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 recounted 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.
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