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The Maestro Behind the Iconic Band Walah Series, Krishen Khanna Turns 99 Today

It’s nearly half a century since the bandwallas arrested Khanna in his tracks, quite literally. The story goes that he was returning from Garhi studios one evening in early 1970s when a wedding procession — a baraat — fronted by brightly-attired bandwallas in military-style uniforms, stopped traffic on the road. Watching the procession go by sitting in his car was an epiphanous moment for Khanna, who had already established himself on the firmament of modern Indian art by then. It led to his iconic Bandwallas series of paintings in oil, one of the many that have defined his signature art.

The Indian Portrait 11 | Categories | The Indian Portrait | Page 9
Courtesy: Archer Art Gallery

As it appears now, the bandwallas never quite left Khanna; as recent as 2019, he created a series of bronze sculptures on the bandwallas, titled Last Man Standing. He continues to derive inspiration from those nameless, faceless, harbingers of good tidings in a wedding, more pertinent in the ongoing times than ever before.

The Bandwallas painted in 2020-21, in the confines of his sitting room where he moved his painting schedule from his basement studio, are smaller format works unlike the works of the past that were essentially large. They have appeared in his oeuvre every now and then, and he has spoken of them in interviews ever so often.

Untitled (Bandwallas) oil on canvas| Courtesy: Artiana

It’s not hard to figure out why bandwallas continue to entrance the artist — playing popular tunes at a high pitch, decked in peaked caps and military style uniforms embellished with shiny, brass buttons, they thrust the feeling of happiness and well-being right in your face, accentuating the general bonhomie of a wedding procession and splashing it on to the mindscapes of even bystanders and passers-by. 

The Maestro Behind the Iconic Band Walah Series, Krishen Khanna Turns 99 Today. Indian Poet and essayist Ashok Vajpeyi says, “He is widely recognised as the senior most master of modern Indian art. A tireless, sensitive and interrogative painter of human suffering and predicament of our times, Krishen has been an inspiring presence in the world of art. A lover of poetry, an articulate speaker on arts, a mentor to many a young artists, he has been a person with a critical eye and acute but liberal taste.’The last man still standing’ of the Progressive Artists Group, Krishen has embodied in his life and art the enduring spirit of plurality, wide ranging aesthetics and abiding friendship And camaraderie. I and The Raza Foundation salute the humane art, the unmistakable civilty and the exemplary life of Krishen Khanna”

Bandwala: Bronze, Four Sculptures of various sizes| Courtesy: Dotwalk

Khanna, who quit his bank job with the Grindlays after serving in Bombay and Madras, to take to painting full time in early 1960s, has always been a painter of reality. His most well-known canvases feature common people from the street — the inhabitants of roads, alleys and backways he would have an opportunity to observe while going about his daily life. But in painting them, he was never only capturing what was visible, but also what lay beneath.

UNTITLED (BANDWALLAS IN RED), 2015| Courtesy: grosvenorgallery

In the Bandwallas series of works, for instance, the glittering uniforms and high-pitched tunes of the instrument players are only a façade for the stark reality underneath. The band members hail from the economically weakest sections of society, are not adequately paid, and often, not treated well either. After all, has any one of us attending a quintessential north Indian wedding ever seen bandwallas — who usher in the baraat (the groom’s wedding party) — being invited inside to partake of the festivities or the meal?

Khanna’s bandwallas play their instruments with stoical calm on their faces, just as is evident in the visages of figures in his other works such as the fruitseller in his oil on canvas, A Season of Watermelons or the young woman in his 1957 oil, Woman with a Basket of Fruits.

A Season of Watermelons
, Oil on Canvas| Courtesy: Artnet

And to say nothing of the uncomfortable uniforms bandwallas have to don, especially for summer weddings — an irony whose pathos are not lost on even those dancing to their tunes for a brief while. Quite clearly, the idea of a wedding band must have originated in the tradition of military bands, one of whose most glorious displays in this country is held every year on the Republic Day, in a ceremony called the Beating Retreat. However, the wedding bandwallas are but a poor, rag-tag counterparts of their military brethren.

Khanna has been quoted saying this about one of his most well-known subjects: ‘In a way, bandwallas are a relic of the past, a legacy of the British rulers, who now belt out Indian film tunes in traditional celebrations. The uniforms add grandeur and also give certain anonymity to them, almost like the military personnel. There is something sad and musical about them.’

By his own admission, the music of the bandwallas is giving Khanna company in our contemporary, torrid times. One can safely conjecture that it’s not just the music but a slice of the past spent in the company of his artist friends that re-painting the bandwallas is bringing back to him. In fact, the title of the exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery, says as much as does Khanna’s statement on the gallery’s website: ‘Painting from my sitting room, I am surrounded by all my friends; Husain, Gaitonde, Raza, Tyeb, Padamsee, etc… their paintings are all around me and have become a part of me. I feel they are still with me and that is a happy thought.’

Khanna had begun his bandwalla series in early 1970s, nearly a decade after quitting his bank job (he has recalled the dramatic moment when Husain and Gaitonde waited for him outside his office, exhorting him to hurry up, while his colleagues continued to give a lengthy farewell), had long been closely associated with the Progressive Artists’ Group and laid foundation of lifelong friendships with M. F. Husain, S. H. Raza, Ram Kumar, V. S. Gaitonde, Tyeb Mehta, and Akbar Padamsee, among others.

It was in 1950s, when Khanna was posted in Bombay with the Grindlays that he became part of the extended Progressive Artists’ Group. It was a period of great flux in the country in general, the fresh taste of Independence coursing strongly through the air. Particularly in Bombay, a churn was taking place in the world of art. The Progressives, even though a few of them moved to different continents for higher education or career prospects soon thereafter, had set in motion the wheels of great change in art.

It was this atmosphere that Khanna found himself sucked into, where personal friendships assumed greater strength than the natural competition between them as artists. Stories abound of their unspoken generosity to each other — in an earlier interview with this writer, Khanna had recalled how he and Bal Chhabda, who had the means, would often buy works by fellow artists to help them out. And thus, the two built up a great personal collection of the most important era of modern Indian art.

After the passing away of Akbar Padamsee on January 6, 2020, Khanna is now the only surviving member of that great generation of artists, which maintained the strong network of friendship right till the end. It’s no surprise that in these times of isolation, he has not only returned to a favourite theme, the bandwallas, but also to his friends.

Feature Image: Krishen Khanna| Courtesy: DAG