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.
“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.
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.
Josheen Oberoi shares a recording of a talk between Shumita and Arani Bose and Dinesh Vazirani
New York:Saffronart hosted a preview for their forthcoming Autumn Art Auction, last Saturday in New York. The auction, which will take place on September 24th-25th, includes Property from the Collection of Shumita and Arani Bose, the co-founders of Bose Pacia and features seminal works of contemporary artists that define an epoch in South Asian artistic narratives. Established in 1994, Bose Pacia was the first gallery in the West specializing exclusively in contemporary South Asian art. Over the past two decades, Bose Pacia has held over 80 exhibitions and is internationally regarded for promoting the South Asian avant-garde.
The evening began with a conversation between the co-founder of Saffronart, Dinesh Vazirani and Shumita and Arani Bose that discussed their collecting practice and it’s inspirations, the changing landscape of South Asian art and the way forward with their +91 Foundation. The audio and transcript of the talk follows.
Date: September 14th, 2013
Location: New York City
Dinesh Vazirani: Thank you all for coming. This is an informal discussion with Shumita and Arani, its great to have them here. Let me introduce you, Arani and Shumita. Dr. Arani Bose and Mrs. Shumita Bose, co-founders of Bose Pacia. Established in 1994, Bose Pacia was the first gallery in the West specializing exclusively in contemporary South Asian art, over the past two decades Bose Pacia has held over 80 exhibitions and it is internationally regarded for promoting the South Asian avant-garde. The gallery fosters an active discourse between the contemporary South Asian arts and the international art community by featuring exhibitions that can contextualize contemporary art from this geographic region within its rich artist traditions and current social tensions. The Shumita and Arani Bose collection, you’re just seeing a part of it here, is one of the largest and most comprehensive South Asian contemporary collections in the US. With strands both in the pre independence and post-colonial spheres the collection can be viewed as a survey of the most pivotal artistic developments in the Indian subcontinent. With outstanding examples of visual art ranging from photography, painting and new media to sculpture and installation the collection represents dynamic strands of artistic practice and discourse. So welcome, Arani and Shumita.
Arani Bose: Thank you.
Dinesh Vazirani: I want to go back a long way. What got you interested in art?
Arani Bose: We were always kind of interested in art in the theoretical sense that we would go to galleries and museums and then I had a particular connection to the art world in India particularly because of my father and my uncle who was Arun Bose. He was a product of the Government Art College in Calcutta and for 30 years he was the head of the graphics department at Lehman College and Pratt institute before that. There was a certain tendency to be interested in art from a family stand point. Then in the early 90’s after Shumita and I were married…
Dinesh Vazirani: And what year was that, which you got married?
Shumita Bose: Oh boy, that was a long time. 1989.
AB: So we went to India and we didn’t want to spend all our time at the homes of relatives so we asked my uncle in New York, “give us something to do when were there” He said “well you can visit these galleries in all of these cities” so we said “Ok great” took down the names, so we visited. We took pictures of the work that we saw there, there was quite a lot of compelling stuff there and when we came back we were hanging out with our best friends Steve, who’s right there.
DV: Hi Steve!
AB: He asked a question when seeing our photos from our trip, “this particular artist, I’m sure I could get this artist here, I’d love to get this painting; I wonder who sells this work? Or represents this artist”. So that lead to an investigation of how to get that work and as you know that was impossible in 1993 to find. There was no representation of Indian or South Asian artists in New York or anywhere outside of India for that matter. And that was true at the gallery level, at the museum level and I came to realize that when we started to investigate and look for that. That started the whole process.
DV: Shumita, what about you? Was it only Arani?
DV: You know husband and wife. Both my wife and I are at the same business, Saffronart. How do you reconcile your differences in taste and the way you look at art? Are there arguments or is it always big hugs at the end of it?
SB: I’d say in that taste we have a similar aesthetic. Also with a lot of these were personal relationships with artists aside from the aesthetic sense of the work. A lot of them are friends of ours and you get interested in the thoughts and ideas it often goes beyond just pictures that you want. So both of us along with Steve felt that we wanted to support these artists. A lot of times we would purchase things that we hadn’t even seen, but conceptually it seemed interesting or we just believed in their work.
AB: A lot of people ask how I handle a work, of this scale in my home. Frankly, we often don’t. There are storage facilities for that. Then people ask why would you buy an art work to put in storage? That makes no sense. The answer is really, you’re buying a work because you believe in the vision of the artist and that is what we both agreed on. The artist, the vision and then, the work was in a sense superfluous to that.
DV: Since the opening of the gallery in 1994 how do you think the collector base for modern and contemporary South Asian work has evolved? Especially in the United States?
AB: When we started there was, perhaps, because Steve and I both have a medical connection, many of the collectors were Indian physicians.
