One of the most versatile Modernists, at 90, Krishen Khanna still spends hours in his basement studio in Gurgaon. The former banker who has painted the changing fortunes of the country, from the Partition to the grandiose bandwallahs and the struggles of its people, is exhibiting at the Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi. The subjects range from combat to mythology. He talks about his oeuvre and the current state of flux in India.
The exhibition brings together some of the recurring themes in your work, the bandwallahs, Pieta, Partition. Could you talk about your constant engagement with these subjects?
The show has many works that are not new. The small paintings of the bandwallahs were done for an exhibition in London last year. There are other paintings that are with the family and haven’t been shown before. The big Pieta, for instance, belongs to my son. The charcoal drawings are most recent. They are large and centre around combat. Then there are drawings that I did some time back that pertain to Partition, people going away, exits and exodus. One does go back to painting the same subjects. For instance, I still haven’t finished the series on Partition; it is something that happened to me and will continue to be part of my work.
Drawing is not really a favoured medium with the present generation of artists, but you have several in this exhibition.
Very few people do drawings now. I am sure when people look at this, they will think I am slipping back. Frankly, I am not interested in categories, and I think drawing gives me an enormous amount of pleasure and is a very straightforward way of saying things.
You depict combat in some of the works. Is it influenced by what is happening in the country right now?
Combat didn’t happen in the last 10 years, it goes back to millions of years and centuries. It is a form of human activity which is centred around the whole business of survival and greed. It revolves around how you intend to protect yourself and how you propose to live if your territory is being invaded, then you stand up for your rights.
What is your opinion about the events that are taking place in the country; the debate on nationalism, the JNU case?
We are in an enormous state of flux and it is very difficult to pinpoint. I am not here to pass judgements. Freedom of speech is there, and yes, sure, it should be there. But there can be no unbridled freedom, that only exists among lunatics who cannot control their actions. Here, you have a situation where people do think, and it is difficult to determine whether it is freedom of speech or is there an aggression within it, does it contradict the whole business of freedom of speech or not; with it goes a sense of responsibility. People may be against what is prevalent today, but people have the right to say what they want to say. Nobody can tell me what to say, I’m 90 years old, and it’s a bit late in the day to tell me what to do. We are not involved in that particular situation directly, yet everybody is involved in it.
There are also concerns regarding interference in culture, it is something that led Husain into exile years ago.
It is a huge country and you can’t legislate that everybody should have the same thinking. The whole question of nationalism, I don’t think, is understood really well.
Are you happy with your decision to quit banking in 1961 to pursue art?
Yes, but that does not mean that I detested my 14 years at the bank. I made very good friends and they remained friends for a long time, till they died. I am sort of the lone survivor of that particular group. The job at the bank also instilled a sense of discipline, as did my education, and I think that is very important, and possibly what is missing right now. I think discipline is not only the ability to accept orders but to make the orders valuable to oneself.
Do you think artists today share the same camaraderie that artists of your generation did?
I don’t know what is going on among young people today. I can only speak clearly about my friends, whom I lived with. I was a member of the Progressive Artists Group, and long after the group dissolved, the friendships continued and interest in each others’ work remained. We were able to discuss things quite freely and that is important.
I believe you still work in your studio every day.
I work every day and it’s very hard work but I enjoy it and am able to do it. The most recent work I have done is on Bhishma. He is blessing people who are going to fight against him. It’s strange that you have this old man blessing people who are going to fight on the other side. It brings in a question of duty, his sense of obligation to the people whom he has been living with, he cannot run away from them, at the same time the other members of the family deserve his blessings. It is a wise encounter.
The exhibition is at Vadehra Art Gallery, D-40, Defence Colony, till April 12