Photography / Editorial / Print

Uplifting is what first sprung to mind when I viewed the work of contemporary painter and writer, Balraj Khanna, who recently had a innovative and successful virtual exhibition curated by Lucie Marchelot, director of The Indian Art Centre. Sitting at the table once owned by artist, Francis Souza, at Balraj's home studio, we learn it is also where Souza had once lived and worked. A fitting starting point to delve into the colourful life of the Indian born artist who owes his career, as much as to Souza as it was to a quirk of fate. A painter is "not what I had set out to become," he tells me, "I had originally intended to read English Literature at Oxford, but I became an artist and married a French lady," smiling, as he looks towards Francine, his wife, for whom he has been married to for over 50 years. Francine plied me with delicate French biscuits and tea as we sit, talk and reminisce about Khanna's life and work. How did they meet? "We met in Golders Green, 1963. I was 24 and had just been to Paris for the first time, after my Dad gave me £50. I came back with a friend and went to this rather charming tea room called Lindy's, a chain of Swiss owned tea/coffee shops that was very continental at the time. This girl (Francine) was sitting on her own on a long seat, two chairs in front of her were empty and there were no other seats free, so I sat down in front of her. I knew she was a French girl and I just chatted her up. She didn't speak very much English in those days which made the communication much easier," he laughs, whilst wiping a tear from his eye.

"Then we fell in Love, got married in France and I did not tell my Indian family. When I left India to study abroad in London, I promised my mother I would not marry an English girl as they wanted to arrange a marriage for me when I got back. So finally I plucked up the courage and wrote to them, telling them she was not English, but French... I didn't break my promise to my mother." Francine tells me "I also needed the permission of my mum. In France at the time you needed to be 21 to get married, but my mum liked Balraj, treating him like a Son. It helped as well that he was not a vegetarian and liked French cooking." After that, for the next several years, "we would split our time between France and England."

The painting we learn, was present from a young age from his time in Shimla, but fervoured once he could not get the necessary paperwork from India to start his course at Oxford. When the Sino-India war broke out between India and China, we learn "the Indian government stopped free exchanges for young students going abroad to study." A new direction was sought which led him to becoming an assistant to Souza, whom he has a great respect for as an artist and mentor. The meeting was facilitated by art critic and writer Mulk Raj Anand, who "came to my university in Chandigarh, spotted me and asked what I intended to do once I left university. One was expected at the time to get another qualification abroad, go back and sit for an IAS exam to work in the civil service. The most sought after jobs of commissioner, deputy commissioner and so on. These positions are prestigious in India." That was the plan, but they inevitably change, "Anand told me there is an artist in you, after seeing my work and told me to meet a number of people when I got to London". Francis Souza and Avinash Chandra who was also Punjabi were the first people he met. "There are other people I met, such as W.G. Archer, who at that time was Keeper Emeritus of the Indian section at the V&A and George Butcher, art critic at The Guardian." They all in some way pushed Khanna to become an artist full time, when he could not pursue his studies. However, a love of literature has never left him, having published several award winning books. "When I saw how committed Souza was to himself, to his work, it rubbed off on me." Khanna has a prolific amount of artwork, some of which I got to view in his studio.

Shelve upon shelves in the studio are filled with work, hundreds of paintings, some of which date back to the 1970s and earlier, including some painted during the 'Winter of Discontent' of 1962-63, which he calls his dark period. Years later, a move to the French countryside saw his style change, likening it to living in India when trying to "capture the essence of the forests." Khanna’s first exhibition took place in London in 1965 and he recently had  a retrospective at MOMA Wales in Machynlleth which goes back over that period and various other phases over the last 40-50 years. Interestingly, the online exhibition in June for The Indian Arts Centre displayed a number of small format works he painted while ill but are as bright and colourful as some of the larger canvasses. Underpinning all his work is the memories of his time in India. He tells us he grew up in the Punjab region of Northern India, "attending an English public school called Bishop Cotton. We were not allowed to talk to each other in Punjabi at the school, although we did have a Hindi teacher. I never learnt to write Hindi, although I can read it. Shimla, in the foothills of the Himalayas, was beautiful. I have fond memories of the little train that went up the mountain. It was the summer capital of the Raj and influences my work deeply." Bishop Cotton School, Shimla, is one of the oldest boarding schools in Asia, having been founded on 28 July 1859, by Bishop George Edward Lynch Cotton, the alumni of which are known as Old Cottonians. The experiences also manifest in his writing, with his most recent book, Mists of Shimla, exploring the iconography of the time. Images of Diwali, street entertainers, puppet shows, kite's and the rich colours seen in Indian attire, experienced in childhood resound through the work. We asked him when was the last time he flew a Patang (kite) in reference to the artwork of the same name, "gosh, I must have been about 14, some time ago!"  There are also semi sculptural pieces, The Great Tondo, which when illuminated create dramatic shadows, almost like a puppet show in itself as the light dances around the work.