DV: That’s interesting
SB: We should say physician.
AB: Yes that’s right. Indian physician.
SB: A very important Indian physician.
AB: It started out as often in a venture, being supported by one angel essentially. We had that angel. That gave us time to explore avenues, other avenues and nurture those relationships with other people and often times they were not United States based people, European collectors. It grew from there. Primarily for many years, it was primarily an Indian or South Asian collecting base and then starting from 2000 it started to broaden into a European and Asian collector base.
DV: If you could just explain to us briefly about how your strategy of collecting art has changed over these years. If I look at the gallery itself you had representation of Souza at one time, then you had contemporary artists, then you had Arpita, so it was a cross over from Modern to Contemporary. Has that influenced the way you have collected art? The interactions with these artists and what had happened over this last decade and a half?
AB: Yes. It definitely has impacted. The relationship with the artist is a major impact.
SB: I think we also felt, since at that time we were really the only window into South Asian contemporary art at that time, even though we had a tiny space in Soho we felt it was important to have a permanent space where people could come and consistently see good shows. We felt that it was important to see the development of contemporary Indian art. So it was important to show the modern painters, Souza, Husain and kind of educate people in the sense of where it’s coming from, what the trajectory was. I think consciously we had several shows from Souza to Husain to Bengal school and others that we felt were important just as a background to all these other contemporary artists.
AB: And in a sense one of the most pivotal shows that we had was Kalighat paintings. It was about eight to ten Kalighat works that Steve, Shumita and I acquired from Ram Gopal, this famous Bharatnatyam dancer based in the UK at the time. We went to London. None of us at the time could really afford to take a trip to London, we were residents or newly minted attendings in medicine and Shumita was a newly minted software engineer. We used our Visa card and bought these tickets to London to go see these shows, to go see this collection. We were notified of this collection by Vijay Kumar.
SB: Also I must say, he was a very important person for the gallery.
AB: Yes, as many of you may know, he’s a New York artist. He called one day and said that there is this collection of this Indian dancer in London, and you should go, and you might be interested in it. We called this guy and went to see this collection and we bought the collection as soon as we saw it and showed it to the British museum after buying it. T. Richard Blurton of the British Museum was curator at the time; he was flabbergasted that these punks from New York could swoop into London and grab this incredible work from London, and take it away. So the show got a write up in the New York Times. But it was a book that was published by the Victorian & Albert Museum called “Kalighat paintings” by Archer- in that book there were two pages, one of a Kalighat painting and the other of almost identical brushwork, almost, and the subject matter was quite similar, of Lejeune. That image of Kalighat painting, done c. 1850 and a Lejeune done c. 1910-1915 was so identical that it had to have been seen by Lejeune. The essence of that statement was so antithetical to what was being said at the time- that all Indian art production, it was felt in 1994, was derivative of the West. And this was a wonderful example of not only the untruth of that statement but the fact that it goes both ways. The West can derive from India or South Asia just as easily as South Asia can derive from the West. It was that sense of injustice, intellectual injustice that was the driving force of a lot of Bose Pacia and a lot of +91.
DV: Which we will get to in a bit. You know, you were one of the first galleries that represented Indian artists in the West. What was the reaction of artists when you approached them about exhibiting in New York?
SB: It started with Art India Now, which I think was back in 1993. We literally went to Calcutta and Delhi and much of it was thanks to Arun who had made some introductions to a lot of the Calcutta artists and we literally went from studio to studio. We had no funds to do this; we had no means of acquiring works. We just had an idea and a passion for doing it.
DV: Because artists weren’t mobile at that time.
AB: They weren’t mobile. So Steve, Mita and I would walk into Jogen Chowdhury’s house in Santiniketan and the reception would always start out being a warm reception, as it’s a Bengali house, but then beyond that it would be “ok this is very interesting please sit down have some tea, what can I do for you” and we would say “I have this gallery, I have this idea of promoting Indian art” and it’s 1994 remember, “we’re hoping to consign some work to take to the United States”. That did not go over well.
DV: You mean the work has to leave India?
AB: Yes, the work has to leave India. And then it was always about a two hour discussion and conversation and then suddenly; we remember this vividly, there was a turn and it happened almost in every instance, in every meeting, in every home over this cup of tea. Whether it’s Ganesh Haloi or Jogen Chowdhury, anybody… and the turn could be demarcated with a line. After those two hours of talking about what we were going to do, there is suddenly a realization. “Ok you’re trust worthy” and work starts to come out.
SB: I remember him pulling out drawings from beneath his bed.
AB: Under his bed! He brings out art work and goes “you gotta see this one painting, this is amazing”. So we were able to come back.
SB: Everyone was very generous and we ended up with one or two works from eighteen artists. We had the show called “Art India Now”
DV: Was that your first show?
