One of the last surviving members of the Progressive Artists’ Group, Krishen Khanna turned 90 on July 5 but is still an artist at work in his basement studio in Gurgaon. For years, he was the most underrated master of Indian art, while his friends MF Husain and VS Gaitonde shone in the limelight. His art ranges across many references, from the trauma of Partition to the grandiose bandwallahs. Each of his subjects still turn up on his canvases and his older works fetch lakhs at auctions. In this interview, he looks back at the 1960s, when he quit his job at a bank to become a full-time artist, his first exhibition, and why he doesn’t find time to meet his friends. Excerpts:
Congratulations on turning 90. You also have an ongoing solo at Grosvenor Gallery in London, When the Band Began to Play.
Thank you. We did not do much, just a small thing where everyone in the family turned up. Yes, the exhibition in London features the bandwallahs; the gallery wanted me to paint them, so I did.
Could you take us back to the 1940s? When World War II broke out, you were in Britain, weren’t you? At the Imperial Service College in Windsor.
I had been at the school for four-and-a-half years when the war broke out and my parents asked me to return, but I didn’t want to. I was preparing for all sorts of things. I was captain of the fencing team and was hoping to win the public school championship. Then my headmaster told me that the last convoy from Liverpool to India was leaving, and I had to board it. I was 17 then. It took three months by ship. Once I was back in Multan, I joined college. I was 13 when I had gone to England. I couldn’t speak Hindi, Urdu or Punjabi. I only spoke English. Soon, my parents moved to Lahore and I started working at a press there. When Partition happened, I had taken a week off, thinking things would settle down. But then we had to leave Lahore and move to Simla. I never returned.
Since then, you have turned to the Partition innumerable times in your work. How different does that time seem to you if you look back?
I haven’t finished the series on Partition, it is something that will continue to be a part of my work. When I show Partition, some people come up with stupid questions. Today’s generation does not see Partition the way I do, they do not know its consequences, they have no friends or family there. Pakistan is a different country for them, but I grew up there. I have friends there. I’ve visited Pakistan more than five times since. So I’ll continue to depict Partition in my art, maybe not sell it because people want happy paintings in their house. I’ll only sell it if I’m convinced that someone really wants it. I’m really not into the business of art. I never attend auctions. [Usually] the bigger the picture, the more expensive it is, which is nonsense.
Could you tell us about how you came to quit your job at Grindlays Bank in 1961 and become a full-time artist? You had worked there for 14 years. Had you considered becoming a professional artist before?
I had thought about it, but the financial constraints ruled it out. I was kind of moonlighting, I went for evening classes at Mayo School of Art. And I was very happy at the bank. It was a wonderful job. Gradually, however, I found it difficult to pursue both professions, which is when I quit. On my last day at work, [MF] Husain, [VS] Gaitonde and Bal Chhabra were at the door, waiting for me to come out. The moment I came out, Bal Chhabra took my tie off, saying I won’t need it anymore. We went out, had tea together to celebrate and then dinner at a place called The Coronation Durbar. Raza threw a party in Paris; they had all wanted me to quit.
I had some money, Rs 25,000 saved over 14 years. But I was confident I would do well. One had to put in a lot of hard work, much more than at the bank. My first work was sold to (nuclear physicist) Homi Bhabha through Husain. Once the ball was set rolling, there were international exhibitions as well. Kumar Gallery in Delhi used to hire artists on a monthly basis with a stipend of Rs 500, in return for a work of art. When Tyeb [Mehta] returned from London, I remember bargaining with Kumar to pay him the same stipend, and not Rs 250 that he was offering.
You famously drew Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper when you were seven.
My father introduced me to The Last Supper, when he bought home a small print of it from Milan. He was explaining the concept to us, how it depicts dagabaazi or betrayal. When he saw me draw it on paper, he was very impressed. Childhood memories leave a strong impression, so the theme kept coming back to me. In The Last Bite, I drew all of us — Manjit Bawa, Akbar Padamsee, FN Souza gathered around a Christ-like Husain in a dhaba, reminiscent of our several discussions. We inspired each other and were also critical of each other. They were all good artists, and great people as well.
What led to your art being showed for the first time at an exhibition in 1949?
A series of events led to my canvas reaching the Bombay Art Society show organised by SB Palsikar. My wife was on a ship when she met someone who knew Palsikar, and wrote a letter, asking him to see my work. One day, Palisikar just arrived at my place and took away a small canvas that depicted crowds reading the newspaper after Gandhiji’s assassination and put it up in the exhibition. Soon, I was inducted into the Progressive Artists’ Group by Husain.
Do you meet SH Raza and Ram Kumar now? All of you are in Delhi.
We used to be neighbours years ago, and met every day. Now the distances are long and going to meet them means spending the whole day away from work. We talk on the phone. We exchanged many letters once, which I have kept carefully. I also have several works, including one by Gaitonde, seven or eight Husains, an Akbar Padamsee, one of his finest works. I bought my first Husain for Rs 50, when I was still at Grindlays. When I quit, he joked that they were all committing suicide, because I was the only one with a steady income.