In the difficult times unleashed by COVID-19 since early last year, we have all been forced to look inside ourselves for sustenance. And we have dipped into our lived experiences to pick out things that would help us feel like the times of yore, in the hope that the ‘normal’ as we knew it would return one day.
Krishen Khanna, who turned 96 this year, has revisited his Bandwallas series to stay in touch with reality as it used to be, in these times of isolation, grief and despondency.
“In this current atmosphere, one can become very depressed, but fortunately for me there are the Bandwallas who are still making noise. When I’m painting them, I have to concentrate fully on them. The Bandwallas take prime position in my life right now,” he said ahead of his last exhibition, Paintings from my Sitting Room, held online by Grosvenor Gallery, London, from May 21 to June 3 this summer. The exhibition was meant to be an offline affair but the second wave of the pandemic that hit India hard threw plans out of gear and Khanna’s paintings couldn’t be transported to London due to flight restrictions.
An Encounter with the Bandwallas
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.
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 to where he moved his painting schedule from his basement studio, are smaller format works unlike the works of the past that were essentially large in size. They have appeared in his oeuvre every now and then, and he has spoken of them in interviews ever so often.
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. Isn’t that the thrust towards happiness that we have all craved for in the past year since the world folded upon itself in the aftermath of the pandemic?
Behind the Glitz
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.
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.
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.’
A Link To His Own Past
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 decadeafter 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.