SB: Well, our first show was called “Beyond India: Two Generations of Modern Art” and it was Vinod Dave and Arun Bose. We had rented a space in Soho, we didn’t have a permanent space at that time. We had 500 people at the opening, it was amazing. We had scrambled up a mailing list and had never hung a show before, hung this a couple of times. But the energy was amazing.
DV: I remember with Saffronart, the first showing was on the terrace of my building in Mumbai. We strung things together and just made it happen. But even you’ve been in the gallery world a while, you’ve been a collector, how do these two roles evolve? And what influences have they had on each other?
AB: I suppose the collecting, the gallerist’s role is, at least for us, an attempt to provide a professional platform, a commercial platform to showcase South Asian contemporary art the way it should be showcased. And back in 1994 there was no platform outside of India. With proper labels on the wall, in a proper gallery setting, not in somebody’s apartment or somebody’s living room. We felt that if the artwork was going to be taken seriously it had to be shown seriously with proper press releases, etc. That was the intent with showcasing the work. And then at the time there was such a discrepancy between the perceived value of the work and the monetization of the work. Work was selling for under 5,000, under 10,000 when it was being produced by one of the most talented artists from a billion people. It was a no brainer to us that this was ridiculous; it should be valued much higher. There was a point that we just couldn’t afford to buy the work ourselves. If we could, Steve, Shumita and I would have bought everything. Then we wouldn’t be able to keep the gallery doors open, so we had to sell. As we each got to a point in our careers where we could afford to buy some work, we bought work. Really, because we always knew that it was amazing work and then our budget caught up with what we wanted to do. We often sold work and then bought it back because we believed that it was still undervalued.
DV: When you’ve seen the progression of starting with more of the modern works and then you have contemporary, video art, installation, you have new media. How do you see the collectors evolving and appreciating this movement of art across genres, as a gallerist? You see new collectors developing new tastes and collections that they actually want to build. Have you seen them actually appreciating the new media as much as they do the modern and contemporary?
SB: I think recently more so. In the beginning, way back in the 90’s or 2000, it was definitely Latin American art or other genres, and it was typically from the auction catalog and it was the moderns who were selling at that point. Those were the artists that collectors would tend to start buying but then we saw over the years there hadn’t been that many shows of media artists. We started showing Raqs Media Collective or Shilpa Gupta for the first time. That was in about 2005, 2004. 2006. That was really one of the first times for Raqs Media Collective; they hadn’t really shown in India at that point.
AB: They had only shown at the Venice Biennale. We met them soon after the Venice Biennale.
SB:Ranbir Kaleka, an amazing artist and really one of the first artists anywhere in the world who did this incredible merging of painting and video; almost enhancing painting, adding things to painting, to a canvas that you can’t achieve.
AB: These were people that were pushing the barriers of art in ways that other people were not doing. That fact had to be acknowledged and supported. It really almost didn’t matter if it was new media or video installation or painting; they were doing something so novel that it had to be supported, because novelty and true inspirational work needs to be supported. The west or the non-sub continental west, is better at doing that because they expend the resource that’s necessary.
SB: Well, they’ve been doing it longer.
AB: Yes, they’ve been doing it longer and they expend what’s necessary to foster that type of collector. In South Asia, not- in South Asia or out of South Asia, we don’t really have the tendency to foster those kinds of collectors and that’s our fault. We need to.
DV: Some of the reasons for that? Why are we not able to foster them?
AB: I think the institutions for fostering those types of collectors don’t exist within India and outside of India. I was having a conversation earlier today about MOMA PS1- every small town in America has a contemporary art museum, every small village in Germany has a kunsthalle and there is not a single non-governmental, non-bureaucratic , grass roots effort in all of South Asia to develop that sense of collecting.
DV: There’s no public art either in India.
SB: Also I think in terms of getting a tax deduction…
DV: There isn’t that in India.
SB: Philanthropy, the support of it.
AB: That may be why we don’t have a lottery system like they do in the UK
DV: Or a system for grants; that doesn’t exist. Let’s just come back to you. What is the first painting you ever bought?
SB: Salma Arastu, an artist based in Pennsylvania
DV: And where is that? Is it hanging or in storage?
SB: We still have it; it was hanging for many years in the apartment.
DV: As you look at the collection here which are some of your favorites?
SB: Steve’s favorite too. The shutters are amazing. Ranbir, one of the most incredible painters to come out of India I feel. Nataraj, Seher… we have personal connections with so many artists that it’s hard to pick.
DV: Tell us about the relationships with artists you have built over time…some interesting anecdotes of these artists that you interacted with?
SB: Jitish is a good one. We visited him, after midnight.
