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.

Picasso’s Legacy to Indian Art

Kanika Pruthi of Saffronart on the occasion of Picasso’s 40th death anniversary reflects on the artist’s legacy to the world, foremost among them the female nude.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Pablo Picasso

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Pablo Picasso. Image Credit: http://www.moma.org/explore/conservation/demoiselles/

New York:  For Picasso aficionados June 2013 presents Picasso: Nudity Set Free, an exhibition of 120 of the artist’s works, hosted in Picasso’s Cannes villa now renamed Pavilion de Flore. Curated by his grand-daughter Marina Picasso, who has furnished the exhibition with 90 works from her own collection, the show brings to fore the artist’s preoccupation with the nude. His redefinition of the female nude is one of his greatest legacy- its influence permeating borders, artistic practices and most importantly time.

Picasso’s seminal work Les Demoiselles d ‘Avignon painted in 1907, not only challenged the long existing traditions of depicting the female nude, but also thrust forth an alternative way of looking that is jarring  and negates most aspects of the then existing parameters that defined the female body. His re-imagined nude instigated a new way of looking, one that prompted artists to follow a similar process of questioning and reimagining. This seismic wave of redressal surely reached the Indian shores, even if decades later. The works of George Keyt, M.F. Husain and Tyeb Mehta provide testament to Picasso’s legacy and his influence, in varying degrees, on the practice of these three artists.

The turn of the 20th century ushered a period of concerted artistic efforts to revisualize the female nude in a new light, shunning the former idioms that seemed increasingly restrictive or obsolete. The historical nude, its ideality, was closely related to the envisioned form imagined by its male creators. Their projection was infused with their sexual longings, fears and desires. Edgar Degas dismissed the earlier notions and replaced it with his contorted bodies displaying their hardness and ugliness, in which lay their beauty. Picasso followed suit and went on to create what is deemed one of the first modernist female nude- shattering the earlier conventions with a brute force.  His Les Demoiselles d ‘Avignon celebrated the female body through flattened perspective and grotesque distortions. His secular treatment of the body freed it from its long held idealized stature. As pointed by art historians, it is interesting to note that Picasso was a lover of beauty and women, nonetheless his female nudes could not escape his critical eye which deconstructed everything it saw- animate and inanimate.

Picasso’s contribution to the nude is not just restricted to his own creations. His influence on those around him and those after him is a subject worthy of deep investigation. On the Indian Subcontinent this legacy manifested in the early paintings of George Keyt, whose works were often exhibited alongside Picasso and Braque in galleries around the world during his lifetime. Keyt was clearly influenced by cubist practice, but his application of the cubist principle was distinctly his own. The impact of Indian artistic traditions co-exist in a manner that does not compromise either of the two influences.

In M.F. Husain’s works the cubist strand evolved in a new way. His commitment to innovation resulted in an adaptation of the cubist principles in a less-direct and more discreet way. His de-construction of the nude with its rough edges and aggressive texture presented a form that challenged the ideal notion of the Indian female nude, just as Picasso’s nudes has done in their time.

Untitled, M.F. Husain

Untitled, M.F. Husain. Image Credit: http://www.saffronart.com/auctions/PostWork.aspx?l=4739

Tyeb Mehta took Picasso’s fundamental principles when treating the body to another level. His jagged lines and aggressive movement on the canvas bring to mind Picasso’s great anti-war paintings. Their works are imbued with angst and suffering in a manner that is very similar. They both seem to create meaning out of chaos.

You can find more information on the Picasso’s exhibition here.

Clark House Initiative (Bombay) presents L’exigence de la saudade at the Kadist Art Foundation, Paris

Padmini Chettur, choreography notes for 'Pushed' 2005-6 Image courtesy: Clark House Initiative, Bombay

Padmini Chettur, choreography notes for ‘Pushed’ 2005-6
Image courtesy: Clark House Initiative, Bombay

Manjari Sihare shares details of an exhibit that opened today at the Kadist Art Foundation in Paris

Paris: Mumbai’s Clark House Initiative opened an exhibition entitled L’exigence de la saudade at the Kadist Art Foundation, Paris, today. The exhibition is curated by Zasha Colah and Sumesh Sharma who are currently curators in residence at the Kadist Art Foundation. Quoting the show’s press release, “the exhibition brings together three artists from distant geographies within India – Padmini Chettur, a contemporary dancer, Prajakta Potnis, a visual artist, and Zamthingla Ruivah, a master weaver, whose works are conceptually engaged with remnant cultural forms, not as endangered traditions, rather to reinvent them in the present. These reinventions spring from the exigencies of political anguish, or the scouring for identities and representations, after the violence of cultural amnesia, experienced over the numbing of years as a kind of saudade. These artists create a complex backdrop of the Indian subcontinent, too culturally conjoined to other geographies for any sense of the nation to arise. In this word saudade, as in the name ‘Bombay’ (bom baía), is heard the persistence of a Portuguese past. Exigency and saudade, retain the tension of opposites; the consciousness of the past in the present, which permits the envisaging of what is still to come.”

