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Krishen Khanna is perhaps one of the most versatile modernists of our times, whose life and art has borne witness to some of the most turbulent times of India’s political history. 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 preoccupation with everyday life that is seen in these early years will stay with him through his life. Soon his family moved due to the Partition and Khanna’s job brought them to Bombay which marked an important phase in his artistic career as it was here that he became a part of the Progressive Artist Group (PAG) with whom he would hold his first exhibition in 1949. Unlike his peers Khanna’s engagement with abstraction wasn’t simple; for him, the figurative always lived alongside his experiments with abstraction. Khanna’s arguments were always for the universalism of image, and affinity with Indian aesthetics and humanist values.
His bank job then took him to Madras, and it was here in 1955 that Khanna had his first solo show at the USIS. His years here saw him engaged with the human subject, those of labourers and women engaged in mundane tasks. Here his passion for music was nurtured further and his series on musicians from this period saw him convert the rhythmic sound in time into movements of brush on canvas. His preoccupation from this period, with the formal elements of colour and line, will become a part of his oeuvre occurring later in his works on bandwallas with greater passion. Soon he moved to Delhi and gave up his a job to concentrate on art full time, and in 1962 was awarded the Rockefeller Fellowship and was Artist-in-Residence at the American University in Washington in the years 1963-64. Since then he has exhibited widely in India and abroad. Apart from several
In 1990 was awarded the prestigious Padma Shri, one of the Indian government’s highest civilian awards, and in 1997 he received the Kala Ratna from the All India Fine Arts & Crafts Society. He has participated in the Venice, São Paulo, Havana and Tokyo biennales and in the International Triennale in New Delhi. He has exhibited in solo and group shows around the world, in places like New York, London, New Orleans, Honolulu, Oxford, Washington, D.C., Geneva, and at the festival of India in Japan. He lives and works in New Delhi.
Krishen Khanna’s works range from carefully constructed compositions to gestural, spontaneous works. His deployment of colour and strokes to evoke the human situation is unmatched. Works like his Nocturne series capture the heaviness of a worker’s tired body resting at the end of the day as faithfully as his Bandwallas series captures the exuberant energy of the band of musicians. In his many monochromatic works, one sees the energy in the frenzy of lines and tension in the tight compositions, with the overall picture pulsating with the interplay of formal elements. Through a lack of physical detail; Khanna’s paintings aspire towards the quality of timelessness and universality. As an artist, he defies categorisation as he simultaneously occupies multiple roles – as a narrator, as a formalist, a genre painter. He has worked on themes ranging from everyday domestic scenes to moments of historical importance, from scenes from myths and poetry to quite portraits of people from his life. He has continually worked with the contrasts between the mundane and the sublime, the ordinary and the epic dimension. Constantly oscillating between the banal and the spectacular, for Khanna’s personal is the political and political personalities.