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Art as socio-cultural metaphor

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ASHRAFI S. BHAGAT

Monograph on a pioneer’s art with a discussion of the socio-political context which motivated a generation of artists

KRISHEN KHANNA — Images In My Time (Contemporary Indian Artists Series): Pub. by Lund Humphries, U.K., Mapin Publishing, 31, Somnath Road, Usmanpura, Ahmedabad-380013. Rs. 2000.

Art historical scholarship today engages with critical theories as interpretive tools that provide a conceptual framework which makes possible the study of a work of art from formal and critical points of view. Within this context, the book, Krishen Khanna: Images in My Time, published in conjunction with the exhibition held at the Royal Academy of London becomes relevant. This monograph is a compilation of articles by Norbert Lynton, author; Gayatri Sinha, art critic and curator; Ranjit Hoskote, poet and cultural theorist; Tanuj Berry and Marilyn Rushton, collectors.

Social angst

Within the discourse of modern Indian art, Krishen Khanna is a pioneer. His works spanning nearly six decades have established not only his singular and distinct style, but he has interfaced with art to create a social, political and cultural narrative. His themes based on Christianity, Indian epics, the bandwallas, the cafes and others serve as metaphors for his experiences and his sensitive response within his milieu. The essays are erudite and scholarly, allowing for a deeper understanding of Khanna’s works and hence the remarkable contribution of this master. A consistency in critical approach undergirds the writings of the authors providing for a thread of connectivity in understanding the artistic expressions of Krishen Khanna. The focus is on single large important paintings executed by the artist on themes, which he has reverted to time and again redefining them within the spirit of his contemporary milieu. These works have been executed within the last two years. By articulating his sensitive expressions through them he poignantly evokes compassionate drama, which has served as a vehicle to convey the social angst that the artist felt about the anxiety, tension and displacement that migration wrought, at the time of Partition, or as the life of a banker or the decision to turn artist opening up space, which allowed him to express emotions and sentiments intensely felt by him.

The articles judiciously cover the life of the artist in vignettes and through the artist’s own experiences worded by him as “A Retrospect”, which establishes his conceptual approach as well as the articulation of his visual language. And these dimensions of the book greatly enhance its value. Gayatri Sinha’s articles “Serenading Lajawanti” and “O.K. Tata” are insightful, scholarly and with a perspective that contextualises the artist within his socio-politico-cultural milieu. Her discerning essay is empathetic, makes for fluid and scholarly reading, underpinning the “shadows of the structures of the city… conferring recognition to the forgotten fragments of India’s social fabric.”

Consanguinity

Ranjit Hoskote’s essay “The Secular Miracle: On Krishen Khanna’s The Raising of Lazarus”, is a narrative that aptly describes Khanna’s interfacing with Christian themes and particularly the gift of life given to Lazarus by Christ, for which Hoskote has offered diverse perspectives in decoding the gestures through a rhetorical approach that nevertheless challenges the reader to interpret the painting through different lenses.

Norbert Lynton’s three essays, “The Betrayal and Flagellation”, “A Stranger at Gyaniji’s Dhaba” and “Evening News” are related with consummate ease where the author offers both a critical perspective whereby he underpins Khanna’s art as “speaking below the surface” as well the formal analysis. In addition he constantly goes back and forth drawing parallels with Renaissance as well as modern art offering consanguinity yet stressing the works of Khanna as marking a posture of difference. Such an approach allows for a balanced understanding of the painting by unveiling the façade and through the analysis of the visual elements a deeper appreciation of the paintings themselves.

Richness of metaphor

Marilyn Rushton’s approach is very informal and she gives us a glimpse of the artist’s life in a simple narrative that is not only absorbing but allows for a deeper empathy with the artist and his works.

Tanuj Berry as an author, collector and connoisseur presents his essay “The Blind King and Blindfolded Queen” interestingly with a background from the Mahabharata, and partly as a chatty conversation with the artist that helps to focus on the subject of the painting. Tanuj’s analysis validates Khanna’s principle objectives of his expression namely when he states, “Krishen’s paintings cater to the eyes of a cross section of viewers … and has made for an immense richness of metaphors and variety of underlying emotions.”

The hardbound book published by Mapin and Lund Humphries contains 143 pages and is in a comfortable format. The visuals represented in the book are paintings, sculptures and drawings. It is heartening to know that the book has an academic slant carrying valence not only for art history students but also for connoisseurs and scholars, since the approach is through critical framework, which is the methodology in decoding a work of art within the post-modern arena.


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