Padmini Chettur was trained in a tradition of dance, revived in the 1930s after a century of forced amnesia. She displaces the choreographic tradition to a minimalistic language, which visually translates philosophical concepts of time and space as they relate to contemporary experience. The sculptural reliefs of lace and light, realised in situ by Prajakta Potnis come out of her observation of fissures or peeling walls, as witnesses of the social imaginary of the people who live within them. Zamthingla Ruivah revives the tradition of weaving, from the north-east of India, to narrate the events of a community. However, the stories she puts into geometric form, testify to a brutal political history.

In the exhibition, the works will be in dialogue with those of certain Indian artists who were living in Paris in May 1968. Nalini Malani described her time in Paris as a ‘prise de conscience’. She lends to the exhibition a small papier mache head, ‘For the Dispossessed’ made in Paris in 1971, out of the vivid pages of Le Nouvel Observateur, and referencing photographs of refugees fleeing the genocide during the Bangladesh Liberation War. The head also references what was happening in Paris at the time, demonstrations for Angela Davis, and protests of the Vietnam War. ‘Demonstrators’ a sculpture by Krishna Reddy, is an eidetic memory of students outside his window in Paris in 1968. The last is a series of sketches made in Paris that year, by the polymath artist and magician Jean Bhownagary. Certain cues and gestures – of dance, theatre, magic or music – can come close to those used in protest marches, and fall under social engagement, as much as art. The exhibition intertwines artistic practice with historical contexts, to understand the manoeuvring possibilities of culture.

Details of the exhibit:

L’exigence de la saudade 
Friday 17 May, 6-9pm: opening of the exhibition at Kadist Art Foundation – Gallery
dates and hours: 18 May – 28 July 2013 | Thur-Sun 2-7pm
Kadist Art Foundation, 19 bis-21 rue des Trois Frères, F-75018 Paris.
tél. +33 1 42 51 83 49www.kadist.org

Artists
Padmini Chettur, Prajakta Potnis, Zamthingla Ruivah

With the participation of: Jean Bhownagary, Tyeb Mehta, Nalini Malani, Krishna Reddy, Maarten Visser

Cues: Yogesh Barve, Judy Blum, Sachin Bonde, Poonam Jain, Mangesh Kapse,
Carla Montenegro, Amol Patil, Nikhil Raunak, Amrita Sher-Gil, Alexandre Singh
in a place hidden: Prabhakar Pachpute in the public realm: Justin Ponmany

Bal Chhabda passes away silently…

Bal ChhabdaTarika Agarwal of Saffronart discuss the life left behind by famous artist and collector Bal Chhabda

Mumbai: Born in 1923, in what is now Pakistan, Bal Chhabda was a self-taught artist. Sadly, he passed away in the second week of March this year. He was a man who wore many hats. He started his career with film making but soon gave that up and founded the well-known gallery in Mumbai, Gallery 59. Soon after, Chhabda took to painting as well. And not much later he started collecting art.

Bal Chhabda with M F Husain --Image Credit TOI

Bal Chhabda with M F Husain
Image Credit:The Times of India

After the demise of his wife, and his good friends Tyeb Mehta and M.F. Husain in a span of three years, it is a well known fact that Chhabda lost his will to live and became a recluse.

At first glance, Chhabda’s work seems abstract, but on closer inspection it reveals various distorted shapes and forms that create intriguing visuals. He was one of the distinguished artists associated with the Progressive Artist’s Group, which made a tremendous contribution to the modern art movement in India by consciously seeking new idioms. The group included almost all the important artists working in Mumbai in the 1950s. Read more about his practice.

