- Krishen Khanna
- A Graph of Pleasure and Pain
- oil on canvas, framed
- 62.4 by 105.4 cm; 24½ by 41½ in.
One of India’s renowned and venerated modern artists, Krishen Khanna was born in Lyallpur, India (now Faisalabad, Pakistan) in 1925. Khanna excelled at academics from a young age and was awarded a scholarship to study at the Imperial Service College in England. While he was away from his homeland, political, ideological, and geographical lines were beginning to be drawn, and upon his return and enrollment at the Government College in Lahore in 1944 he was faced with a nation split apart, and the birth of two new identities – India and Pakistan. It is these two discordant components of Khanna’s coming of age: the nostalgia of an idealized Independent India and the trauma of living through Partition, which forged the dual yet conjoined notes of audacity and tenderness that characterize his artistic sensibilities.
Joining the mass migration from Pakistan to India, Khanna took a job at Grindlays Bank in Bombay and it was there that he was introduced to the Progressive Artists’ Group, a collection of visionary modern artists who innovatively fused Indian art historic traditions with Expressionism, Cubism, and Post-Impressionism. Founded by Francis Newton Souza, Sayed Haider Raza, and Maqbool Fida Husain, the PAG provided Khanna an invaluable space for learning and experimentation outside the confines of his day job. Khanna’s early paintings were a riotous clash between composition and subject matter; visually dazzling in vivid blocks of colour with mannerist contours. His paintings depicted everyday life in India—women draped in saris carrying swaddled babies and baskets, crowds gathered at roadsides, musicians in concert, faceless beggars and laborers.
Khanna was truly influenced by Souza, Raza, and Husain, who brought the PAG into fruition as a direct reaction to partition,1 and who embraced anarchy on the canvas as a declaration of freedom and disparagement of colonial rule. This preference for de-construction informed the trajectory of Khanna’s artistic evolution. Over time, Khanna’s style became more and more abstract. His fully formed figures gave way to tumultuous outlines—each line was no longer blended into a larger composition but declarative in its individual existence. Bright colours and elaborate tableaus were replaced by fraught unfixed subjects in dark brown and black. Although he continued to use oil on canvas, his distinct and forceful brushstrokes brought forth the imagery of sumi-e (Suibokuga) ink wash painting. In 1962 Khanna was a recipient of the prestigious John D. Rockefeller III Fellowship which afforded him an opportunity to study ink painting in Japan, which was so distinct from his known medium of oil, his Indian roots, his English upbringing, and the work of his Bombay contemporaries. The present painting was inspired by sumi-e without becoming mimicries of it. The artist later described this period as a “series of events which formulate or assist in formulating the kind of action you have to take.”
Khanna painted A Graph of Pleasure and Pain in 1961, the end of a decade long engagement with Expressionism and the year before his immersion into ink painting. In this work, he blends staccato brushwork with mathematical motifs, a noticeable difference from sumi-e’s roots in depicting nature. Khanna imagines the canvas as an axis, and then seeks to depict the interplay of line and colour physically over the axis. He says, “In this particular work I tried to connect the two horizontal lines by using a broad brush, lightly charged applying vertical strokes thereby drawing attention away from the horizontal sides of the canvas and creating a passage in which connected forms could move from one end of the vertical side to the other… The whole exercise was a matter of great pleasure at making discoveries and there was pain when the action didn’t go as I had hoped.”2 His decision to keep colour out of the composition is not only a nod to the ink genre but a purposeful decision to avoid colour’s “unnecessary intervention.”3 The final effect is of an, “internal rhythm and intense movement, both horizontally and vertically. It is from these images, which continue till 1967, that his (later) figurative works emerge.”4
In a letter about the painting, Khanna reveals that his motivation at the time was “in probing the medium of oil painting.”5 A Graph of Pleasure and Pain truly did probe not only medium, but also line and form. This work was one of an entire body of sumi-e inspired paintings which were exhibited by Charles Egan Gallery in New York’s Fuller Building. The show drew favorable reviews and some works were even acquired by American museums including MoMA. A Graph of Pleasure and Pain was purchased by Mr. Abraham Weisblat, who was on the board of the John D. Rockefeller III Council for Economic and Cultural Affairs. The following year Khanna received the Rockefeller Fellowship and used it to travel in East Asia continuing his study of sumi-e by observing Zen Buddhist practice in Japan. The painting remained in the Weisblat Family Collection for more than 50 years and was most recently exhibited at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers University in 2002 in a groundbreaking exhibition titled India: Contemporary Art from Northeastern Private Collections.
We would like to thank Krittika Roychowdhury for her work on this essay.
1 Paramoo, Ratan, and Nalini Bhagwat. “Progressive Artists Group of Bombay: An Overview The Spirit of Late 1940s and Early 1950s,” Art Etc., Jan. 2012, www.artnewsnviews.com/view-article.php?article=progressive-artists-group-of-bombay-an-overview&iid=29&articleid=800. Accessed July 27, 2017.
2 Sotheby’s correspondence with Krishen Khanna, July 22nd, 2012
4 Sinha, Gayatri, Krishen Khanna: A Critical Biography, New Delhi, 2001, pp. 57, 81
5 Sotheby’s correspondence, ibid.