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.

Memoir: Progressive Artist Group

Shradha Ramesh takes a leap into the past to reveal the men behind the Modern Indian Art movement

New York: The trailblazer collection by Delhi Art Gallery (DAG), Progressive Artist Group, is now on display in Kalaghoda, Mumbai, from October 26, 2013 to December 25, 2013.A visual repertoire of 30,000 works the exhibit follows a retrospective theme of the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG). Mumbai was the epicenter for this group that started in 1947, the exhibit is aptly located in the city the group was formed.

PROGRESSIVE ARTIST GROUP (PAG) | MUMBAI  1948 First show inaugrated by Sir Cowasji Jehangir

Photo Courtesy: KalaRasa Art House
PROGRESSIVE ARTIST GROUP (PAG) | MUMBAI 1948 First show inaugurated by Sir Cowasji Jehangir
(L to R: Emmanuel Schelinger, F N Souza, M B Gade, S Bakre, K H Ara, S H Raza, M F Hussain, Anant Kannangi)

PAG saw the light of visual maestros such as F N Souza, SH Raza, MF Husain, SK Bakre, HA Gade and KH Ara who rule the modern art market today. The other members who joined later were Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, Krishen Khanna and Mohan Samant.The group introduced anarchic thinking that leaned towards Indian avant-garde expression that introduced Indian art at an international level. It broke away from the nationalistic revival canons introduced by Bengal School of art and engaged in freedom of creation. Influenced by European modernism the group’s style is vast and ranges from Cubism to Abstract Expressionism. The founding pillars of the Progressive Artist Group (PAG) are Francis Newton Souza, Sayed Haider Raza and Maqbool Fida Husain.

 FRANCIS NEWTON SOUZA | Untitled | a) c.1965 b) 1997

FRANCIS NEWTON SOUZA | Untitled|a) c.1965 b) 1997

Goan born artist, Francis Newton Souza was recognized both in India and abroad. His artworks are known to be forthright and individualistic stylistic rendition of semi-abstract forms. The human forms in his works are unrealistic with multiple eyes and hands it created a sensation during his time. When asked about western influence in his work, he responded saying “Renaissance painters painted men and women making them look like angels. I paint for angels, to show them what men and women really look like.”

SYDER HAIDER RAZA| Maa...|2006

SYDER HAIDER RAZA| Maa…|2006

Sayed Haider Raza is known to introduce Bindhu to a new visual medium. On his canvas the Bindhu takes a new meaning, it creates a transcendental and enticing impact on the viewers. When asked about the Bindhu and its significance in his work, Raza said “For me, Bindu is a point where I concentrate, my energy, my mind. It has become like Bhagvat Gita, Swadharm and all that. You have to fix your energy on one thing and not ten things. If you go to ten directions, it’s distraction of energy. I think one woman is enough (laughs).If you say Ram Ram Ram and Allah Allah Allah, you will get confused. So one god is enough. For me Bindu has never done the same thing. There is logic in every abstract form that I make. My work is like poetry and it should create a different atmosphere for the visitor. Poetry, literature and art seem simple but it is very difficult to understand it.”  Coincidentally, Saffronart’s winter online auction this December is focusing on SH Raza.

MAQBOOL FIDA HUSAIN|ETERNAL MOTHER

MAQBOOL FIDA HUSAIN|ETERNAL MOTHER

Picasso of India, Maqbool Fida Husain (MF Hussain) is known to have revolutionized the painting in India with his hallmark works that capture the quintessence of his subjects, like Mother Teresa and the characters of epics like the Mahabharata. MF Husain explains about his Mother Teresa series, “I have tried to capture in my paintings what her presence meant to the destitute and the dying, the light and hope she brought by mere inquiry, by putting her hand over a child abandoned in the street. I did not cry at this encounter. I returned with so much strength and sadness that it continues to ferment within. That is why I try it again and again, after a gap of time, in a different medium” (as quoted in Ila Pal, Beyond the Canvas: An Unfinished Portrait of M.F. Husain, South Asia Books, New Delhi, 1994).
DAG was started by Rama Anand in 1993 and later was taken over by his son Ashish Anand. The gallery in Mumbai is 150 years old in artsy neighborhood that suits the overarching theme of the exhibit. To experience the peregrination of Modern Indian Art visit DAG Mumbai.

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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.

Ram Kumar and the Bombay Progressives

Ipshita Sen of Saffronart announces the upcoming exhibition of the Bombay Progressive artists at the Aicon Gallery, New York

New York: Aicon Gallery in New York presents ‘Ram Kumar and the Bombay Progressives: The Form and the Figure’.

Ram Kumar’s works, from his figurative to city and landscape, reflect his emotional world. His landscapes have a subtle lyricism and lively buoyancy, thus defining his artistic oeuvre.

“When I paint, I don’t think about any specific elements- be they spiritual or supernatural elements of nature. They are paintings –pure simple, plain, painted color propositions, emerging from one’s past experiences” -Ram Kumar

As a student in Paris, Kumar had several interactions with poets and intellectuals, who influenced him and his work greatly. He studied art under Andre Lhote and Fernand Léger. Attracted by the Pacifist peace movement, Kumar joined the French Communist Party, thereby seeking inspiration from Social Realists such as Käthe Kollwitz. His artistic approach was centered on a humanist rather than an ideological approach; Sad figures with gaunt expressions and starry eyes, painted against the backdrop of an industrialized ambience, reflected by the almost monochromatic use of a limited color palette. Ram Kumar currently lives and works in Delhi, India.

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The exhibition also features works by M.F. Hussain, S.H. Raza and F.N. Souza, all founding members of the Bombay Progressive Group.

The exhibition is on view from September 13th- October 19th, 2013

For more information, please access the gallery website.

Spring Art Auction – New York Preview

A selection of snapshots of the display and preview for our Spring Art Auction at Saffronart, New York.

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Bidding begins 25 March 2013 at 9:00 a.m. IST

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