Bal Chhabda, Sitting Nude, 1969Oil on Canvas

Bal Chhabda, Sitting Nude, 1969
Oil on Canvas
Image credit: http://www.contemporaryindianart.com/bal_chhabda.htm

He participated in several exhibitions in India and internationally including Salon de la Jeune Peinteure, Paris, and the Tokyo Biennale, in 1960. He received the Governor’s award, one of the three major awards, at the Tokyo Biennale in 1961. He has also participated in the exhibition, Seven Indian Painters at Gallerie Le Monde de U Art, Paris, 1994.

Read more.

Bal Chhabda, Nostalgic Moments, 1993Oil on Canvas

Bal Chhabda, Nostalgic Moments, 1993
Oil on Canvas
Image Credit- http://www.contemporaryindianart.com/bal_chhabda.htm

Beyond the Commodity Fetish: Art and the Public Sphere in India by Nancy Adajania

Manjari Sihare recommends an article by cultural theorist, Nancy Adajania commissioned for the Guggenheim UBS MAP Initiative on South and South East Asia

New York: A few weeks ago, I shared an article by Susan Hapgood on performance art in India commissioned for the Guggenheim’s UBS MAP Initiative on South East and South Asian Art. The exhibition, No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia, features works of some of the most compelling artists and collectives in South and South East Asia today. It is on view at the Guggenheim, New York, until May 22nd, after which it will travel to the Asia Society Center in Hong Kong followed by a venue in Singapore, details of which are yet to be confirmed. All the works in this exhibition have been acquired by the Museum for its permanent collection. The exhibition’s title is drawn from the opening line of the William Butler Yeat’s (one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature) poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928) that is referenced in the title of American novelist, Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel No Country for Old Men. The use of this title brings forth the concept of a culture without borders. The concept has been emulated on the exhibition webpage, which hosts a series of essays on the different facets of art creation from South and South East Asia. June Yap, Guggenheim UBS MAP Curator, South and Southeast Asia, introduces the project in this video. We are thankful to the Guggenheim Museum for sharing this content on our blog.

Here is an article by Mumbai based cultural theorist and curator, Nancy Adajania, discussing  two Indian institutions who have largely facilitated the creation of cultural knowledge in post-colonial India, Gallery Chemould in Bombay (now Mumbai) and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi. In the coming weeks, we will be re-posting more essays from this series, and also a review. Stay tuned.

Beyond the Commodity Fetish: Art and the Public Sphere in India

by Nancy Adajania

Nikolaus Hirsch and Michel Müller with Cybermohalla Ensemble, Bureau of Contemporary Jobs in the Cybermohalla Hub at Sarai Reader 09: The Exhibition, Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, 2012–2013. Photo: Shamsher Ali

Nikolaus Hirsch and Michel Müller with Cybermohalla Ensemble, Bureau of Contemporary Jobs in the Cybermohalla Hub at Sarai Reader 09: The Exhibition, Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, 2012–2013. Photo: Shamsher Ali . Image credit: Guggenheim Museum

Rather than conduct a general survey of contemporary Indian art, I would like to draw attention to two major and formative histories of artistic production and the creation of an infrastructure of cultural knowledge in postcolonial India. These histories, which have not so far received the appropriate degree of critical attention in the Indian art world, were brought dramatically to light by two recent events: first, the death of Kekoo Gandhy, founder of Gallery Chemould, Bombay, one of India’s earliest commercial art galleries; and second, by the fiftieth-anniversary celebrations of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi, a transdisciplinary research institute devoted to the social sciences and humanities.

The Progressive Artists Group surrounded by supporters at the Bombay Art Society Salon. Photo: Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai. Image credit: Guggenheim Museum

The Progressive Artists Group surrounded by supporters at the Bombay Art Society Salon. Photo: Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai. Image credit: Guggenheim Museum

Why link two institutions—Chemould and CSDS—that, at first glance, appear to have little in common? Both were founded in 1963 and embodied the impulses of a late Nehruvian modernity, with its simultaneous emphasis on a self-critical national renaissance and an internationalist expansion of horizons. Both institutions have made important contributions to the production and sustenance of a lively public sphere, building coherent communities around themselves: while Chemould was active in mobilizing both the art world and civil society, CSDS has worked in a hybrid space between scholarship and activism.

