‘Ours is the modernity of the once colonized. The same historical process that has taught us the value of modernity has also made us the victims of modernity. Our attitude to modernity therefore cannot but be deeply ambiguous” [1].

As with the other genre paintings in Krishen Khanna’s oeuvre, the genesis of the Bandwallah paintings is rooted in personal experience. While driving out of the Garhi Studios one day, in the early 1970’s his car was held up by a passing band. Against the background of the 18th century Garhi fort with its large, capacious artist studios, the raucous band crammed into the small mean street of Garhi village. The syncopated tunes intended for the jollification of a baraat, (wedding party), the quotient of assertive maleness and vigour of the accompanying groom’s party, the residual image of the British colonial march past, and sanguine military energy collapsed into a singular image on that warm Delhi afternoon. Positioning himself as sympathetic spectator and a somewhat humorous narrativist, Krishen Khanna has steadily painted the bandwallah; the heroics of the street have been rendered with a deep humanist sympathy.

Krishen Khanna’s engagement with music and musicians as a subject has been a steady preoccupation. In the 1950’s, his home in Madras was a site for Carnatic musical performances with masters like Palghat Mani Iyer, mridangam player, and the flautist Mahalingam. During these concerts he often painted, petrifying the taut rhythms of the music within abstract forms. In contrast to the sedate classicism of the Carnatic maestros the bandwallahs present the restless energy of the Delhi street, its aspirations and class hierarchies. In their hired uniforms, they resemble the men in trucks; because of their ceaseless movement they become emblematic of the volatility of the city.

The figures on the margin

Krishen Khanna’s early paintings of the bandwallahs date to early 1970s, a period when he had been particularly preoccupied with war and victimization. India in the late 1960’s was recovering from two wars with China and Pakistan respectively, near famine conditions, and the devaluation of the rupee. In the aftermath of the Bangladesh war (1971) he had painted The Game I and II where he portrays military men at a table, discussing the stratagems of war. In Game II skeletal and bodily remains of human corpses lie forgotten under the table, as the discussions among the military men continue. This macabre subject would have been inspired at least by the Bangladesh atrocities, and the widely disseminated images in Indian newspapers of generals brokering peace across the table.

These paintings bear reference as the soldiers elide into the bandwallahs, and the military style uniforms are now rendered faux or even comic. “The comparison of the bandwallahs with warlords is in fact ironic and overt; both these sets of gentlemen wear uniforms and peaked caps, but while one set ordains the destiny of nations and sets armies marching to war, the other marches to tawdry tunes on India’s roads in cheap imitation of the army band” [2]. The shift in context from the malevolence of war to the small tunes of the roadside band touches on different registers of social comment.

Within the political matrix of the 1970’s, the issues of class authority was foregrounded with the setting up of the Jaiprakash Narayan led Janata or people’s party. As an artist, Krishen’s own response to the marginal figure was already manifest in his paintings of refugees in the 1950s. His paintings of bandwallahs build up a broad narrative around these figures, one that draws from mixed social references. Scenes of the jollification, such as in Marriage Procession (1993) underscore the temporary passing pleasure of a hired performance. The pulsations of the street, the rhythm of the marching band are envisioned on the body of the bandwallah. On the streets of Delhi, like an ill-timed revisitation, in his ill-fitting uniform, the bandwallah recalls the British colonial band. Instead of the military march past, the national anthem or the funerary dirge, his heavy brass instruments now used to belt out slightly off key Bollywood tunes. The band -- impaled in the light of the street -usually accompanies the groom’s party that dances en route to the site of the wedding. The sight of the heaving, ungainly bodies, arcane lights and shuffling band have become common at middle class North Indian weddings. The cultural pastiche of a colonial residue, popular Bollywood and the Hindu ceremonial procession have come together as part of a popular, even comical ceremony, enacted in full view of the gaze of the casual onlooker.

The Street

By the early 1970s Krishen had emerged as a significant painter of Indian street figures, treating the subjects within the genre as a distinct sub-culture. There appears to be a direct engagement here with acts of labour and the implicit corollary of the difficulty of everyday survival. Other artists to pursue this engagement were Sudhir Patwardhan and Bhupen Khakkar, both of whom paint acts of labour and petty trades, but with distinctly different nuances. By way of contrast Krishen oscillates in his street paintings between genre and allegory. His engagement varies from subjective identities of people he has known to generic figures in which they are read in terms of their occupation. In the present work the bandwallahs rambunctiously serenade a dark squat elderly woman who responds with glee to this passing flirtation. Plucked from the recesses of the artist’s memory, she is Gyanoo, the doughty sweeperess who cleaned the Khanna family home on Mathura Road in the 1960s. As she sits on the steps, the bandwallahs appear to weave in and out, belting out a popular tune.

As a Dalit subject, Gyanoo/Lajwanti becomes emblematic of Krishen’s deliberate blurring of class and communitarian difference. Working and sketching in Bhogal, in the shadow of tomb of the 13th century sufi saint Nizamuddin Aulia, Krishen would be surrounded by Muslim fakirs, craftsmen with their tool bags, devotees and petty traders. Bhogal represented like a memory field, the confluence of Hindu and Muslim labour and cultural practices so familiar from the artist’s early years in Lahore. Speaking of this early childhood home in Lahore as ‘my peaceable kingdom’, the artist has idealized a time of the easy amalgam of peoples and communities. This concern reaches an apogee in his Christ cycle of paintings, and his massive influential painted mural at the Maurya Sheraton hotel. In the mural Krishen lends weight to issues of class, to the dignity and humour apparent in a Chaucerian view of everyday acts of survival. In the Christ paintings, the carpenter from Galilee is recast as a common labourer from the Nizamuddin area, the subject of state persecution. Krishen said, “The Christ series were set here in Delhi, Nizamuddin in fact, and appear as current happenings. He is wandering amongst us or sleeping with us followers on the road islands. They are not religious pictures as such… I painted Jesus, not in the image given by European painters, but as one of the fakirs one sees around Nizamuddin” [3]. In his single unstitched garment, he is one among the men in trucks or figures that sleep exhausted in the murky pool of the Delhi street lights. In such a continuous line then, men in trucks, fakirs and messiahs, dhabawallas and jugglers with mangy animals, card sharps and beedi smokers constitute his world of palpable, human engagement.

This gratuitous spectacle of the marching bandwallah, which is greeted with participatory pleasure or indifference, is also the location of cultural practice disowned by the existing hierarchies of folk art, or high art. In other words, the bandwallahs occupy a grey zone: they represent cultural practice but not cultural property, they demonstrate performative spectacle, but are not claimed by a body of accepted performative coda. As figures on the margins they are defined by a double isolation - first through the act of mimicry that their performance represents, and second by being outside the jollification that they help induce. With their simulated heroism, caught in a time warp of the past and the present, the bandwallahs mediate the shadows of the structures of the city. By occupying the intermediate space between the public and the private, the popular and the ‘low’ they become people with an indeterminate part and an unmapped future.

Krishen’s paintings of unknown and unnamed men have for three decades now years documented these rites of passage. Most frequently the bandwallahs are painted singly or in groups, playing on their trombones and trumpets. In their performative aspect the bandwallahs embody multiple histories. Through the combination of the vestige of empire and its visual pomp, folkloric and popular music they represent a kind of reverse orientalism. Arguably, the bandwallahs stand at the intersection of numerous strains of Indian public spectacle. Their performance, such as it is, exists in the ephemera of immediate gratification and a claim of public space, if only in passing. At the same time, they are released from the bondage of memory and tradition, to become emblematic of a new popular culture, one that draws from the past as it looks into the future. Equally it is one that compels a transition from the grand historical objective of the triumphalism embodied in the band, to the petty personalized pleasures of the street. Their abbreviated careers then represent the spurious state of hired pleasure.

As is characteristic with many of Krishen Khanna’s genre paintings, the bandwallahs who vigorously serenade Lajwanti represent perennially the act of doing. It is the tireless march, the constancy of the gesture - no matter how misplaced the tune - that lends his figures an unmistakable heroism. Seen incrementally as a body of work they may represent crisis, a state of anomie so powerful because they always represent the induced spectacle, a spurious jollification. But in every individual frame, they also appear in their excruciating commitment to the gesture.

Working serially with the same idea over an extended period, Krishen manifests his own relationship with these figures as an observer-interlocutor, one who maintains an objective engagement. The nature of this conversation is determined by his chosen language. Over a period of three decades, the bandwallahs have been painted in heavy impasto, weaving their away through the dense colours, as well as drawings in conte and crayon. The bandwallah serenading an indifferent beloved, the bandwallah being chased by an irate dog, or else the exhausted bandwallah, sleeping beside his abandoned instrument, are some of his chosen subjects. In this painting he employs a broadly post cubist structure in representing the forms in well-defined colour masses. The figures are foreshortened to represent a compression of bodies and instruments, emphasized by the curves and arcs achieved by each form. In the play of flat colours a geometric rhythm emerges that mimics the syncopated sounds the band. The single figure in the foreground appears to balance the compressed activity in the rest of the frame.

As a body of paintings, these musicians of the street represent a bluff optimism often missing from Krishen’s larger body of work. Their unmistakable energy and sanguine cast, lends them a vigorous propulsion across his canvas. What Krishen Khanna seems to indicate here is the status of recognition afforded by casual encounters. In the dialogic space that he creates between the sweeperess, the rootless bandwallah and the spectator, he confers recognition to the forgotten fragments of India’s social fabric. In breaking with the conventional tropes of representing people of the street, he makes possible a different level of engagement, one that is sustained by a continuous arc of sympathy.


[1] Quoted from Partha Chatterjee, A Possible India, The Partha Chatterjee Omnibus, Oxford, 1999 pg 281.

[2] Krishen Khanna: A Critical Biography by Gayatri Sinha pg. 112 and 113, Vadehra Art Gallery, 2003.

[3] Krishen Khanna in Looking Beyond his Canvas by Chanda Singh, India Magazine, September 1984.


[1] Krishen Khanna, A Critical Biography, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi 2003 [2] Krishen Khanna, A Sketch Book, India Fine Art, 2005
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