Of the several mediums that he has dabbled in, drawing, perhaps, has been the most intuitive. After all, Krishen Khanna has turned to monochromes often — to banish colour from his recurring themes or to introspect on subjects that remain most personal — the trauma of Partition that he was witness to or the many urban labourers he encountered. At 92, he is reviving some of those memories in an exhibition that marks the inauguration of Saffronart’s 3,000-sq ft space at Claridges Hotel in Delhi. “For any artist, drawing is important to understand how structure functions, how it changes light and so on. You can’t just slip around to make a pattern out of it,” says the veteran artist, who in 1964 had helped organise the drawings-only exhibition, “Six Painters in Black and White”, at Shridharani Gallery in Delhi.
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Though he has made massive works previously too, the present set comes across as monumental. “These pictures are very large and required that scale. They are not mere amplifications, but needed this kind of space; it was inevitable to what I am trying to say,” adds Khanna, browsing through the display that offers rivetting glimpses from mythological epics and the plight of refugees and migrants among others. If Movement to East Punjab 1947 shows a group nearly neck-deep in water, with bundles on their head, in Exodus 1947-Farmers Leaving with their Cattle, the whirlpool of water seems to reflect the fate of his protagonists.
The centrepiece of the show is the 144 x 96 inch acrylic and charcoal on canvas Benediction on a Battlefield, that shows Bhishma, the warrior teacher of the Pandavas and Kauravas, on a bed of arrows in the battlefield, as the Pandavas seek his blessings. “At this juncture in the twilight of a battle in which there are no victors, Krishen creates a compact between two great textual sources, the Mahabharata and the Bible, with their narrative of adversarial conflict and persecution and the memory site of his own experience, the Partition of India,” notes Gayatri Sinha in the exhibition catalogue.
There are other familiar subjects, including Draupati and Dusashna, the falconer with his prey. The more powerful depictions from the animal kingdom are seen in Gaja Moksha, showing an elephant whose one foot is being gripped by a crocodile, and an untitled 72x 144.25 inch canvas of an elephant with his tusk around a tiger.
The jovial and charismatic Gurgaon-based artist brings in humour too. He draws from his childhood memories to paint
Bye Bye Miss Emery, Teacher of English, a frumpy old English lady with a hat and frock. “She was my mother’s English teacher in Lahore and very strict. We inherited the books she taught from,” says Khanna, adding that she did not live her life as a colonial, but had adapted to India. “Partition gave them a very rude shock. They did not know where they belonged,” notes the artist. In another work, he has, seated on a cane chair, Captain Dentist Pesikaka, “who lived down the street in Lahore” with a cigar in one hand and a beer mug in another. In another canvas, I am not dotty and this ain’t Bindu, Khanna “shares a joke” with his associate from the formidable Progressive Artists Group, SH Raza. His central figure, a British officer, is within concentric circles that are trademark Raza. Khanna, though, asserts that unlike the artist’s bindu, his British officer is being seen through a rifle.
While these works go back to Khanna — who made news earlier this year when an Akbar Padamsee Greek Landscape from his collection sold for a whopping Rs 19.19 crore — he does not rule out parting with more works from his collection.