Khanna’s deep commitment to the pictorial space was not to be confined by the limits of the easel. He got an opportunity to break free of this confinement. Sometime in the early 80s, the chairman of ITC showed him the blank, dome like space of about 4000 square feet on the ceiling of ITC Maurya, New Delhi. He asked, if he would like to paint the ceiling with murals?
To scale up the visualisation, from the size of an easel to 4000 square feet was unnerving, even for an artist of Khanna’s calibre.
“I didn’t know what to do with the vastness of this thing, which was like a Buddhist Vihar. And how long would it take? When I saw the dome completed, I had no idea what to do. I had no hesitation involving friends. Akbar Padamsee said, fill in with people. Ramachandaran had done mural paintings at Shanti Niketan, he said, do something like a panorama which floats around people. It seemed plausible.”
Khanna agreed but wasn’t convinced. He took long to come to the visualisation of the unique space. He knew, processing an image takes time, he had no clue how time consuming the images he was going to use for the mural were going to be!
Then there were the technical challenges of doing murals on a fabricated dome, which was a false ceiling. This was not part of his experience, as an artist. The use of acrylic and zinc didn’t work, the colours would change. After much trial and error, he came to the conclusion; to build the ceiling with plywood, paint the canvas and then paste the painted panels on it.
This was not the only challenge, there were many alcoves and beams, taking the hardships of painting a ceiling to a different level. To find visual symmetry and alignment in an alcove required a lot of technical experimentation and ingenuity.
The murals on the dome, after completion, turned out to be a kaleidoscopic wonder. Called ‘The Great Procession’, the hand painted labour of love offers hundreds of perspectives based on the five elements of life, encompassing all the nine rasas. A visual narrative is woven using Chinese traveller, Fa Hien, as a purveyor, who finds the footprints of time in the eternal march of Indian civilisation, since his first visit during the Mauryan period.
After selecting a mother colour, the pictorial choices for the vast panorama, which had the format of spiralling up, came from the lives of people encompassing all other elements—the sky, water, forests, animals and birds—that expand and enrich the human experience. Humour finds its space in odd situations juxtaposed and in the anomalies of life.
In a place surrounded by mourners, sitting next to a dead-body, Mulk Raj Anand, Khanna’s friend is seen discussing art and aesthetics; somebody is picking pocket out of a man going to a mosque, Geeta Kapoor, the famous art critic, is walking while someone stares at her– she is holding a book titled ‘What Ails Indian Art.’ There are sahebs and mem sahebs, riding atop an elephant.
Then there is the ubiquitous dhaba, where Khushwant Singh is serving tea and Mulk Raj Anand is chewing a chicken bone. Temples, mosques, yatras—pilgrimages—an integral part of Indian civilisation, people co-existing with dogs, goats, monkeys, elephants and tigers complete the slice of life.
The art of filling the still moments with fluidity of life is achieved with detailing and picking the oddities of human behaviour—a woman scratching her ear outside a temple, a man sitting beside a sleeping dog, another man sleeping under a tree—the visuals one encounters across Indian countryside. What unites the many paintings and panels is the colour geometry of the space.
Khanna’s mural has also revived the rich tradition of public art that flourished in India till the late 19th century, before the practice of art became too individualistic. “Mural painting is not one- man job, many artists helped me, Manjit Bawa, Gurjeet and many others; sometimes we agreed, at other times we didn’t. The work belongs to everyone. I have painted a boy looking down at the viewers with binoculars. The seen is also seeing. “
Norbert Lynton has written a book on Khanna’s mural ‘The Great Procession’.
The iconic images
Khanna’s works never come to an end point. They continue to evolve with changing times and contexts. ‘The Last Supper’, he first painted at age 7, has been re-interpreted several times, with changing contexts. The characters change, betrayal remains. The power- hungry Generals and politicians brokering partition amidst the skeletal remains of humanity over the remnants of the partition, is one of the most powerful images. In a playful rendering of the same title, he paints all the artists of the Progressive group, taking the last supper.
The Blind King and the Queen, from the time of Mahabharata to the present, have remained relevant with changing equations of power and politics.
News of Gandhi’s Death, an image that looks like an assemblage of fluttering newspapers, held tightly, with anxious faces peering closely, crowding near a lamppost, has fleeting transience captured in all its vividness–with shades of shock, anxiety and loss. The papers, being held, seem like floating in ether-like space, along with the readers. The painting has exchanged many hands, it has been shown all over Europe, once it got stolen too.
It took Khanna long to paint this image; he remained engaged with the visual he had seen for over a year.
Giani ji ka Dhaba, a place for meeting people, like a club, where people get fresh food and news, is yet another image that Khanna has painted several times.
Khanna is a master of lines. His lines carry the narrative lodged in the visual— hidden as well as revealed. In yet another masterpiece of his titled Flagellation, one can observe the role of lines in delineating the violence of the times. His series on musicians has a kind of rhythm and fluidity in the lines drawn. His lines define the character of his painting.
Khanna has delved his hands in sculptures, graphics, studio photography and almost all creative mediums. His charcoal works are powerful statements of the times.
He shared his creative processes with this writer, “Creativity is a multi-pronged affair for me. Ideas, poems, what I read, people I meet, anything can influence when I come in contact with paper or canvas. Then, it undergoes a process, something else happens and the net result is a compound affair, making a rationale of it all. I am not a painter of human beings alone, but of life as a whole.”
Recognizing his immense contribution to Indian art, the Government of India has bestowed several honours upon him including the Lalit Kala Ratna from the President of India in 2004, the Padma Shri in 1990 and the Padma Bhushan in 2011.
Khanna has no count of how many canvases he has painted, perhaps over four thousand. His works are sold globally and are displayed in all the major museums of the world. His artistic journey continues to create new milestones. He has lived a life of timelessness in time spanning close to a century, following his passion. He wishes to die somewhere near his easel, with an unfinished painting.
After I am gone, a dozen of my works will still be floating around, not because of any pressure but, out of love—Krishen Khanna
Read the previous part here