I was thinking for a long time to write on Krishna Khanna but did not find time or perhaps because of virtuality and my dissociation with art world I couldn’t proceed. I always wanted to do some serious work on these artists but did not find any platform to do so; my art writing has suffered heavily, I couldn’t write anything. I wish to make it a blog post so I humbly request you not to expect much in this post. I met Krishna Khanna on two occasions and both occasions were journalistic interviews for a Hindi news paper. Initially his personality didn’t attract me much perhaps because of his British official outlook. He was a bank official in Gryndlays and was brought up into a western inclined middle class family in Lahore and later in Britain, therefore influences of British modern culture and style on his personality are obvious. To be true, I didn’t like him at that time perhaps because of my backward middle class background. I had never encountered an Indian British in my life. His built is like those of Sindhi or Pathan Muslims and if a sindhi-Pathan is converted to English men what personality will emerge imagine! I think circumstances affect the personality and mind of artists, in it there is no dispute but when an artist is inclined towards the experience of the sacred (for art is always sacred) it vanishes from the mind, as in Samadhi world vanishes for the mendicant.
At particular point of one’s artistic journey, circumstances have equally more and less to do with the sense of aesthetics and poetizing; what remain are his work and his absolute flight. This is almost true to all the great artists and poets. Interesting fact about this aesthetic flight of artists like Krishna khanna is that experience of the sacred did not lead him to a form of demonic religious rapture devoid of social and political consciousness and irresponsibility towards humanity. Krishna Khanna is a responsible artist both towards his art and the social; in his search he did not loss the sense or consciousness of responsibility. He perfectly understood modernity’s consciousness; he knew that the essential characteristic of modernism and Avant-garde is rejection of the existing social order and its culture. It was supported by almost all the modernist streams in their different creative flights; even those who took a romantic turn openly supported it for it was considered the premise for the new. Raymond Williams clearly tells us that the emphasis on liberation of creative individuals, an aggressive and heroic revolution as a model for social emancipation and hostility to war and oppression were the basic characteristics of modernism. However there were also a class of artists who showed their anxiety for legitimacy of the existing order but they were never considered moderns. I think it was this class of Indian modernism that produced a large body of work on contract- aesthetic contract, as Fredrick Jameson would tell us. A large body of work was produced in aesthetic contract between cultural producer and a certain homogeneous class or group of public. J-Swaminathan was the one who voiced his protest against this prostitution but it vanished in the great clamor. Anxiety and a peculiar delirium for the “our ancient glorious culture” itself became a mercantile strategy for the many. The conditions for the possibility of modernism proceeded with the conditions for the impossibility of modernism opening itself to a peculiar feudal aesthetics and vulgar mysticism. S.H.Raza became the flag bearer of this vulgar mysticism losing his consciousness into the great hole called vagina. His state of affair is sorry state of affair, he too like ancient yoni worshipper priests saw bindu in the dark chambers of vagina and spreads his couch.
On this point M.F Husain seems to me another classic opportunist, quite a subtle hypocrite and irresponsible to the humanitarian truth-he losses all grounds. Husain could paint Indira Gandhi, he could paint everything that could bring him fortune and fame but he never painted the bourgeoisie conspiracy and their impiety towards humanity. He painted Hindu subject of faith, I would love it if it would have been produced by an artist- the social critic not a fundamentalist. I would criticize him that why he was blind to the blindness of Islam in which he was grown up? One can paint the subject in the best possible way that he daily experience. I do not reject his production though as it was a truth of Hindu religious representation but I criticize as he produced it as a conservative reactionary. Husain was brilliant however in his translation of conservative reactionary ideas into cultural commodities. One great and distinguished Hindi poet Nagarjuna even wrote a poem criticizing Husain’s non-sensitivity and commercialism. Adorno very rightly says that “Once the life of the mind renounces the duty and liberty of its own pure objectification, it has abdicated.” Artistic translation of reality is sublime; it carries altogether a different spirit. Salman Rusdie wrote critically on Islam like a Cartographer because he had lived and experienced it; only he was capable to do it. Hope of past is sustained only in this way. Husain was never truthful to the artistic consciousness and overall the consciousness of modernism-he betrayed the hope of the past.
