Krishen Khanna, versatile modernist, turns 96

A close friend of the Progressives Krishen Khanna who turns 96 on July 5th 2021, is perhaps one of the most versatile modernists of our times. His life and art has been witness to some of the most turbulent times of India’s political history and his works traverse an Indian idiom of everyday living . A voracious reader, think tank and greatly respected Khanna is an artist who has weathered all seasons.

Krishen Khanna

Khanna grew up in pre-partition Lahore, before moving to England, to study at the Imperial Service College on a scholarship. These early years of life with family and friends was the subject of some of his earliest works, where he reconstructed this “small, composite world, in which religious difference and the slowly gathering tide of nationalism were only a distant rumble.”

His friendship with the Progressive Artist Group (PAG) brought him to hold his first exhibition in 1949 with them in Mumbai. His love for an abstracted figurative terrain saw him through events and images that transcend time. Into his subjects he wove a universality and aesthetic that was rooted in Indian idioms and one that embraced deeper human values.

His bank job with Grindlays  took him to Madras, and it was here in 1955 that he had his first solo show at the USIS. His love for culture as well as music saw him introduce  formal elements of colour and line. Thus began his series – the bandwallas, the Rumi series the Biblical stories the Christ series there was deep passion in each narrative. He moved to Delhi and became a full time artist -in 1962 he  was awarded the prestigious Rockefeller Fellowship and was Artist-in-Residence at the American University in Washington in the years 1963-64.

Khanna has described his technique as a process of welcoming the unpredictable as he created work built around the urban experience. He dwelt  on sacred mythologies, both local and foreign. At the age of six Khanna’s father came back from Milan with a copy of The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci, thus initiating a lifelong fascination with Christian imagery. Khanna’s La Pieta works are amongst his most striking.


From the early 1970s,  Khanna’s work engaged with urban life as he experienced it in the rapidly expanding metropolis of Delhi, particularly through subaltern figures like the bandwallas, truckwallas  and manual labourers he encountered.The truckwalla series were austere and more or less monochrome while the bandwallas were created in crimson yellow and scarlet with a dash of green.

In his evolution he says: “I got involved with painting the rear of trucks with the huddle up and dehumanized cargoes of labourers, a common enough sight in the country. Since the men at the back acquired the character and colour of the cargo that they were carrying, it was only appropriate that they and the tortuous machines be painted in monochrome. A series of grey and dusty pictures were painted.”

In these works he “depicts the hard life of rural migrant labourers who form an important part of the urban landscape, in the late hours of the day when the privileged step out for a night of entertainment. Covered with dust, their identity obscured by a thick veil of grime, the figures in these monochromatic paintings seem to disappear into the fold of the city to which they migrated in the hope of a better life […] the truck becomes an on-the-spot home, on the move, emphasising rootlessness as well as alienation.


Beginning in the 1980s, the Bandwalla became a recurrent theme in Khanna’s oeuvre. Khanna’s ability to translate the daily life and pathos of the common man is what kept his works alive and animated with a human spirit of eking out a life.

Delhi’s bandwallas held a comic and bold  portrayal -their bright colorful uniforms, gold epaulettes and brass buttons right down to their often tired expressions as they belted out the same tunes repeatedly for one wedding procession after another. This year at Gorosvenor in London he created the Bandwallas in deep despair thinking of what they would be doing during the pandemic with such few festivities and weddings. And his words of the past come back:

“What would happen were I to begin with no drawing or compositional props, where figures are not in space but are space themselves, and colors ringing loud and clear in merry juxtaposition without tonal continuities or intermediary grays, and the application of color pigment were assertive and not tentative? I found a new exuberance in the act of painting. Using the image of the bandwalla, I let it go, not attempting to rub out or physically eradicate, and gave vent to all the possibilities stimulated by that odd instinct.” (Krishen Khanna, ‘Beyond the Bandwalla’s Cacophony: a non- committal statement by the artist’ )

From the richness of mythology and literature he painted stories of the Mahabharata drawing from the rich fount as he created Dhritharahstra and Gandhari and many more characters with verve and versatility.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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