Khorshed, Shireen and Kekoo Gandhy outside Gallery Chemould, Mumbai. Photo: Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai

Khorshed, Shireen and Kekoo Gandhy outside Gallery Chemould, Mumbai. Photo: Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai. Image credit: Guggenheim Museum

Kekoo Gandhy (1920–2012) was a visionary and cultural catalyst who shaped the contours of Indian modernism by generating cultural infrastructure. His tenacious lobbying for private and state patronage resulted in the foundation of the Jehangir Art Gallery and the Bombay branch of the National Gallery of Modern Art. A cultural entrepreneur of great foresight, Gandhy first brought visibility to the works of modernists such as K. K. Hebbar, S. H. Raza, K. H. Ara, and M. F. Husain, exhibiting them at his framing shop, Chemould Frames, in the 1940s and ’50s. From the early ’60s onward, Gallery Chemould, which he cofounded with his wife Khorshed, was housed on the first floor of the Jehangir Art Gallery, Bombay’s first public gallery. Chemould’s small space, which hosted exhibitions of work by significant artists including Tyeb Mehta, Bhupen Khakhar, Nalini Malani, Vivan Sundaram, Atul and Anju Dodiya, and Jitish and Reena Saini Kallat, greeted the visitor with a table for conversation before curving away toward a wall of paintings. At this table, Gandhy shared his dreams of political and cultural freedom with artists, cultural producers, lawyers, and activists.

Gallery Chemould does not fit into a classical gallery ecology because Gandhy did not see the production of art as separate from larger political and cultural questions. During the Emergency (1975–77), when an authoritarian regime muzzled dissent and imprisoned those in opposition, the Gandhys sheltered activists in their home. During the 1992–93 riots in Bombay, when Hindu majoritarian militants targeted the city’s Muslim community, Gandhy contributed actively to the mohalla committees—neighborhood groups that promoted interreligious amity. Whether by presenting subaltern artists for the first time at his gallery (Warli artist Jivya Soma Mashe’s exhibition in 1975, for example) or by helping secure the secular ideals of the republic, Gandhy devoted his life to the pursuit of equity and justice.

Both Gandhy and CSDS (which was founded by political scientist Rajni Kothari and funded mainly by the Indian Council of Social Science Research) believed in sustaining and strengthening Indian democracy—still a work in progress. Early on, academics at CSDS polemicized Western theoretical models of modernity, instead advocating the approach of multiple modernities. After the Emergency, Lokayan, which was linked to CSDS, propagated non-party politics and worked with social movements at a grassroots level, nurturing civil-society activists such as the environmentalists Vandana Shiva and Medha Patkar, who would go on to develop and articulate alternative, sustainable models of development.

Sarai Reader 09, curated by the Raqs Media Collective, Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, 2012–2013. Photo: Shveta Sarda. Image credit: Guggenheim Museum

Sarai Reader 09, curated by the Raqs Media Collective, Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, 2012–2013. Photo: Shveta Sarda. Image credit: Guggenheim Museum

Academic research conducted at CSDS resonates in public life, particularly in debates conducted around policymaking and the transformation of the media. In 2000, CSDS’s Ravi Sundaram and Ravi Vasudevan launched the new media initiative Sarai, working in collaboration with Raqs Media Collective (artists Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta), to analyze critically the impact of emergent, informal, and independent media in the public domain. Sarai, true to its name, which is taken from a word for public resting place, has become a refuge and transit point for architects, filmmakers, writers, and artists, and has avoided a narrow academicization of knowledge by adopting multiple methodologies. As a Sarai-CSDS fellow myself in the early 2000s, I found the space to generate alternative contexts for new media art and to test out what Okwui Enwezor has called the “will to globality” expressed by subaltern media practitioners in a post-national context—one in which the old certitudes of nationalism have failed, but have yet to be replaced by new interpretative frameworks.

Sarai, along with the NGO Ankur, gave birth to the Cybermohalla project, which works in the interstices between legal and illegal domains, old and new media, creative pedagogy and art, in Delhi’s working-class neighborhoods. Participants in the Cybermohalla project are today published writers and established media practitioners in their own right. In an art world that tends to fetishize creative output as commodity rather than nurture it as conversation, Kekoo Gandhy and Sarai-CSDS (more informally in the former case and more programmatically in the latter) have attempted to produce new socialities in which the Gandhian, the Nehruvian, and the Marxist, the academy-trained artist and his or her subaltern rural/urban counterpart have generated a discourse through the alternately tight and loose weave of consensus and dissensus. Especially over the past decade, when all value seems to have been dictated by the market, it is important to flag alternative frameworks and platforms that have sustained significant forms of artistic articulation and critical inquiry in the Indian art world.

Nancy Adajania is a Bombay-based cultural theorist and independent curator. She was artistic codirector of the 2012 Gwangju Biennale.

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