Although the painter in India today is preoccupied with many of the same problems with which his colleagues in the West struggles, and although he quite properly wishes his artwork to be accepted as that of an artist and not as an example of exotic birth, the actual cultural situation within which he works is nevertheless distinctively different and of a complexity which is self-evident neither in his work nor in the knowledge which the spectator brings to it. Anyone seriously interested will find the essential components in this situation (upto 1947) elegantly set forth in W.G. Archer’s Indian and Modern Art (Allen and Unwin, 1959).Assuming this background information, the, I wish only to underline two points in the light of which the paintings of Krishen Khanna might well be considered.
The first of these is that it is not generally recognised that the great and still enduring - if somewhat tattered - tradition of Indian art has had almost no perceptible impact on the movements of modern painting in the West. We are so accustomed to taking pride in Picasso’s ingenuity in focussing on West African sculpture, for example, and to taking for granted the mystique behind Malraux’s “museum without walls”, that we hardly realise how very little our painters really comprehend of the art of other traditions. Despite the critically important investigations of individuals - Gauguin, Klee, Matisse, and so on - the only movement as a whole to have been strongly influenced by the tradition quite outside our own is American abstract expressionism - with its profound debt to the painting of the Far East. Paralleling this development, but so far only as a tiny nucleus and from the opposite direction, is the attempt during the past decade by perhaps fewer than two dozen painters from Ceylon, Indian and Pakistan to define ‘Indian’ identity within the context of modern painting in general. Krishen Khanna is one of these few.
My second point is that Khanna seems to me to be bringing to this ‘nucleus’ a renewed awareness of Far Eastern painting - something which has faded from the attention of Indian painters since the decline of their first attempt at renewal in the Revivalist movement early in the century. It is interesting that it came as a surprise to Khanna to discover that tachism and post-war American painting have been concerned with an ‘attitude’ toward painting which he had derived independently from the tribulations of Krishna in that Indian classic, the Bhagavad-Gita: What is important is not the finished product, but the endeavour itself. This is not, however, the conception of ‘oriental’ values which had interested the Revivalists. Their concern was the outright rejection of the overt naturalism of Victorian England. To buttress this process of rejection, they self-consciously sought models not only in their own Indian tradition but also in that of China and japan. In practice this came to mean sentimental subjects, washed out colouring and an elaboration of what they took to be a ‘Japanese’ sense of line. Khanna, however, has looked upon Far Eastern painting with the same pair of eyes with which he looks upon modern Western painting. The result is a genuine attempt to meld South Asian, Far Eastern and Western stylistic ideals into a single vision. More than for most painters, key words are ‘trials’ into the unknown.