To be clearer to Indian art history, one can even ask this that all the great artists, authors, poets, and film directors of modernism have painted and criticized Auschwitz (for Auschwitz poses some fundamental and universal cultural question in front of humanity!) but most important progressive Husain did not paint it, why? Even why any other modernists did not paint it! One or two who painted it they just reproduced Guernica to appease Picasso’s collectors. You speculate the reason! In Krishna Khanna’s work we see artist’s humanitarian concerns in a truly modernist spirit; he is true to his art as well as to his responsibility as an artist. I will not go much into the philosophical and aesthetic issue of responsibility here as this space has been given today to the artist Krishna Khanna. So let us proceed by asking, what makes him one of the finest and special modernist case in Indian modern art? Krishna khanna is the only painter in whose oeuvre we discover the real color of de-humanization, suffering, and death. And perhaps he is the only Indian modernist who has painted various facets of death in various conditions, sometimes in a given condition and sometimes in uncertainty perhaps in every condition it seems as if time is always in abeyance. In Death desire endures or death endures by desiring! He sublimely paints death as kiss as well as suicide. Che’s death is a dying that is faithful to oneself and also a dying faithful to death as Blanchot remarks on Rilke. I don’t have any idea from where his image emerges but one thing is somewhat clear that this is somewhere related to the experience of death or perhaps experience of a dying humanity. The breadth or abyss of this experience of death itself is a kind of historicity that must be acknowledged? The intensity in which he has portrayed the subject’s death and suffering is not mysticism; it comes from his poetic heart and his social concerns. He is the poet of dark and apocalyptic time, death, wars, betrayals and conspiracies.
He might have been a Gryndlay’s employee and somewhat religious or spiritual too but inside his religiosity there existed a contemplating spirit of Brecht who knows that there is no reality that is not social. He sets an example in front of confused artists that an Art true to humanism is still possible inside Capitalist machine; inside commercialization still one can defy the faithful art reproduction and one can be wildly expressive. Khanna is not like those who do produce spatially configured Artworks to reconfigure the spatial needs of bourgeoisie. His commitment to humanity and art is true; no one can repress the desire and truth of a committed man. It is strange that a man who worked in a multinational bank bravely endeavors into the Capitalist’s de-humanization and paints a series of paintings on Che Guevara. Interestingly he like the great eschatologist Francis Bacon chooses photograph to paint the tragedy of Che’s death. Francis Bacon uses photograph just as a document, he doesn’t imitate and falsifies it rather he transforms it and brings to us the face of horror and monstrosity. Krishna Khanna renders another face of monstrosity not bloody violent sensation of meat and blood like Bacon rather sensation of death in coldness, blueness and water; an Indian experience- another face of horror. Water is spirit and death. Bacon has his version of Horror, Khanna has his version; in his depiction of death it seems as if behind the curtain still some unseen conspiracy is going on, generals and army men are still investigating him as if -Che is not dead he is alive. His painting Che, it seems to me as if it is a depiction of poet Muktibodh; he defied death in dark times proclaiming like Epicurus” I cannot meet death. Wherever death is, I am not.’ There is no difference in Che and Muktibodh as for as spirit is concerned, it was Muktibodh who wrote:
In the dark
the stark chambers of life
He was a tragic poet who wrote a poem “Andhere mein” that defined modernity’s consciousness in Hindi literature and perhaps Ramkumar introduced this Hindi poet to him, as Gayatri Sinha mentions in heritical biography of Khanna. Ramkumar and Krishna Khanna must have been developed different kind of friendly relationship for both were literature lovers and drew inspiration heavily from it. In Muktibodh’s poem we find that everything recurs, recesses slowly, death too in apocalyptic time “pitalok prasar me kaal chal raha hai…”.similarly in Khanna’s works everything ‘chal raha hai mechanically, unconsciously” moving from one location to other in the dust and fume created by Capitalism’s megamachine of production. Lefebvre very rightly remarked that the space in which humanity is being shifted, displaced everyday is guided by some higher reality, for example Capitalist concept of good or beautiful or light or sun but—we have diagnosed that the sign of all sign, the reality of all realities is bourgeoisie surplus pleasure. With a flight of capital the concept of accumulation changes, new meaning is produced and with it new concept of space, direction changes, and speed is maximized or lowered etc. In his work no doubt the truth content and social content are mediated, but it is not just a portrait and illustration rather the intensity and pain of time has been captured thus in his work art’s truth content transcends the knowledge of reality as what exists elevating it to immortal height.
