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A visual record of history – Krishen Khanna Part 2

By Vandana Shukla

Khanna’s works deal with a realistic world, the goings on; the play of maya caught in its own momentum, its own web; blurred under its own momentary existence against the eternal march of time. The moments caught on canvas seem to have a rhythm about them, as though, they are flowing over to the next moment. It is a transitory world; sad, celebratory, joyous, stilled, moving–imbued with a sense of humour one develops only after having looked at the larger picture from a vantage point, in all its hues. At times one feels, the artist is amused by what he sees and paints.

The sustained creative journey of over eighty years of Krishen Khanna has behind it an artist who is gifted with a unique mix of sensitivity, resoluteness and a keen eye for the threads that connect past, present and future in the life around him.

It starts with tiny impressions, of visual memory, sometimes these impressions grow into a picture that starts talking back to the viewer.

Some of the most memorable of his works stem from these memories– of his uprooting from Lahore in his early 20s, that affected him deeply. The experience influenced a large body of his work. His famous series on the bandwallahs, the truck drivers, and the disturbing visuals of people dislocated by the havoc caused by the Partition; carrying the void of uprootedness and unbearable grief, continue to haunt the viewer. The seemingly distorted human figures, etched over dark backgrounds with their detached, hollow faces, make powerful visuals. They seem to be in a perpetual transit; floating in their uprootedness.


Khanna recounts the days, “We used to live in Maclagan Road, Lahore. We had a cook who was a great story teller, he would bring all the news about independence movement; gossips, dramatized, exaggerated tales and we would be spell bound listening to him. I saw a very mild- mannered homeopath doctor in our neighbourhood arrested by the British Police, but he was not frightened, he submitted to it as though it was routine.

Then came partition, which was not a fair proposition for anyone. All suffered the consequences. I have painted the homeless, helpless people in migration. My tayaji had to go to Pakpattan (now in Pakistan) to fetch his old mother. A Muslim tongawalla helped him in evacuation to the border. I have painted all these impressions; the Anglo Indians, the tonga that carried my tayaji’s family. I have painted it on a solid territory, but one leg of the horse is in air; in uncertainty.”

The displaced people were all around; hundreds of truck drivers travelling in and out of Delhi, and the nameless, dressed- in- red uniforms bandwallahs, playing songs of rejoicing, forgetting their sad, deprived lives in that moment of sharing some stranger’s joys. The seemingly lost, forlorn figures of bandwallas in their bright, polished outfits affected him. “They come from that part of Punjab I had known, they would rejoice for us. They had to hide their loss, their pain. How would they live (now)—nobody was paying them, living was more important, not playing music; they had to improvise, they came without anything, they had to look good, fighting their battles yet loving what they were doing. The whole family would come, even the old ones who would be asked to just strike the triangle once in a while. It’s fascinating to see how people who had nothing and yet loved what they were doing.”


It is these nuances about ordinary people’s lives, internalised, that lend his canvas the extra dimension. What other people were going through around him was a reflection of his own experiences at the time. He was not illustrating their lives. His empathy was profound.

Most of the Sikhs who migrated from Pakistan became truck drivers—embracing another homelessness after their uprooting. Trucks became their new homes like, for the bandwallas others’ joys became their own. Khanna felt a deep sense of compassion for these people. The lakhs of displaced people who came to this side of the border on bicycles, bullock carts, piled on the trains and trucks, became co-travellers; they peopled his creative space.

Bordering on the narrative, these works capture moments in history, much like photographs do, but his technique is not that of a photo-realist. “What makes it art and lifts it out of the transient is the abiding elements of the tragic, sublime and the ridiculous, which are woven into it,” observed J. Swaminathan about these works.

Picked from memory, he transfers his observations onto the canvas with spontaneity and exuberance, keeping the representational elements of his subject matter intact. The use of colour and his expressionist brushwork make the mundane rise to the challenge of the artistic.

“Letting the keen observations form into an image in your mind, that is how you tap visual language. It takes time,” says Khanna about his processes.