Khanna has a energetic style with constellations, entertainers, animals, shapes and landscapes in a state of constant flux. Looking closely we see the canvas almost glisten, with an interesting texture derived from the use of sand. "It makes the surface shimmer", a method born out of experimentation and unique to him, adding depth to the work. "An artist is always experimenting, that is how you progress. I started with oils, but now prefer using acrylic paints because it dries very quickly and takes well to water.” His work conjures up visions of gravity-defying flight, space and there is energy, musicality to his work. "I used to sing raga's to several of the paintings, sometimes old Indian songs, film songs." He has two daughters, Khushaliya and Natalie, who he says brought further colour to his life. They also have a creative streak, with Khushaliya, named after his mother, an architect and Natalie a documentary film maker. We view a painting called Alzeebra, with abstract forms inspired by spirituality, nature, floating, almost like an out of body, aerial phenomenon. In other works, such as An Act of Balance the forms are more pronounced, almost like an ephemeral circus with performers coming into and out of view, you can almost hear a tune in the background.

Did you draw from a young age? "Even as a small kid, I used to draw, we were not encouraged to do so, my brothers would thump me if I created art, preferring that I concentrate on my studies. I have a vivid memory of drawing when I was twelve. I had two elder brothers and a friend of theirs came to our house and started playing cards, a game called Tin, Do, Panj. Only three people can play so I couldn't join in. Whilst they were playing, on the cover of the book I had was Mahatma Gandhi. While sulking, I drew a portrait of him and they did not believe I had drawn it. Their friend refused to believe I had drawn it, and put it under the light in case I had traced it (he laughs)." From then on he kept drawing.

"Being sent away to a boarding school in Shimla was very pivotal, because of the scenery and the mountains, valleys. Dramatic, poetic, astoundingly beautiful. I used to paint the pine-covered hillsides, mountains, forests. Unfortunately, all that work is lost. I think there are two remaining oil paintings, one in my sisters house in Chandigarh and the other I gave to my college, also in Chandigarh.  A few years ago, my younger brother went to the college, saw the principle there and enquired about the painting. Unfortunately it was no longer there. In those days, it never occurred to me that I would become a painter for the rest of my life."

The work is however not restricted to childhood memories, as seen with the depictions of the Sino-india war, "I was the only Indian artist who reflected the conflict in paint, the struggle we had with the Chinese in 1962. There is a deep connection between writing and painting, both of which are "about seeing and looking for new things." A decade later, the Bangladesh Liberation War, which took place in 1971 was also depicted, whilst working as a foreign correspondent, capturing on canvas, the horrors of war, "Bangladesh was liberated at that time and Birth Of A Nation, a 10ft long painting now in the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi and Anonymous Widows of Dhaka were the resultant paintings."

One of the painting's I found very captivating is Primordial or Sacred Region, evoking a haphazard, agitated young universe, with nebulae and galaxies forming, cooling, exploding and giving birth to planets which at some stage give rise to life and all the complexities it entails. The world maybe of Khanna's own construction, however it is our own memories and thoughts which are used to deconstruct the paintings, with that, the abstract forms can conjure many meanings. Whatever forms or stories you encounter, they are ultimately a delight to behold.

Interview and Portraits
Nardip Singh

Artwork Images provided by The Indian Art Centre 
Copyright © Balraj Khanna
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