Essays

BalrajKhanna is one of the most distinguished artists working in England

Bryan Robertson

Bouyant, engaging and above all festive, Balraj Khanna’s paintings look at first like an ideal celebration. They all seem to hover on the walls, and the floating sensation continues within most of the canvases, where motley aray of objects dangle weightlessly in space.

What are these obsessive forms, swaying and often gently colliding as they festoon the surfaces of Khanna’s pictures ? Sometimes they seem reminiscent of the painted kite displays which dellighted his eye as a child in the Punjab…

But it would be a mistake to regard his images simply as souvenirs of the Punjab. Khanna’s art owes as much to Klee or Miro as it does to Indian tradition. Arriving at an idiosyncratic fusion of east and west, he conjures an elusive world where kites hang cheek by jowl with other, far less easily identifiable companions. Birds, fossils, fish, balloons, amoebas and streamers can all be detected in these rich, allusive paintings. So can people, stretching their legs outwards like seasoned acrobats or spinning, puppet-like, on the end of delicate strings.

Khanna ensures that the greatest diversity of forms coexist without any incongruity.

They revel in their ability to evade definitive identification and inhabit an equally unclssifiable region, poised between earth, sea and sky. But speculation about possible locations becomes less important than deciphering their overall mood. Despite the apparant joyfulness of Khannass art, it discloses more complex emotions after a while.

If Khanna is indeed spurred by a Prustian hunger for remembrance, he is bound to be more conscious than most artists of flux and dissolution. What remains constant, among all these possibilities, is a feeling of profound mystery. The universe contemplated by Khanna is unfathomable, and the teeming life which animates his work cannot hide a fundamental awareness of enigma.

Richard Cork (Chief Art Critic for The Times)

Nobody in England is painting like Khanna. The delicate gravity and slow-moving, warm effulgence of his paintings with their complex layers of surface reflect the attributes of a world that is utterly Khanna’s own. Is it an Indian world ? I don`t think so, although his feeling for colour, for earth reds, reddish or greenish blues, strong tough greens and a pervading full pitch of light may on
occasions embody certain Indian properties of colour and light. But essentially Khanna has made an abstract world of his own which is extraordinarily purposeful, animated in its dream-like inexorability and hermetically enclosed, intent upon its own rise and fall, ebb and flow, waxing and waning like the movements of the sea or the sun or the moon.

If Khanna is vaguely near anyone else in modern painting with his particular kind of imagery, I suppose that one could point to Miro, a long way off, who also loved to set constellations of mythical, steaming comets, kites, shooting stars or amoebic-like creatures floating about in his own fantastic firmament. Some of Khanna’s paintings offer us a cool world, others pulsate with heat and light. There is a delicate balance between movement and repose, the clamness of context and the agitation of occupancy. These planets of fishing floats, starfish or water creatures, geometrical games or interplanetary vessels, spin or rotate, undulate, dart or hover like fihsh in an aquarium or birds in an aviary. They are intent upon their own business, puposeful and utterly convincing. Khanna is adding a delightful world of his own to European painting. His art is serious but involuntarily it also has decorative qualities like the imagery of Klee or Miro

Bryan Robertson Catalogue Essay

Balraj Khanna has his roots in another tradition. His paintings jewel-like; full of colour, light and strange clusters of not quite recognisable, carnivalesque objects floating in gravity-defying space, which evokes the many street festivals rich with sound and movement, of his native India. Built up from as many as 50 layers of acrylic sprayed on to sand his surfaces have a shimmering, other-wordly qualities. There is something dizzying about them ; as if we, the viewer, are lost in the cosmos tumbling through deep space or floating in some maritime world. Mostly his shapes are abstract, though there is a tendency to read them as ’something’; a striped angel fish, a shelf bracket or a pair of scissors perhaps?

There is also here a suggestion of plankton or dancing cellular forms which appear to be moving, swirling to whim through the picture space. As with pictograms, there is the sense that if we try hard enough it might be possible to decode them.