Krishna Khanna’s concern of displacement of humanity is not like peculiar Spivak’s Subaltern reading as Sinha casually escapes by quoting her in one hundred page book ”Krishna khanna a critical biography”. Sinha quotes by saying that the treatment of subalternity, especially for an artist who comes from a back ground of privilege has several implications. Spivak writes that “if one who belongs to a background of privileged education and class engages with the subaltern as the “other” then the ideal relation to the “other” is’ an “embrace.an act of love.”.. That transgresses the structure of historical abuse”. Spivak’s version of Subaltern is heavily based on Derridian theological reading, she doesn’t refer what I am referring to, and that is the flight of capital and what Lyotard would say “At another place! at another time” and because of this cynicism suffering of humanity. Question of Sublatern is not solved with spiritual opium, something like romantics “soul is the vast landscape into which we will flee and forget all suffering” rather it is an urgent call here to transgress it by putting the system into flight. In it is echoes a call to avoid reconstitution of the past. He is more so like Brecht-a somber demolisher. He still seems to be not very eager to put everything into flight. He provokes the oppressed like Jesus to betray, for without it how event of crucifixion would take place? Yet from another point of view he is speaking like a saint, “I have come here to put one face against another, father against son, earth against water etc.etc. let’s take absolute historical turn. Krishna Khanna’s humanism is not something like spiritual transgression of historical abuse; there is a serious concern for humanity as we find in Brecht and Muktibodh. Remember he paints nocturne amidst hounds, he paints dictators, despot’s conspiracy, policia interrogation and the image of empire “Bandwalah” together with Arjuna in battle field therefore his concern is not for a false chimerical hope. “Bandwalah” is an image of subaltern as well as an image of Empire-it is a remnant that post independent India still carries on body. He doesn’t buy ideology of spiritual control of suffering; he is very much concerned with this slave consciousness and intensely deterritorializes it to emancipate humanity in Deleuzian sense. Tragedy of bourgeoisie society is quite Biblical “Remnants shall be saved even the remnant of Jacob unto all mighty God” for it is needed in its operation of recoding; without it bourgeoisie can’t walk a step further. Everything is a sheer fetishism, fetishism of idols, fetishism of culture and of symbols; everything is recapitulated in the images of capitalism, it is like a motley painting of everything that has ever been believed. Modernist discourses were however intended to make perish the past content of culture that Benjamin said Barbarism of culture. All the cruel tragedies that happened to humanity since the wake of modernism wouldn’t have happened if humanity would have taken the project seriously. We still speak like a paranoiac “I am peace with myself because I bore witness to lies of the past”. Gayatri’s casual approach and non sensitivity to artist has been stated with her remark that “Krishna khanna’s approach to the subaltern subject is not polemical. He celebrates his figures in moral terms, and the question of goodness. …” I am really very upset with the peculiar and obscure Indian polemical; I can never be a polemist. I am happy with my journalistic writing and I believe I would be able to write someday. As for as Krishna Khanna is concerned; he is polemical through and through and a humanist discourse is apparent in his oeuvre as a whole. His entire artistic individuality is throbbing with anxiety and pain for the suffering humanity. Even in his biblical themes there is less possibility of religious reading for it seems that he imagines it like Thomas Muntzer. His important works on Biblical themes like Pieta, descent from the cross and Great Betrayal escapes any religious reading; his biblical figure represent human not divine. In Great Betrayal, if we look closely, figures are Indian figures and betrayer is a bastard as if he seems to convey that it is the bastard who betraying the despot –The god as wells as the voice of God masters his destiny. As in another Gita Dhammapada it is said:
“अत्ता ही अत्तनो नाथो को हि नाथो परोसिया”
“One’s self is One’s master who is Other out there to be Your master”.