In 1960 the Indian artist Krishen Khanna had a coveted job with a multinational bank, Grindlays (known as ANZ today), in the north Indian city of Kanpur. When his British managers heard that he wanted to quit to paint full-time, one of them asked: “Has Khanna lost his mind?” The 86-year-old artist is reminiscing in the living room of his elegant brick house in Gurgaon, on the outskirts of New Delhi.
He roars with laughter; loud laughter is such a signature of Khanna’s that one begins to wonder if it is his way of exhaling. Eventually, Khanna’s clerks gave him a grand send-off. Outside the bank as he left, Indian artist friends including MF Husain, who died last year, were impatiently waiting to welcome him into their ranks: they yanked away his tie.
Khanna was already part of the so-called progressive group of Indian artists who set out to break away from European realism. The group started in Mumbai, then known as Bombay, soon after India’s independence in 1947; the artists FN Souza and SH Raza were among the stalwart members Khanna would meet in Mumbai in the late 1940s, as was MF Husain.
In the 1950s in Madras (modern-day Chennai), Khanna regularly listened to south-Indian classical musicians. Entranced by the spontaneity of their way of playing, he made a series of paintings in a quasi-abstract style. In 1956 he painted a man seated on the ground playing a long-stringed instrument: random, Jackson Pollock-style black ribbons of paint against a backdrop of grey.
This painting caught the eye of a young American, Geoffrey Ward, who bought it from a gallery in Connaught Place, the commercial hub of New Delhi at the time. Ward, who went on to become an acclaimed biographer and author of the celebrated TV docudrama The Civil War, and worked with the American director Ken Burns on other successful collaborations on jazz and baseball, is a life-long Indophile. I met him and his wife, Diane Raines Ward, while I was a 20-something journalist in New York in the early 1990s and became part of their extended family of Indian friends.
When I moved to Hong Kong in 1996, the Wards, in an act of generosity that still amazes me, gifted me the painting by Khanna.
In the early to mid-90s, before Indian contemporary art had become unaffordable for me, I had bought watercolours by Bengali artists such as the late Paritosh Sen for as little as $200, and a large oil painting by Paresh Maity for less than $1,000. I had bought the oversized women of the south-Indian fauvist Thota Vaikuntam and a rather tortured male head of Sunil Padwal.
The Khanna oil painting, however, engaged me like nothing else I owned. It travelled from my studio apartment in New York to my flat in Hong Kong to an apartment in west London. Along its round-the-world journey over several decades, the painting had seen more than its share of basements and been in storage in Hong Kong on two occasions. The dampness it had been exposed to in storage and the high humidity in Hong Kong had damaged the canvas.
The painting was ageing rapidly but the grey background of this oil painting had concealed this from my layperson’s eye. I would occasionally see flakes of grey paint at the bottom of the frame but I figured that some loss of paint was inevitable. Dirt had embedded itself in the canvas because, like many other people I suspect, I had no idea how to dust an oil painting.
In the spring of 2010, when I took a sabbatical to live in Beijing, Conor Mullan, a gallerist friend in London, took a close look at the painting. Like a doctor seeing symptoms he didn’t like, he referred me to a specialist. He told me I should turn it over to a professional conservator immediately. A couple of days later I took it to the studio of Stuart Sanderson, a conservator-restorer in London. The genial expert eagerly took on the task of preserving Khanna’s painting, recognising that it was part of the vanguard of Indian modern art. I recently looked with alarm at a before-and-after report that read: “The painting was in a very fragile condition. Damp and mould were apparent on the back of the canvas … there were several areas of paint loss.” I had unwittingly allowed my favourite painting to fall into a nearly unsalvageable state.
Sanderson filled the areas that had been lost with chalk-based composition. Before that process had even started, the painting had been taken off its stretcher and the front and back were worked on to consolidate the loose paint. The frame was then fitted with low-reflection glass to protect it.
Since by now I had spent more on preserving it than I ever had on buying a painting, I was advised to have it authenticated by the artist. I had never had it valued but with fake paintings rife in the Indian market it made sense to have a proper authentication.
That is how I came to be in Khanna’s living room one Sunday afternoon, listening to him reminisce about, among other things, being a neighbour and friend of Salman Rushdie’s father in Mumbai, which prompted him to draw elephants to decorate baby Rushdie’s crib.
I showed Khanna a photograph of the painting soon after I arrived. (The painting remains in London with Sanderson, who believes I should not risk moving it back to the high humidity of Hong Kong.) Instantly, Khanna said: “1956.” With almost total recall, the artist told me how he was inspired to paint the canvas I own, listening to the Carnatic musicians.
“They would start by tuning. The music began from little glances. There was no lifting of batons,” he said. “The musicians lose their identity. The people watching them also lose their identity, which is wonderful – getting out of your miserable self.”
This was punctuated by that big laugh, which echoed through his living room as this impromptu storytelling continued. Two hours later he was still telling wonderful yarns of the 60s and 70s and of his friendship with MF Husain. (Husain borrowed a copy of Clive Bell’s book Art, left it in a taxi and then amply compensated by giving Khanna a painting.)
Khanna, known for his evocative paintings of Jesus Christ, was keen to show me a wonderful “Last Supper” he did with a figure modelled on MF Husain as Christ. I smiled at the eclecticism of the Indian modern art scene – a Hindu artist, proud of his depiction of a biblical scene, painting a Muslim artist as Christ.
Krishen Khanna is participating in the India Art Fair in New Delhi, January 25-29. www.indiaartfair.in
Rahul Jacob is the FT’s South China correspondent