Occasionally there is also a vaguely religious form or even, in the pagan-looking Me and the Man, a recogniosable green figure which appears to be consorting with some sort of astrological beast.

These complex, rhythmic surfaces are unlike those of any other painter around, though it is possible to see echoes of Miro in the dream-like, surreal, slow-moving objects which are often linked together by the slightest of threads. But above all the mood is playful and celebratory. Devoid of the knowing cynicism of many younger painters, Khanna’s canvases are designed to cheer the soul and decorate our lives.

There is within this work the implicit belief that art should be both spiritual and uplifting. With its luminous colours and magical shapes, this is work that would sit well in public spaces to create moments of regeneration. You really don’t have to know much about art to appreciate the glowing colours and to understand that Balraj Khanna’s subjects are joy, harmony and the pleasure of living in the visual world.

Sue Hubbard The Independent

Khanna’s work has over the years reached a brilliancy of achievement that must establish him as one of the best middle generation painters we have.

He is working in the very heartland of modernism, where figuration and colour are liberated by a spiritually rigorous automatism into a joyous abstraction capable of the most refined and powerfully resonant expressiveness.

His mastery is hard-won over many years of exacting preperation : what Khanna has learnt he has discovered himself.

Drawing deeply upon the ancient springs of his native India he has arrvived at a creative modus that is essentially meditative, and that has profound affinities with the workings of certain modern European masters on the one hand, and the American abstract expressionists on the other. His figurations and colourisms derive from the natural world and its objects as visually apprehended, but move above and beyond the concrete to abstract representations of the dynamic processes that shape and enliven the world we perceive.

In the latest paintings, out of that elemental undifferentiated flux have emerged the infinitely various and mutable forms of the living world : we are presented with visions of genesis : pictures of evanescence.

Khanna has taken the resources of modern art to effect an ancient way of knowing. In his paintings India comes to meet New York.

Mel Gooding Art Monthly

The energies that permeate Balraj’s paintings are not controversial among themselves, but co-operative. They seem to be unraveled from a single matrix of feeling, and each illustrates something already implicit in his overall vision. Though touch is important, the lines are not gestural but kinetic through invention. And this is their source of strength. For it is striking how each work also represents a genuinely fresh pictorial idea without any loss of stylistic integrity. It is at this level that Balraj goes beyond most of his compatriots.

It is obvious that he thinks of his work as having analogies with music in its concern with process, in the way it deals in forms that act as verbs rather than nouns. But Balraj’s music is Indian music. Each composition sets up its own special field within which its activity takes place. Its kinetic forces evolve in constant relationship to themselves, expressing the possibilities imminent with each composition as the plant is imminent in the seed. Shapes and colours do not suggest the dramatic structures of Western music, so much as the resonant worlds of the Indian ragas, which encapsulate not only space, but also time. In Balraj’s paintings, no event overwhelms another, no drastic solutions are reached. Instead, each segment of a work participates in a process of unfolding by almost – repetition and and subtle variation, laying before us the substance and inner structure of a single, unified pictorial thought. This is a very considerable achievement, rarely encountered.

Philip Rawson Catalogue Essay

A recent holiday in Greece reminded Khanna of earlier summers, which were extremely fierce, the earth parched, the countryside ‘like a tandoor’, people, animals and birds wilting and dying. At last when the clouds start building the mood changes in anticipation of the imminent monsoon and there is a great celebration of life.

The places that Khanna knew best, such as Simla, were like small English towns were ‘transported to the Himlayan heights’. His memories are of coloured toys and kites, and of local folk traditions. Regular visitors included the traveling jadugar or madari walla, magician oor jugler, whose various entourages brought an exotic aura to Khanna’s surroundings, just as the turn of the century circuses captivated young Leger.

The Jadugar, as one picture is entitled, has become a particular feature of Khanna’s current work. The magician also appears as The Lion Man, because as any Punjab child knows, a jadugar can trnasform himself into an animal simply by dressing the part. Disbelief is suspended in glee. But then, says Khanna: An artist must delight himself before he can expect to delight anyone else.

Alison Beckett Exhibition review in The Times