends, she would perpetuate the memories in the form of a little visual book, documenting shared moments. Each book, a visual odyssey of memories relived, would be presented to the friend, while Dayanita kept the only other copy. These homemade manuscripts folded up in an accordion like manner, so that it could be folded out and privately exhibited in the quiet comfort of her friends’ homes- a domestic inclusion of the art of exhibiting.

Sent a letter, 2008, Dayanita Singh. Image Credit:

Sent a letter, 2008, Dayanita Singh. Image Credit:

This was the start of her working partnership with the German international publisher of photo books- Steidl. In Gerhard Steidl, the founder of the company, Dayanita not only found a publisher, but also a friend and an intellectual ally. Her book with Steidl- Sent a Letter published in 2008 was a compilation of seven of these visual stories, including one of her mother, Nony Singh’s photographs of little Dayanita growing up.

One of the things that struck me about Dayanita was the effervescent spirit she embodied. Small, but mischievous, she had the kind of personality that could interact with the same level of charm, intellect, humility and joviality with Stephanie Rosenthal and also the characters of some of her earlier works. The diversity of the characters she studied only gave me an inkling to the versatility of her own personality.

Myself Mona Ahmed, 2001, Dayanita Singh. Image Credit:

Myself Mona Ahmed, 2001, Dayanita Singh. Image Credit:

Dayanita documented Mona Ahmed, a street dwelling eunuch who was excommunicated from her already socially excommunicated community in Myself Mona Ahmed. When Mona’s adopted daughter, Ayesha was taken away from her, Mona became extremely distraught and started living in a cemetery. In the cemetery Mona adopted animals and tried to recreate a familial bond with them. The resultant visual narrative was in no means just a documentation of the life of a societal outsider; rather it exposed the commonality of human emotions. It was not a relationship between an artist and a subject; rather one between two people from very different walks of life, who have found that common thread of connection.

Privacy, 2004, Dayanita Singh. Image Credit:

Privacy, 2004, Dayanita Singh. Image Credit:

In Privacy, Dayanita’s painted a picture of post colonial opulence and regal elegance by capturing a part of India, she was more familiar with; the India with the high ceiling bungalows and the intricately carved mahogany furniture. Dayanita stepped into the worlds of these elite Indians and portrayed their social values visually- affluent and influential, yet held together by familial solidarity.

For Dayanita, rather than being about exclusion, photography is a way of including people who would normally be outside the boundaries of art. Dayanita rejects the white cube exclusionary tactic of dissemination of art and knowledge. Instead she opts for a unique way of disseminating her work. She freely hands out her work to beggars and homeless people, and exhibits it in equally unusual places. Her books are also priced very nominally. “People told me, ‘This is an art gallery, you can’t exhibit something worth £40’”, she laughed. In her usual style of engagement, discursive, yet speckled with anecdotal references, Dayanita broke off to remember her time in Kolkata. While passing through Park Street in Kolkata, Dayanita spotted a jewelry store- Satramdas Dhalamal with empty vitrines. She asked the owner if she could display her books on the shop window and he agreed. “Five years on, they’re still there. They’ve been seen by many times the number of people who have seen my other exhibitions and publications. I realised I could create my own spaces. I didn’t have to rely on established structures”, she exclaimed.

Sent a Letter being displayed on the window of a jewellery store in Kolkata. Image Credit:

Sent a Letter being displayed on the window of a jewellery store in Kolkata. Image Credit:

Dayanita studied visual communication at National Institute of Design, a prestigious design school in India. As part of her curriculum assignment, they were asked to capture the moods of a person. The young Dayanita, feisty and ambitious decided to photograph a concert of the renowned table player Zakir Hussain. In the concert, she was interrogated by one of the organizers about not having a permit to shoot pictures. The organizer pushed her aside, and the young photographer fell on her back in front of everyone. She picked herself and ran out the door to where Hussain, would come out through. Upon seeing him, she burst into tears and proclaimed, “someday I’ll be an important photographer and then I will photograph you”. Hussain touched by the girl’s spirit and determination invited her to photograph his practice session.

Thus started a six year long collaboration, where Dayanita documented Hussain on tour, over six winters in the eighties. The result was her first photo book Zakir Hussain, published in 1986, which discretely documented the many moods, feelings and frustrations of the maestro with an exquisitely observant delicacy. Although the book did not fare well in the market, this bond Dayanita has formed with Hussain would last her a long way. “For Zakir ji, work and life were one. From him, I learnt single minded focus and rigour.” Alongside her association with Hussain, Dayanita has been no stranger to music. She insists that the aural and the visual always coincide and interrelate- “the music I listen to while working always has an effect on the resultant visual work I produce.”

Zakir Hussain, 1986, Dayanita Singh. Image Credit:

Zakir Hussain, 1986, Dayanita Singh. Image Credit:

This is perhaps a good time to bring in Talvin Singh, who for a large part of this write-up has remained unmentioned. Talvin, a mercury prize-winning musician, is widely known for his innovative fusion between Indian classical music with drum and bass. At the center of this encounter though, Talvin is a tabla player- bearded and resolute. Perhaps Dayanita and Talvin’s paths crossed because her mentor turned out to be a musician, rather than a photographer.

Talvin first encountered Dayanita through her book on Hussain, which he found in a little cornershop in London. Talvin, a budding tabla player had never seen a book on an Indian classical musician in London; especially since Indian classical music was a purely oral tradition. For Talvin, this book was more than homage to a great maestro; it had a personal reflection of his own ambition. The book became a visual account of the human aspects of the musician- something Talvin both aspired for and could relate to.

Talvin Singh in performance. Image Credit: Ambika Rajgopal

Talvin Singh in performance. Image Credit: Ambika Rajgopal

The next part of the evening reinforced the interconnectedness of music and visuals. Dayanita’s photographs were projected on screen, while Talvin responded to them aurally- his was an aural response to visual stimuli, while hers had been a visual response to aural stimuli. Talvin Singh’s performance reflected the veracity of human emotions which Dayanita’s heartfelt visual style also pays homage to.

This talk coincides with Dayanita’s major retrospective exhibition Go Away Closer at the Haywards Gallery, on view till the 15th December 2013.

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