Veteran artist Krishen Khanna looks back at times gone by as he prepares for his forthcoming retrospective

Every sentence is laced with a story. An incident here, a happening there…an idea in between, he relates everything with so much interest as if living the moment all over again. Krishen Khanna loves to tell stories and most of those have flowed incessantly through the myriad colours, lines, forms and spaces on his canvas. “Once I asked Balasaraswati, (The great Bharatanatyam dancer) that you don't dance to Dikshitar's compositions (Muthuswami Dikshitar — legendary Carnatic music exponent) to which she replied ‘because there's no narrative in it'. A narrative is that important. It activates a painting,” says the octogenarian artist attired in his trademark tweed suit.

The sunlight coming through the window combines itself with his gentle aura, enveloping the living room in warmth, where we sit to chat with the artist on his life trajectory in the wake of his forthcoming retrospective put together by Dinesh Vazirani's Saffronart — a Mumbai-based art auction house.

More than hundred works belonging to different phases of his life will unravel Khanna's journey that took him from 2 Maclagan Road in Lahore which used to be his house before the partition, to Shimla, where the family relocated post-partition and he attended evening art classes at Mayo School of Art to his days in Mumbai where he worked with Grindlays Bank and was later inducted to the Progressive Artists' Group by M. F. Husain and beyond.

“For some artists, to have a retrospective is unnerving. It's like saying goodbye or this is my farewell call. I just see it as an opportunity to physically review what I have done from where it began, the various twists and turns and how it has evolved,” says Khanna. “Or rather devolved,” adds Khanna with a chuckle.

Humour element

Humour is an integral element of Khanna's oeuvre which when uncovered is actually soaked in pathos. Yes, there will be masterpieces from his ‘Bandwalas' series, which is a comment on the society carrying forward the legacy of our colonisers. As Khanna once said, he is moved by the Chaplinesque situations. In one of the many works painted on the subject matter of Mahabharata which will be part of the grand show, Khanna shows Draupadi sniggering even as Bhishma lies on the bed of arrows speaking on Dharma (righteousness) to Pandavas.

“You have different ways of resolving a problem. People try to prove themselves superior to another which is a violence of another kind. As a nation, we have a terrible sense of humour and we can settle many issues through humour,” says Khanna who was inspired to paint on Mahabharata after reading K.K. Nair's “Krishna Chaitanya” — a literary text on Mahabharata.

The underdogs have always found space on Khanna's canvas. His truck series depicting trucks loaded with construction material and labourers, he says “is about people who live in it, sleep under it. Ordinary man is everywhere. Our house would be open to common men. I remember no sage was ever turned away.”

It was after all, a common man, his servant in 2 Maclagan Road, in Lahore who kept the children of the house including him posted on the latest developments of the freedom struggle. The inputs together with his own observations, provided fodder for his celebrated body of work based on the independence movement and the Partition. “Exodus” hung in his studio will be part of the retrospective.

Khanna's treasure is much bigger than any retrospective can accommodate. A few of his famous paintings will give the show a miss. “My early abstracts, Sumi-e paintings, the painting that I did after Gandhiji's death, the experimental works with photography won't be part of the show. A lot of people don't want to part with them because they are scared what if it gets damaged. And even if insurance amount is paid to them, it's a great loss. And a lot of my work is abroad,” explains Khanna.

For the artist himself, to see his work in entirety would be a bit intimidating. “No, not because you think you can better a work. You can never better a situation as T.S. Eliot once said. For example looking at the mural “The Procession of Life” that I did for Maurya, I think, if I were to do it again, would I take it up,” he says.

(The show will be held at LKA from Jan. 23 to Feb. 5)