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: http://www.asianartinlondon.com/content/homepage

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.

Vase with Flowers, 1965, F. N. Souza. Image Credit: http://grosvenorgallery.com/exhibitions/current-exhibitions/f-n-souza-black-on-black/#

Vase with Flowers, 1965, F. N. Souza. Image Credit: http://grosvenorgallery.com/exhibitions/current-exhibitions/f-n-souza-black-on-black/#

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

Black Valentine, 1965, F. N. Souza. Image Credit: http://grosvenorgallery.com/exhibitions/current-exhibitions/f-n-souza-black-on-black/#

Black Valentine, 1965, F. N. Souza. Image Credit: http://grosvenorgallery.com/exhibitions/current-exhibitions/f-n-souza-black-on-black/#

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”

Portrait of a Girl, 1965, F. N. Souza. Image Credit: http://grosvenorgallery.com/exhibitions/current-exhibitions/f-n-souza-black-on-black/#

Portrait of a Girl, 1965, F. N. Souza. Image Credit: http://grosvenorgallery.com/exhibitions/current-exhibitions/f-n-souza-black-on-black/#

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.

Subodh Gupta’s Massive Boat Docks in London

Elisabetta Marabotto of Saffronart on Subodh Gupta’s exhibition at Hauser & Wirth and a talk by the artist at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London

What does the vessel contain, that the river does not, Subodh Gupta, 2012

“What does the vessel contain, that the river does not”, Subodh Gupta, 2012. Photo by Elisabetta Marabotto

London: Following its success at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Houser & Wirth, London, decided to showcase to an international audience Subodh Gupta’s installation “What does the vessel contain, that the river does not”.

Subodh Gupta found inspiration for this work in the words of the famous Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi:

“What does the vat contain that is not in the river?

What does the room encompass that is not in the city?

This world is the vat, and the heart the running stream,

This world the room, and the heart the city of wonders.”

In this poem, Rumi embeds among the lines the idea that the entire universe is contained in our soul. Gupta was touched by this concept, and chose to visually express Rumi’s words through an art installation that drew parallels between an individuals’s life and a boat.

The artist filled the vessel, a traditional fishing boat from Kerala, with common objects that he found in Kochi and Delhi, carefully piling them into the vessel. Chairs, beds, a bicycle, window frames, fishing nets and cooking pots are among the objects Gupta has used to represent our cluttered lives.

Detail of "What does the vessel contain, that the river does not", Subodh Gupta, 2012

Detail of “What does the vessel contain, that the river does not”, Subodh Gupta, 2012. Photo by Elisabetta Marabotto

Through this work Gupta also raises questions about cultural dislocation, feelings of belonging and displacement, movement and stability, which are symbols of the current epoch. Hence the boat acquires both positive and negative connotations. The fact that the boat is displayed with one end raised up from the floor gives the impression that it is floating, and transmits positive energies. At the same time, however, walking underneath the raised boat generates feelings of anxiety and discomfort.

Verso of What the vessel contain, that the river does not", Subodh Gupta, 2012

Passing underneath “What the vessel contain, that the river does not”, Subodh Gupta, 2012. Photo by Elisabetta Marabotto

Last Tuesday, in conjunction with the exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, the Courtauld Institute of Art in London hosted a panel discussion titled ‘The Routes of Success’, between Subodh Gupta, Jessica Morgan (the Daskalopoulos Curator, International Art, Tate Modern) and Deborah Swallow (Director of the Courtauld Institute of Art).

From the left Jessica Morgan, Deborah Swallow and Subodh Gupta at the Courtauld Institute of Art

From left: Jessica Morgan, Deborah Swallow and Subodh Gupta at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Photo by Elisabetta Marabotto

The panel discussion was preceded by a presentation by an unexpectedly shy Subodh Gupta, who discussed his major works of which you find a selection between the text below.

29 Mornings, Subodh Gupta, 1996

29 Mornings, Subodh Gupta, 1996. Image Credit: http://www.aaa.org.hk/onlineprojects/bitri/en/gallery.aspx?eid=A010.04

After the presentation, a more confident and very entertaining Gupta had a very interesting exchange with Morgan and Swallow. The artist revealed his past as an aspiring actor, a career that was derailed once he started painting film posters. In fact, he only joined art school because he was convinced by his friends. And now he is one of the most acclaimed Indian contemporary artists in the world!

The scale of his artworks was also one of the topics tackled in the discussion. Although slightly shy on stage, Gupta is not shy at all in his artworks’ dimensions! The artist however stated that the creation of large artworks wasn’t premeditated; it just happened. And once it started it became a habit, and now he can’t stop it!

Very Hungry God, Subodh Gupta, 2006

Very Hungry God, Subodh Gupta, 2006. Image Credit: http://neology.tumblr.com/post/12121535720/urhajos-very-hungry-god-by-subodh-gupta

Gupta also discussed his love/hate relationship with painting. It is something he doesn’t feel confident about and that is one of the reasons why he often “secretly” embeds photography in his paintings. He said: “painting is hard to make, doing a good one is like reaching nirvana”!

Aam Aadmi, Subodh Gupta, 2009

Aam Aadmi, Subodh Gupta, 2009. Image Credit: http://www.hauserwirth.com/artists/11/subodh-gupta/images-clips/63/

The artist also added that he doesn’t intentionally make political art, but art comes from where you live, from what surrounds you, and so that is why politics and social issues cannot be taken away from it.

Bihari, Subodh Gupta, 1999

Bihari, Subodh Gupta, 1999. Image Credit: http://www.frieze.com/shows/review/where_in_the_world_exhibition/

His main influences are to be found in the work of some of the Indian masters such as M.F. Husain, Jagdish Swaminatan, Francis Newton Souza, and more recently in the Khoj Workshop that freed him from any kind of restrictions on his creativity.

E tu, Duchamp?, Subodh Gupta, 2009

E tu, Duchamp?, Subodh Gupta, 2009. Image Credit: http://www.hauserwirth.com/artists/11/subodh-gupta/images-clips/61/

I would like to conclude with an interesting question/point of discussion that came up during the talk about whether it is always possible to transport art outside its country of origin. This was discussed in respect of Spirit Eater, one of Subodh Gupta’s latest works which is deeply embedded with cultural references and traditions which make it extremely difficult to be understood. The artist was reluctant about the idea of compulsorily bringing his art out of India, because sometimes it could be misunderstood and its original message lost.

I’ll leave you reflecting on this topic, and encourage you to visit Subodh Gupta’s exhibition in London. Click here for more information on the exhibition.

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