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.

A Brief History of Indian Art

We’ve put together a very, very concise guide on Modern and Contemporary Indian Art for our StoryLTD customers

If you’ve visited our sister site, StoryLTD by Saffronart, and spent hours (or minutes, for the impatient) sifting through our pages, this might come as some handy information for you. We’ve introduced succinct essays on most of our categories, going by genre and medium, to guide you on what each category has to offer. If you find yourself fancying some of the folk and tribal art paintings, or any of the landscapes for sale, browse through our collection and scroll to the bottom to learn more about them.

Here, we’ve summed up the Modern and Contemporary art movements, talking about the circumstances that shaped each generation’s approach to art.

An Overview of Modern Indian Art

We cover a broad spectrum of prints of Modern Indian paintings by Raja Ravi Varma, Sakti Burman, S. H. Raza, M. F. Husain, and other artists active in the early-to-mid 20th century.

During the early and mid 1900s, the dilemma for many artists centred around interrogating Western influences on artistic expression, establishing a distinct identity and idiom for Indian art, and engaging with the role and function of the artist in a country like India. The British encouraged a Western approach to art; a realistic, trompe l’oeil work was more valued than the practices previously favoured. As a knee-jerk reaction, different schools of thought, such as the Bengal School, cropped up to check colonialism and Western ideals.

Following India’s independence, artists addressed themes ranging from the everyday and trivial to the social and political, from the late forties through succeeding decades. Sculptors also experimented with different materials and techniques to lend a more personal and reflective quality to their work. By the 1970s, a number of social and political events unfolding across the country left an impression on artists. The role of the artist in a developing country and the need for social responsiveness were interrogated by these practitioners. This decade also saw many more women artists come forward on the artistic scene, the majority of them delineating a point of view that combined the feminist and the subjective.

Contemporary Paintings

Indian Contemporary art has come to include art made from the mid-80s onwards. Our section on StoryLTD features original paintings by contemporary artists for sale.

The modernism of the preceding decades set the tone of Indian artistic practice in the late eighties and nineties. The new generation had long moved on from the concerns that plagued artists in the earlier half of the century. During the 1990s, a pluralist and fragmentative mood dominated the creation of contemporary art. Artists had to respond to a plethora of stimuli, trying to address a new age of information, and the emergence and novel concerns of the ‘global Indian’. The Indian art market has ever since opened up abroad. Art galleries within the country have increased in number, and the Indian artist is now faced with the challenge of speaking to a more diffuse audience.

Today, the work of artists from the Indian diaspora, the blurring of design and art, and the videos, installations and digital spaces of an even younger generation of artists have all added new dimensions to Indian contemporary art, a vague and undefined concept ever-receptive to growth and change.

To buy Indian paintings and prints online, visit www.storyltd.com

Imagine a very important religious subject. Now go back a thousand years, and think of a thousand ways of portraying three figures and a donkey. Ran out of options at #999? Not if you’re Jehangir Sabavala.

Rashmi on Jehangir Sabavala’s Flight into Egypt – I

Flight into Egypt

Lot 65: Jehangir Sabavala’s Flight into Egypt – I

On the Surface: There’s something at the bottom of the painting that looks like two human figures on an animal. Impressive interplay of light and shadow. Menacing. Reminds you of the closing scene of The Two Towers when Gollum leads Frodo and Sam to Mordor. Title says something about fleeing to Egypt, so maybe that’s what it is, though you probably don’t know who they are or why they’re fleeing to Egypt. But wait, the title of this blog post says something about it being a religious subject, so it must be…

What lies Beneath: …Joseph and Mary’s Flight into Egypt, mentioned in the Bible. They’re fleeing with baby Jesus from Bethlehem, after learning about King Herod’s plot to kill all infants in the region.  Ahhhh I see, you say. So those two—no, three figures are negotiating dangerous paths and curves in the hopes of surviving this evil king. How wonderful, it suddenly makes sense.

But no. It doesn’t end there.

Question: What, there’s more to it?

The Story Goes: So let’s go back in time some nine centuries or so *plays that groovy song by Huey Lewis and the News*.

