Indian & South Asian Modern & Contemporary Art

Krishen Khanna on Being Inspired by Poetry and Politics

By Anu Ghosh-Mazumdar
Ahead of several of his works appearing in the upcoming sale Coups de Coeur: The Guy and Helen Barbier Family Collection on 10 June, Anu Ghosh-Mazumdar interviews the artist Krishen Khanna about his process, inspiration and friends in the art world.

Your painting Drowning Girl is inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s eponymous poem. When did you first come across this poem? Why did this, of all poems, capture your attention and imagination? Can you describe your process as you created the work? How did your image take form from Brecht’s words?

When I created these works I was obsessed with the subject of the “drowning girl”. I am deeply motivated by poetry and Brecht is a poet I admire greatly. I have been to Germany and visited the Brecht Archive and other institutions dedicated him there. I first read this poem in a book loaned to me by Ebrahim Alkazi. Every poem cannot be translated visually but I felt that this one could be. There are several English translations and I chose one where the poet gives us a visual reference to the sky embracing, and almost comforting the poor drowned girl. That immediately gives you a handle on the picture. You start by painting the sky with a comforting hue. And then you deal with how the girl disintegrates bit by bit in the water. The last thing that goes is her hair. As the words say, "Then she was carrion with the carrion in the water." As I think about this poem right now I am just as moved as I was when I first read it all those years ago.

Krishen Khanna. Image courtesy Barbier Family Archives.

At least two of your paintings were inspired by this particular subject. Were there more?

I distinctly remember the works I created inspired by this poem. I made four paintings but they were not created one after the other during the same period. There were time lapses in between. In these works, capturing the poetic essence is what I was after. In all the works the colour palette was minimal. The structure was based more on the drawing than on the paint. Three of the works were in horizontal format and only one in vertical format – the one coming up for sale at Sotheby's. This one is inspired by the last part of the poem where the body of the girl twirls as it sinks down to the bottom of the water.

To visualise this particular composition was a challenge but it was one that I enjoyed. I am excited to have created these works. In fact as I speak with you I might want to do another one right now! A painter's mind is funny! Certain things have a habit of sitting in your memory and they nag you.

In creating works like Drowning Girl or Game I and II or The End, all from the early 1970s, were you affected by the political zeitgeist of the time?

I am not a political spokesman. But I am affected but the state of the world around me and that finds a voice in my work. Things happen in life and they cannot be ignored. I am not going to simply paint pleasing pictures for a drawing room. Life right now is pretty damned powerful. I was in Britain during the Second World War. I lost friends. We went through a pretty horrible period during Partition. It tore the hell out of me. These events remind you of the inglorious traits in human beings, chief amongst which is the quest for power. Power is all consuming and artists across time have spoken about this. Brecht touched upon this time and again in his poems. Beethoven did in his music: listen to the "Emperor Concerto" (Piano Concerto No. 5). Like creative people everywhere these artists were affected by what was going on around them; I am too.

Collectors are familiar with your canvases and works on paper. It is unusual to come across etchings by you. Can you tell us more about your journey/experiments with this medium? Were there any other series of etchings that you created besides this one of St. Francis with a menagerie?

I first experimented with copperplate etching in New York. I have worked with the medium in fits and starts. Printmaking requires an involved set up. A printmaker's studio includes a lot of permanent equipment. I didn't always have that. When I lived in Garhi I had studio where I did etchings. I made a series of St. Francis etchings at the behest of my friend Jean Rivieau, President of Schlumberger. He commissioned them as gifts, which he gave to his friends.

As a student in the UK, I spent holidays in More House, not far from London. It was run by Brother Joseph, a Franciscan priest – a wonderful man. He had had many roles in his life before assuming priesthood. I think of him when I think of St. Francis – another remarkable man.

As much as you’ve been an artist, you have also been a collector throughout your life. You collected with a keen eye. Many of the works you bought were the first sales made by those artists. How would you characterize your own collection?

I don't consider myself to be a collector. I bought paintings made by artists who were my friends. I was working in a bank so I had some money which I could spend. I was happy to do so because it got me wonderful works – by Souza, Ara, Gaitonde, Padamsee and others. They were friends. We were all together. The works I own, I have lived with and loved my entire life.

Tell us a little bit about the relationships you have built with collectors and colleagues over the years. You built a regular and detailed correspondence with Guy and Helen Barbier and directed them to the work of many of your contemporaries.

I have built lasting relationships with colleagues and collectors throughout my life. A few thousand letters occupy more than half of my studio. Letters exchanged with Padamsee, Husain, Raza, Gaitonde and innumerable postcards from Ram Kumar all constitute treasured possessions. I hope some of these will become a public archive in the future.

I deeply valued my relationship with Guy and Helen Barbier. We were friends. I was saddened to learn about Guy's passing. They were keen collectors. They really looked at the art, asked questions and they sought my opinion often. That's why I directed them to different artists.

You are well-versed in the appreciation of Classical Indian art and have an interest in historical monuments and architecture. From the Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram to the Shekhawati havelis of Rajasthan, what is it about the aesthetics of traditional Indian art that interests and inspires you?

It is part of my total approach to any art. What starts it and what constitutes its essence. Any creative person has to 'get' the spirit of what he or she is doing. It all comes down to the centrality of the artist's work: his or her thinking. South Indian temples almost reach heaven. You don't have to sit down and pray. You have to sit down and look. And you are there!

Q: You are still creating art. In your own words, “the images insist on being painted.” What are the sources of your inspiration for your current work?

A: For some time now I have been creating a whole regiment of bandwallahs. I was part of a school band myself. This is an essentially British institution which fell on hard times at the end of that era. You went to the Bandstand after church on Sunday and listened to march tunes like Colonel Bogey on Parade. With the end of the British Raj, the people who played in these bands were impoverished overnight. Seeing them in tatters saddened me immeasurably. Watching them playing in wedding processions - the new order - bemused me. It's a Chaplinesque situation. At the moment I am working on a whole band company in sculpture. Painted sculpture. The sculptures do not have colour on the back but as you move around the colour appears. At age 94, I am amusing myself.

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