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Pakistan and partition : Krishen Khanna

‘The News of Gandhiji’s Death’ and ‘Refugees on a Train 16 hours late, 1947’ are two of Krishen’s works that deal with India’s Independence

Pakistan and partition : Krishen Khanna

With Indian Independence came the birth of the Bombay Progressives. An idea put together by Francis Newton Souza – the Progressives wanted to break away from British academic realism and wanted to find a new language. Souza created the group of a core of artists.

The core consisted of F N Souza, S H Raza, M F Husain, K H Ara, S K Bakre, H A Gade, – as well as later members and those closely affiliated with the movement: V S Gaitonde, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee, and Mohan Samant.

Among this group, Krishen Khanna just turned 93 last month while most have moved on. Two of Krishen's works deal with India's Independence. One work will be shown at Asia Society in New York for an epic exhibition – 'The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India' which examines the founding ideology of the Progressives and explores the ways in which artists from different social, cultural, and religious backgrounds found common cause at a time of massive political and social upheaval.

The work by Krishen is titled: 'The News of Gandhiji's Death'. In the 1940's Krishen worked for the Grindlay's Bank. The Progressives were his friends and in fact, wanted him to quit banking and become an artist.

In 1949 this work was exhibited at the Bombay Art Society's Golden Jubilee Exhibition. Paliskar – a teacher at the J J School of Art took this work from Krishen.

"Palsikar insisted it is shown at the Golden Jubilee Exhibition of the Bombay Society. I feared its rejection but was surprised to find it hanging among a group of paintings of the Progressive Artists Group. Thus, began my long association with those artists," says Krishen.

The association with the Progressive Artist Group had a direct impact on the early work of Krishen Khanna. He kept up a close correspondence with many artists, especially Husain and later Ram Kumar. In the early 1960s, convinced by friends Krishen gave up his career in banking, he began painting with a renewed conviction which became stronger as the decade progressed. "When I gave up banking they rejoiced, in fact, Raza threw a party in Paris," reminisces Krishen.

News of Gandhiji's Death (1948), has expressionist fervour, it addresses the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948). "The painting presents a group of people united in shock," says Krishen.

"Through differences in clothing, class, and gender, Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh figures stand reading the news under a street light, surrounded by darkness. Despite showing a communal response to a tragedy, this painting also reflects disharmony in India's newly independent society: none of the figures looks at another, and as they all hold up newspapers to read them, they erect a series of barriers between them."

The second work is 'Refugees on a Train 16 hours late, 1947'. At once it is the choreography of characters, the despondency, the despair, the trauma and the angst that are deep on the faces of each one. Partition was traumatic," says Krishen.

"The loss of our home in Pakistan with the Partition of India, the trauma of decolonization, and social upheaval is something that stayed with me. I was 17 years old then, had just returned from London my parents called me to Lahore. When we came to India we moved to Shimla. I have great memories of Lahore."

Born in Lyallpur (now Faisalabad, Pakistan), in pre-partition India in 1925, Krishen Khanna moved to Shimla during the partition. In Lahore Khanna had attended evening classes at the Mayo School

of Art.

After arriving in India Krishen took up a post with the Grindlays Bank and was placed in Mumbai.

Once there he was invited to join the Progressive Artists' Group with whom he remained inactive association for the rest of his time. In Mumbai, he held his first major exhibition and sold his first painting to Dr. Homi Bhabha for the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Krishen had his first Solo show in the UK at The Leicester Galleries, London in October 1960.

Uma Nair

Uma Nair

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