Cover Story

Tea with Krishen Khanna

By Jyotsna Sharma   1 Aug, 2016

Over tea & cake we chatted about his life and his artwork. I got to know a truly exceptional human being.

His first picture / artwork was sold to Dr. Homi Bhabha in Bombay for INR 225. He never met Dr. Bhabha; in fact, M.F Husain had made that sale for him since he (Khanna) was busy working at a bank in Madras. Husain had inducted him into the PAG - progressive artists group. He told me that the members of ‘the group’ (PAG) were quite close; they would help each other sell artworks, organize shows and even curate each other’s shows, this kind of camaraderie in the art world is rare, especially in contemporary times.

“If you are an artist you have to believe in yourself. It is a stronger belief than any religion can even dictate, and the compulsions it creates to work are phenomenal.” He agreed that it was difficult especially when there was little money coming forth. Leave alone being recognized and making it big, he said none of them in ‘the group’ even knew if they were going to make money from it.

He recounts how when he was working at the Grindlays Bank in Mumbai, his day at the bank would be from 8am to 6pm, after which he would come home, spend time with his family, and after dinner he would start painting and would go on till 3am. This schedule carried on for a number of years. When he had served at the bank for 12-13 years he finally gave it up and decided to pursue painting fulltime. His family, especially his father supported & encouraged him in this decision, even though, he himself was about to retire from his job and theirs was a sizable family. However, Krishen Khanna had immense confidence and self-belief, which helped him take this bold step. Also, by this time he had many showings of his work, some even abroad, including the show in 1954 with Husain. After he gave up working at the bank he had his first show in 1960-61 at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai and coincidently, the director of the bank he had worked for visited that show and bought an artwork. They went on to become friends and of course that gentleman bought numerous paintings from him over the years. 

Born in 1925 in Pakistan, he got a scholarship to study in England in 1938; he was there when the World War II broke out. In 1942, with the war raging, his parents who hadn’t seen him in a number of years wanted him to come home. The young boy had to undertake a three-month long sea voyage to get home; no one on that ship knew whether they would make it back alive. In fact, their ship was chased by enemy ships for some distance; this was when they came around the Cape of Good Hope. On the ship as well, things weren’t all that great; there was a total black out because of the fear of submarines striking them. His roommate was a Pakistani gentleman who was suffering from Tuberculosis. He finally moved out of that room and started sleeping on a deck chair tied to a pole on the deck of the ship every night. When they docked at Cape Town, it was a treat just to see the lights. They got food to eat, proper food, not the food one bought during the war with coupons. “Boys younger than 15, like myself, got special coupons for chocolates, which was a treat during those terrible war years”, “we were good that way, we ate what we got.”

Finally, the ship came home to India where it was scuttled. It docked at Mumbai from where he had to make his way back home to Multan. He said people were nicer during those days; he fondly remembered that on his train journey back from Mumbai to Lahore (which cost INR 50 by the way!) a Pathan carrying a crate of mangoes offered him some. He said “it was very nice since I hadn’t had a mango in years”. I suppose it is true, people were perhaps more sensitive and kind during those days, as opposed to the ‘each one for himself’ feeling that people have now.

Coming back to his work, I had a specific question- how difficult was it to paint the mural at the ITC Maurya in Delhi. He said it required a lot of work, especially since the drawing / sketch had to be enlarged and painted on a larger scale. It took him five years to finish the mural. Strangely, when he was telling me about the challenges of working on the Mural, I was thinking of Michelangelo’s poem about the challenges while painting the Sistine Chapel celling. 

Before leaving, I had to ask about my favourite ‘Bandwalla’ series by him and how that came about. He saw a contingent of ‘Bandwallas’ one day and saw the irony of how these people were left with nothing to do after the British had left India. Such bands were initially formed during the time of the British to play for entertainment and also of course to march alongside various regiments. Therefore, once the original band members departed, left behind, were the Indian members; they improvised and decided to play during Indian marriages. Also, these bands signified happy occasions - this is where the inspiration came from, and we now have the ‘Bandwalla’ series.

His tenacity, patience and the ability to continue to excel at what he loves doing is inspiring. The lesson- do what you are passionate about, keep at it and do it well.


Jyotsna Sharma is the Editor of The Wall. The Wall has been India's most well read art magazine for the last five years, subscribe and get access to premium content for free. Subscribe or read the magazine at