AB: Jitish, yes. I used to make about five trips to India a number of years ago. Jitish Kallat, his studio used to be in Worli and Steve and I have gone out to the studio multiple times. It was about a two and a half hour commute, at the time, from central and Southern Bombay out to his studio. I would do it late at night; we would always end up very late at his studio drinking. One such visit he said “ I have this idea, for this work, I want to take mirrored surfaces, large mirrored surfaces and write on them the text from Nehru’s speech, the freedom at Midnight speech, and write in epoxy. I’ve done some investigations and I think it’s possible. Then I want to burn the epoxy and that will create a flame which will then indelibly mark the epoxy so that it is visible and it will warp the mirrored surface and that I think will be an interesting effect.” I had one too many drinks so I said that sounds like a fantastic idea. I’ll buy it. And he goes “yeah if you buy it then I can do it”. So I said ok. That work, now he’s done several like it, one of the works is called “Public Notice”. It’s a spectacular work, so that’s in our collection.
SB: That’s been one of the exciting things over all the years, just being able to make ideas happen. So many times with Atul, we felt it was our responsibility. As much as we could within our means to really push artists to do things that they normally wouldn’t do. Especially as the market got more and more strong and works were selling, it seemed it was even more important at that time. Because it was so easy to just keep making the same works that would so easily sell. So, often we would push Atul, one of the artists, from his project in Venice to his show at Bose Pacia, we would encourage him to “don’t worry about the sale, push the idea, just do it, just make it”. Mithu Sen with her It’s good to be queen show in New York; often those kinds of experiences. Bari Kumar with his five panel work that he was thinking about painting for years and he didn’t feel comfortable doing and we just said just do it and he painted this amazing five panel work. That has been for us very exciting and very rewarding.
DV: I’m going to ask one more question and then open it up to the audience, because it is six o’clock. Now talking about ideas, + 91, the Foundation. That’s an idea, something you’ve been thinking about for a long time.
AB: It has components that originate in what we have been doing for the last number of years. The gallery was and has been from early on and certainly in the latter years had been seen as a resource, a study center, as a place to do research on Indian contemporary art and it has been used by many people for their Masters, PhD dissertations and research in college and graduate school. So that aspect has been going on for some time. The idea that the artists, that the art space could be used as an interactive studio of sorts we have been investigating as Transparent Studio since Bose Pacia stopped its commercial operations. That’s an artist residency program where the artist uses the gallery space as a studio for about three months at a time. We have been loaning to institutions for a number of years. We’ve been keeping track since 2005. We’ve loaned from the collection to more than 50 institutions, hundreds of works of art, in five continents or so throughout the world. The Bose Archive has been an effort to take the collection and other collections and archive them, document them and make them accessible for research study purposes to the general public as an entity. The +91 idea, +91 is a nonprofit foundation we’re starting, +91 standing for the cell phone country code of India, that is an effort to bring all of these activities under one roof. To have a study center component, to have an archival component, to have an interactive component, to offer exhibition platforms all under one roof.
SB: Also, what we were talking about just before this, that idea of pushing artists… for us it’s always been such an important part and we’d like to continue that through the foundation. Working with artists that may not have commercial representation and allowing them to try out ideas and also artists that might be doing quite fine and continuing to push their practice as well.
AB: Yes, to encourage creative risk taking within the South Asian artistic community and to basically, as Sadia, our director of the foundation, who’s right here, put it quite elegantly “To mediate that risk taking between the artistic studio, the artistic practice and the general public”. That mediation is the best way to describe +91.
DV: Well thank you and congratulations on all the initiatives. I hope it really works out and does some great things. We can open it up for questions.
Audience question: I’m interested to hear – what the state of the collectors is now and was there an impact in terms of the financial crisis, not just from a financial point but as it’s caught on and everybody’s into it could become very flashy and materialistic instead of actually art.
AB: Yeah. Part of, let’s say before the crisis, the Indian subcontinent began, as the middle and upper class began to become larger they became to value the heritage of the country so there were a lot of Indian collectors. Simultaneous to that there was a huge influx of museum shows in Europe after the Tate Modern show that happened in 1999-2000 “Century City” after “Century City” there were shows everywhere Berlin, Barcelona, Manchester, Paris, Sweden all over Europe from 2000 onwards. That created a number of European collectors. As the market began to shift towards China, there are a number of Asian collectors. And then the crash affected everyone but by that time there was enough European Asian and South Asian collectors that it somewhat mitigated or allowed a bounce back a rapid bounce back of the market.
DV: I think there was a period, where especially before the financial crisis there was a lot of speculation in contemporary art, and after the crisis what I think we have are serious collectors. People look at it in a very different way as opposed to looking at it from one point of you. That’s why the point of view of Arani and Shumita is to encourage experimentation, let artists create something they are proud of as opposed to something they can sell. I think the whole mindset has changed; the way people buy contemporary art and the way contemporary art is produced.