From the Collection of the Glencairn Museum Source: http://www.glencairnmuseum.org/nativity-nonbiblical/

From the Collection of the Glencairn Museum
Source: http://www.glencairnmuseum.org/nativity-nonbiblical/

You’re in the year 1145, at the Abbey of Saint-Denis, France, and you see this lovely stain glass depiction of the Nativity. Here you witness baby Jesus in full glory, commanding a palm tree to bend so tired, hungry Mary can pluck a fruit off it. And of course, befitting of a church window, they’re both haloed.

Giotto di Bondone’s Flight into Egypt, executed as a fresco for the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy. Source: http://www.historyofpaintings.com/history-of-paintings/gothic-art.html

Giotto di Bondone’s Flight into Egypt, executed as a fresco for the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy.
Source: http://www.historyofpaintings.com/history-of-paintings/gothic-art.html

You’ve jumped ahead to 1304. You’re prowling around Giotto di Bondone and watching him complete this fresco in the Scrovengi Chapel. More haloes! You’re thinking you might tap him on the shoulder and try mentioning that you’d seen them before on a stain-glass painting you’d seen a second ago—no, 200 years ago—and that he should try out something different, but it’s probably wiser not to mention it. So you wait two years till the fresco is done. Bright colours, stern/sombre expressions, flat renderings and attractive colours. The donkey trots, no one seems to be in a hurry to flee. Perhaps they’re weary. There’s a hint of a narrative here—the figures look worried, they’re whispering to each other. But you’ve guessed the purpose of this work—its focus is on religion. The Church had an agenda, and it had the means, and its purpose was to spread Christianity. Moving ahead…

Venetian artist Vittore Carpaccio’s Flight into Egypt  Source: https://www.nga.gov/collection/gallery/gg15/gg15-32.html

Venetian artist Vittore Carpaccio’s Flight into Egypt
Source: https://www.nga.gov/collection/gallery/gg15/gg15-32.html

You find yourself in the year 1515. Oil paints are in. There’s definitely more depth to this painting than there was in Bondone’s, and the fabrics and figures bear closer semblance to reality. The halo isn’t bright anymore, but appears as a faint rim around Mary, Jesus and Joseph. The painting appears brighter, more positive, owing to the rich colours. The focus is still on the figures. They trudge on against a twilight sky. Coming back to the present—which you will do later—you learn that the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., suggests that “it was made for a religious confraternity”. Maybe it was just a fad in Italy, you reason. Okay, let me take you to Germany, and rewind to ten years prior.

Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut ink-on-paper of Flight into Egypt, part of the V&A collection, London Source: http://www.vam.ac.uk/users/node/2631

Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut ink-on-paper of Flight into Egypt, part of the V&A collection, London
Source: http://www.vam.ac.uk/users/node/2631

Dürer’s 1505 depiction is full of detail—crammed with it, and there is a nebulous presence of fear and urgency in the work. Mary holds Jesus on her lap, slightly slouched on the donkey. Joseph appears to be carefully turning around to check on them. Stealth and clandestineness matter here. But yes, the focus is on the figures.

Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn’s Flight into Egypt Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Flight_into_Egypt_(Rembrandt,_1627)

Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn’s Flight into Egypt
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Flight_into_Egypt_(Rembrandt,_1627)

You’re now in 1627, the age of Baroque/Dutch splendour. You’re viewing Rembrandt’s version, with the light dramatically falling on the three figures assuming centre stage. It looks like a scene out of a play—a huge, huge turn from the preceding works. You feel like you’re in the midst of the drama, but with the focus again on the figures, you feel like they’re never shaking off the past completely.

German Romantic Carl Spitzweg’s “Die Flucht nach Ägypten” Source: Wikipedia

German Romantic Carl Spitzweg’s “Die Flucht nach Ägypten”
Source: Wikipedia

Move ahead 252 years. Soaking in the Romanticism of 1879, you see Spitzweg’s Flight into Egypt. So now it’s larger landscape + smaller figures, you observe. You’re quick at noticing how the landscape dominates the work. Joseph, Mary, Jesus and the donkey are diminished in size in comparison to the steep ravines behind and around them. Spitzweg has either captured or chosen to portray a calmer part of the flight through his shading and tinting.

Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Flight into Egypt, from the Met Museum Collection Source: http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/16947

Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Flight into Egypt, from the Met Museum Collection
Source: http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/16947

Closer to a recognisable timeline, you’re in 1923, and you stumble upon famed African-American artist Henry Tanner’s version. You quite like Tanner’s version, it’s refreshingly different in its treatment. You especially like that the figures and the path before them are illuminated by a lantern in the painting, rather than a divine source.

But before you reach any conclusion, take one final look…

Flight into Egypt

Flight into Egypt

…at Sabavala’s Flight into Egypt-I.  And you’re back in 2014.

Sabavala avoids the glory of religious icons, the vibrancy of colour, the assurance of a recognisable face. His figures aren’t wasting time. They’re on the move, working their way carefully around towering ranges, riding to a distant land. You understand how dangerous this mission is. You feel it in his clever use of angular forms, his use of greys and browns to convey the mood. All that initial enamour you shared for colour, light, beauty have you second-guessing. Sure, they’re present here, but their function is so different. Here, the trio are in mortal danger. Their concerns are very much human, and you can feel a bond with them.

 

On Art, Design and more…A tête-à-tête with Meera Sethi

Josheen Oberoi chats with Meera Sethi about identities, processes and her forthcoming projects

New York:  Meera Sethi is a Toronto based artist of Indian origin. With a graphics design background and an artist’s curiosity.  Meera’s art straddles many worlds; fine art and design, Indian and diaspora. Her work has been featured widely in publications like Vogue India, CNNgo and MTV Desi. Some of her works are now available  on StoryLTD.

Her recent work has tackled complex questions about identity and migration with pictorially vivid imagery. She makes these questions accessible through her visual images in ways that allow us viewers to engage and celebrate them. As an admirer of her work, I was very happy to have an opportunity to learn more about her art. In our conversation below, Meera Sethi will trace the contours of her life as an artist and tell us how she creates her vibrant body of work.

Meera Sethi

Meera Sethi

Q: Meera, let’s start with the question of how your engagement with art began.

A: Although art was always my favourite subject growing up, I never planned to be an artist. I entered university interested in cultural studies, anti-colonial and feminist studies. I followed this through by completing a BFA in Art Theory and a Master’s in Interdisciplinary (Cultural) Studies. However, during my entire academic education, I was quietly working away as a self-taught graphic designer, accepting occasional freelance design projects.

Little did I realize at the time that it was the making of imagery, as opposed to its study, that would emerge as my passion. After graduate school, I went from working as an arts researcher, to being employed as a graphic designer, to eventually working full-time for myself as a freelance designer and now a visual artist. My life as a professional artist began unexpectedly after I spontaneously embarked on what was to become my first and most influential series – Firangi Rang Barangi – in the evenings after returning home from my 9-5 day job. What I saw surprised me: I had a natural inclination to combine colour with form.

Q: Where do you feel you are, as an artist, and what has brought you here?  

Meera Sethi in the studio

Meera Sethi in the studio

A: It’s certainly been a journey. Now, when I look back at some of my earliest drawings and sketches, I see an interest in portraiture and depicting clothing. In fact, the only surviving artwork I have from when I was a child is a self-portrait done at age 5, in which I have attempted with much detail to convey the texture, colour and pattern of my plaid dress. When I rediscovered this drawing, I was shocked to see the similarity in my choice of subject 30 years on! Today, I find myself drawn to the cultural, political and spiritual lives of diasporic South Asians and the hybridity of our identities as expressed

 

Meera Sethi, Self-Portrait, Age 5

Meera Sethi, Self-Portrait, Age 5

Q: That is an interesting point because your work appears to function at the intersections of art and design to a great extent. Could you tell us about your approach and process?

A: I tend to look at things through the lens of design. What I mean by this is that I look at work for its aesthetic appeal and function before I enter the deeper meaning it conveys. I tend to use this approach in the making of my own work where I am as much concerned with the beauty and the function as I am with the story it is telling. I think this comes from my long history as a graphic designer who never fully fit into the art world. Not to discredit the important conversations happening within artistic communities, but I would still rather pick up a Creative Review or Eye than an ArtReview or Frieze. At the same time, I make art, not design. My work is not solving a problem or responding to a client brief. There is of course sometimes a fine line between the two disciplines. I am most comfortable on this edge. My research for new projects increasingly involves a combination of reading popular and academic articles, looking at art, design and craft sources, and meditating.

