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Literary Review

A life richly lived

Had Krishen Khanna not been an artist, he would have made a wonderful narrator. Hearing him in the undertow of the biographer's text, MADHU JAIN wants more.

HAD Krishen Khanna not been such a fine artist he would have been a wonderful writer with his gift of the gab and eye for detail, much of it laced with wry humour. Make that sly humour: he has no sacred cows in his pantheon of greats and nobody is spared his gentle ribbing and blunt asides. The painter is a seriously anecdotal man, a raconteur par excellence who needs no aide memoires, at age 77. You can almost hear him in his very pucca Englishman baritone, buzzing along in the undertow of Sinha's commendable text.

Like a ventriloquist, at times.

Sinha has obviously spent long hours over the years with Khanna: their families were friends. And from those hours of listening and foraging through the painter's diary and fascinating correspondence (he appears to have tucked away every little letter, memory or note), the author has culled an insightful sort of life and times of Khanna and his painter friends. However, I must admit that I have a slight problem with the title, A Critical Biography.

A good biography should bring out the subject in the fullness of his or her being, the essence so to speak of the person. Sinha is wonderful in her depiction of Khanna, the artist, including all that went into the making of the painter and his painterly sensibility, the artists and critics who influenced him and his preoccupations. But her portrait of Khanna the man has some brush strokes missing. How does his wife see him? How do his children and close friends view him? How do artist-friends see his growth as a person and a painter?

Sinha sets out on that path: the riveting first chapter paints a vivid picture of the Khanna family at the turn of the century: Kahan Chand Khanna, the artist's educationist father, emerges as an extraordinary man, whose triumph over adversity and tragedy (an early accident deprives him use of his right arm) is a story in itself. The Lahore of Krishen Khanna's growing up years comes alive, particularly the painter's beloved pre-partition Maclagan Road with its "bonhomie of microcosmic neighbourhoods", as Khanna describes it.

The author guides us in subsequent chapters through the by lanes of his childhood, adolescence and trying days at the Imperial Services College in Windsor. The legacy of those early years in England are Khanna's abiding passion for the poetry of Dylan Thomas and W.H. Auden, and his tilt towards universal humanism. Of course, his Angrez gentleman persona is another by-product of those days. Sinha quotes painter J. Swaminathan's description of Khanna as an "Anglo-Indian". Actually, he does look like a don with his languorous voice, pipe and corduroy-tweed apparel: you could easily picture him in front of an Oxbridge fireplace sipping sherry and reciting T.S. Eliot on a winter's evening.

Khanna looks the part he played for many years: a banker with Grindlays in Chennai, Mumbai and Kanpur. Meanwhile his subterranean life of the painter continues during his banker years. However, appearances are deceptive: there is a wholesome Punjabi, family man underneath. As Sinha cogently writes: "It is the twin streams of the English schoolboy and the Punjabi ethos that blend fluidly in his life and work." He traverses different worlds with consummate ease, more observer than participant in his depictions of life around him as Sinha perceptively points out.

The author is at her best when she comes to Khanna's work. Painstaking, she follows his oeuvre through its many phases as he finds his own free-flowing modernity. From the charming innocence of his initial efforts to his flirtings with abstract expressionism. Through realism, the extraordinary sumie-ie phase, his subaltern twists, his preoccupation with the tragic figure of Christ and Biblical themes (but in the context of today), his celebrated bandwalas and migrant workers and more lately his nostalgia-imbued works.

Among Khanna's more ambitious and courageous works is the mural, "The Great Procession". Created for the huge dome in the lobby of the ITC Maurya Sheraton Hotel in New Delhi, it is a painterly epic of our times. "Krishen...has created here what he was best at: a document of the life of Everyman," writes Sinha. Divided by three tiers of intersecting wooden beams, Khanna had a Herculean task: he had to do the work bit by bit, all the while trying to figure out how it would fit in the curved spaces.

The book is at its most vibrant and comes to life in its account of the banquet years, those heady days when artists were comrades in paint. Khanna was "the second string" of the Progressive Artists Group: M.F. Husain had inducted him into the circle of modernists: K.H. Ara, Raza, Gaitonde, Akbar Padamsee, Husain, Bakre, F.N. Souza, Tyeb Mehta etc. In Khanna's stories they almost seem like the musketeers fighting together for the cause of modernism, and having a ball all the while. Generosity was a given. The tales of largesse are many. For a long time Husain included Khanna in his shows. He even offered to buy a house in Nizamuddin so that Ram Kumar could have his studio in it. Egos had not become inflated then. When one of them sold a work, the rest celebrated. Ram Kumar and Khanna received a stipend of Rs. 500 a year from Kumar Art Gallery in their early, hungry years.

Fortunately, the book is not a hagiography: Sinha does not gloss over the weaknesses in the oeuvre of her subject, though she does tend to leave it open-ended. She also touches upon the rather unpleasant episode of the First Triennale in 1968 for which Khanna was one of the two commissars and was also given an award.

The book is well produced and has been elegantly designed by Rashmi Kaleka. Less is more here and fortunately the white spaces allow the eye to linger on the essentials. The photographs used give a good sense of a life richly lived. But one is left with a desire for more. Khanna's encounters with Mark Rothko, Roberto Rosellini, Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden, Henri-Cartier Bresson, and Saul Steinber are mentioned in passing.

Mr. Khanna, please put down your brush and pick up your pen and give us more.

Krishen Khanna: A Critical Biography, Gayatri Sinha, Vadehra Art Gallery, p.184, Rs. 2,400.

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