PABLO PICASSO’S Guernica, a magnificent painting of the Spanish village of the same name that was destroyed and ravaged during the Spanish Civil War, remains the most enduring image of the conflict that lasted decades.
The interplay of war — destruction and its portrayal by war reporters, cinema and art — is a familiar fact in India, too. But it’s a far less-known fact that four of India’s finest painters, M F Husain, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar and Tyeb Mehta, were invited by the Indian Army to “witness” the border areas just after the 1965 war against Pakistan.
The only living member of the team — Khanna, now 95 — is still bubbling with details of that memorable trip. What triggered the exercise was a drive started by Khanna, formerly a member of the Bombay Progressives, and his friends, “exactly a day after the war ended” to collect money for “war widows”. Khanna recalls how they “got Re 1 notes, too, from so many people we did not know. Artists also decided to auction some work and help with rehabilitation”.
A successful drive in Delhi, attended by the then Vice President Zakir Husain, drew the Army’s attention to the interest the painters were taking, and Khanna’s phone rang.
“A spokesman for the Army contacted me, Col Pyare Lal, who was a friend of my brother who was in the Army. They wanted us to visit various battlesites. Of course, they wanted us to portray what we saw on canvas, but there was none of the ‘we did this and we did that’,” he says.
So Khanna, Ram Kumar and Tyeb Mehta set out beyond Amritsar, with M F Husain joining them later. “When Husain landed in the middle of a battlesite we were at, complete with a large hat, Ram Kumar told the Army officials taking us around, ‘Look, that’s our General’,” Khanna chuckles.
As a team, they went to various spots. “I recall vividly how we saw a whole ground full of tanks seized from Pakistanis. I went upto one and lifted the lid. An unbearable stench filled my nostrils and I saw a very distressing sight, the officer inside had been blown apart and his body melded with the tank’s. I painted it. But no one wanted it, so I have given it to my son,” he says.
“The Army, with some ingenuity, flooded an area where Pakistani tanks were, immobilising them all. Ram Kumar on finding a whole area full of just howling dogs, wrote of them in Hindi. On lifting the lids of the other tanks, we once found a postcard from a friend of the deceased inside, asking, ‘Aap kahan hain? Koi khabar nahin’,” says Khanna. “A grenade was used to storm a pillbox (a dugout for guards) and we did a picture of the ruins of it. There was a long picture by Tyeb Mehta of the Dograi battle.”
The purpose of the Army to take them was to, perhaps, speak of the glory of war, but says Khanna, “a lot of what we drew spoke directly of the horror of the devastation”.
Khanna describes how bodies of the enemy had to be buried quickly, and were done so, in shallow graves, but there would be wolves and other animals who would come and pull those out at night. “We drew those, too,” he says.
Husain, the “quickest” of the lot, took minutes to sketch on paper, and several of his line drawings were sold recently, confirms Dadiba Pundole, of the Pundole Art Gallery in Mumbai. “What I know of the visit is mostly second-hand, but it has been documented and the drawings are on our website,” says Pundole.
Husain made several drawings of the destruction he witnessed, and recreated visuals of battle stories as recounted by the soldiers. “Husain offered to draw portraits of anyone willing to sit for him. Many did, as did a Sikh gentleman, who shared the legendary Abdul Hameed’s jeep as he went about destroying the enemy’s assets. Husain gave away many drawings to his models but also brought a few back for himself,” Khanna says.
With the others who accompanied him having passed away, and other than a mention in a magazine, there is no cohesive record of this chapter in Indian Art, and Khanna now intends to document it.
“I recall seeing a damaged library at Dogra and there were hundreds of books strewn around. I picked up one and it happened to be the Quran, I still have it and want to return it to the owner. You see, I come from that part too, from Faisalabad,” he says.
Earlier, says Khanna, “We used to visit the Pakistani High Commission and the exchange of views was routine. It seems to have all been replaced by a lot of distance and hate.”