"Intersections" in progress

“Intersections” in progress

Q: You have also worked with large scale formats like murals. Please tell us about the work.

A: In late 2013, I completed my first large-scale public outdoor mural. It is a massive 44 feet x 39 feet wall-painting called “Intersections” that commemorates the cultural, social and political intersections made by LGBTQ South Asian communities in Canada. It’s a giant celebration of our organizing and partying, our identities, diversity and presence. The mural itself references Rabari mirrorwork from Rajasthan as a symbol of the unifying power of incredibly diverse South Asian textile traditions.

"Intersections" in progress

“Intersections” in progress

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Intersections, Church Street Mural

Intersections, Church Street Mural

Studio

Studio

Q: Along with the large scale format, you actively work with prints and creating two different scales of the same visual images. Could you speak to that choice a little bit?

A: Much of my work is quite large in format, making the work difficult to transport and higher in cost. At the same time, the quality of line, colour and form in my work is quite even and sharp, so it translates well into a print medium. I like to make high quality, limited edition small-size prints available of some pieces as a matter of accessibility. In my mind, a simple but important intention is to have my work inspire the hearts and lives of others. To have my art seen by multiple people in daily life is one way to do this. Perhaps, indebted again to design, before making work, I often imagine it in someone’s home, where it makes a small but consistent impact on everyday life decisions by inviting a sense of beauty and joy.

Q: Tell us what comes next. Are you working on new projects?

A: I am in the process of working on three different projects. The most immediate is a new series of acrylic paintings on canvas called “On the Margins of the Divine” that look to Mughal miniature albums as a starting point. Next, is an international, collaborative performance art piece called “Unstitched” that takes a sari and creates a line of community and continuity among 108 people. And lastly, a two-part photography and mixed-media painting project called “Upping the Aunty” that celebrates our elders and their fabulousness!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

www.storyltd.com

 

Closing of Elegant Design

Elizabeth Prendiville of Saffronart New York covers the results of the popular Elegant Design 24 hour sale.

 

New York: Tuesday March 25th marked the opening of Elegant Design, Saffronart’s premier vintage interior design sale. The sale was immediately followed by its twin auction, Works on Paper, opening on March 26th. Elegant Design featured 109 important vintage items in interior and decorative art including rugs, silver, and various furniture pieces. Each lot was carefully selected to represent the most pivotal periods in the decorative arts both in India and worldwide. An example of this can be seen in the campaign furniture, depicting the specific needs of the British army in the 18th and 19th century.

 

Spanning the most pivotal eras in interior design history, each lot also featured a variety of exquisite mediums and materials. The sale featured pieces made from a variety of rare woods such as rosewood, teakwood, mahogany and padauk wood. Graceful, small items such as A Rare Matched Pair of Kutch Silver Tea Cups (Lot 68) and large statement pieces such as An Indian Mother Of Pearl Door (Lot 105) all displayed a variety of excellent aesthetic detail appropriate for any space. Exhibiting equal parts beauty and function, each lot was an exceptional addition for any collection and home.

A STUNNING AND HIGHLY IMPORTANT EBONY HEADBOARD http://www.saffronart.com/customauctions/AuctionResults.aspx?eid=3658

A STUNNING AND HIGHLY IMPORTANT EBONY HEADBOARD http://www.saffronart.com/customauctions/AuctionResults.aspx?eid=3658

Due to the wide range of beautiful vintage pieces the sale received extremely positive media coverage from a variety of media publications including Elle India, ArtDaily and DNA India. The top ten valued items from the sale ranged from furniture to silver flatware to lighting fixtures. The highest winning lots included A Magnificent and Rare Art Deco Chandelier (Lot 25) coming in at $18,772 and A Stunning and Highly Important Ebony Sideboard (Lot 33) with a winning value of $9,447. Overall the most popular and sought after items varied greatly in materials, geography and design history. The sale concluded with sixty-six lots sold and a total winning value of $176,469. It is clear from the warm reception and enthusiasm for these beautiful items that vintage design and décor is still a lovely and timeless edition to any buyer’s collection.

 

To learn more about some of the items featured in Elegant Design visit Campaign Furniture: Historical Function and Design and click here for a full analysis of the overall sale.

%d bloggers like this: