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Krishen Khanna

Indian Modern Artist
Born 1925, Faislabad, Pakistan
Lives and works in New Delhi

Krishen Khanna’s oil on canvases and drawings largely depict the middle and lower classes, their trepidations and tribulations. His shift to India after the Partition and the chaos in the aftermath deeply affected him, his works then reflecting on the ordinary with subtlety. The figurative form in his works remained intact accompanied by expressionist lines and energetic colours.


Self taught artist


Government College, Lahore


Imperial Service College, Windsor, England

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Khanna draws on his experience of the turbulent times from history

Having witnessed the freedom struggle, the Partition and the Progressive Artists' Movement as more than just a mere onlooker, Khanna has time and again incorporated and drawn from these experiences. Using trucks to depict abandoned war vehicles, he has recollected his memories of India’s freedom struggle. For him bandwallahs are not just trivial parts of a traditional Indian wedding but the one legacy of the British that the country has carried forward. The red coat, along with their embellishments and trumpets keeps this one British institution intact. Not only the pre-Independence portions of history but also post-independance events like the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi have been reproduced through his art works. Taking inspiration from the Bible, he also painted his own versions of the last supper.

Krishen Khanna, Suspense at Last Supper, oil on canvas, 59.5 x 89”.

Instead of exploring abstraction Khanna stuck to figurative forms in his works

After working for awhile with abstract art, Khanna decided to stick to human forms as he thought that in the attempt to explore further possibilities in abstraction, the 'individual' was being neglected—in other words the person in a particular situation who is influenced by the conditions around. For him, the unique emotive quality of every individual was important while placed within the context of collective emotion and drama.

Pieta, 2006, painted the agony of a Punjabi woman who has lost her son, and thus emphasizing on the affect directly emanating from the context onto the figure. Themes ranging from the hue and cry of loss to the ardent joys of an effortless evening spent at a tea stall, from betrayal to blessings, from darkness of war to the pleasure of music, have all been illustrated through his paintings. He also painted different version of his painting Woman at the window and the Bandwallahs keeping with his tradition of putting spotlight on the human figure rather than abstract, consequently making greater part of his oeuvre figurative.


Krishen Khanna, Pieta, 2005, oil on canvas, 40 x 30”.

Krishen Khanna found a way to avoid the flux of colors by using monochrome

Krishen Khanna has ever so often happened to resort to monochrome to avoid the dynamics of colours. According to him, if there is something he wants to say, it is better suited for him to use monochrome in order to focus on the subject matter that is being dealt with. He used monochrome in his famous series based on truckwallahs and charcoal in The Savage Heart. Recollecting memories from his days in Lahore, he even completed five oil paintings in monochrome. Monochrome has also come to become a means of depicting emotions of sadness and pain. As the artist himself mentioned he attaches certain melancholy with the bandwallahs, even though they are grouped with lights and music, he tends to use just red or yellow in his paintings to appeal to this sense.

Krishen Khanna, Untitled, oil on canvas, 15 x 11”.

His paintings echo middle class families' activities of daily life

Krishen Khanna rejoices at the reflection of everyday life in his canvases, portraying people from the middle and lower middle classes. He has painted various series on bandwallas and truckwallas, emphasizing a representation which is generally left out in the general narratives of people in the country. As the artist has pointed out, it is not pity but a belief that these people are as much part of our country as anyone else that urged him to paint these well-known series. Apart from this, Khanna has also done multiple works based on vegetable and fruit sellers and dhabas. Simple routines of having tea together over a delightful conversation, people feasting on water-melons or even reading the evening newspaper have also found place on Khanna’s canvas, becoming the key in achieving representational vocabulary.

Krishen Khanna, Bandwallas in Practice, 2002, oil on canvas, 72 x 48 in

Revisiting old themes, leading to new hues enumerated onto previous ones

Krishen Khanna has shown a tendency of revisiting his old themes, spinning new variations on them, which have often resulted in a new dimension added to the previous ones. His most famous series of paintings and drawings based on bandwallahs has attracted him time and again. Even the series on truckwallahs and Woman at the Window have seen various versions. For Khanna every time he revisits a theme he finds himself dwelling at a new aspect of it . For most of the process of painting it is a course of discovering his art rather than brushing a well thought out piece.

Krishen Khanna, Woman at the Window IV, oil on canvas, 50 x 40”.