Art

The Slow Unfolding of an Artist’s Creative Process

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A still from the film A Far Afternoon, showing artist Krishen Khanna’s studio

Four minutes into A Far Afternoon, there’s a half-painted canvas, and a long brush, the bristles dark brown with paint. The painter — his lips pressed in thought, his eyes sharp and squinting into the canvas — applies the brown on his subject’s arm, with small, measured strokes. The flesh of the old man in the painting is firm and smooth; the painter’s arms are softly wrinkled, his hair silvery in the sunshine. But his hands and fingers are steady. He dabs brown now on the face — in horizontal lines, then verticals — until the forehead itself is a deep, unlined brown. And all the while, there is music; background sounds so deep and full that it belongs entirely to the room with the half-complete canvas and the paintings and the painter.

Sruti Harihara Subramanian’s 71-minute documentary on the celebrated artist Krishen Khanna (A Far Afternoon: A Painted Saga by Krishen Khanna) is easily more ‘journey’ than ‘film’. “Ashvin Rajagopalan, director of The Piramal Art Foundation, came to know that Krishen Khanna was painting one of the largest canvases in his career. “He felt that this process had to be catalogued and archived as it is a big moment in the history of Indian art,” said Sruti, in an email interview.  And she was excited to do the film, as “very rarely does one get to see the creation of an art work and to know what goes on in the artist’s mind.”

A trained filmmaker, actor, model and founder-trustee of The Cinema Resource Centre (TCRC), Sruti has worked as an assistant director in mainstream Telugu, Tamil and Hindi cinema. While making the documentary, her greatest challenge “was to unlearn everything I knew to fit into the non-fiction mode”.

Shot over six months, A Far Afternoon is chatty and witty in parts, quietly meditative in others. For a film that’s so much about painting — the technique and thoughts behind —– it remains both accessible and riveting. Much of it is because of Khanna himself, whose musings on art are entirely disarming. “A lot of my friends think a painting has to be pure,” he says in one scene. “But to hell with this kind of purity, I say. It’s like drinking distilled water; it has no taste.”

Targeted at art community

Sruti, for her part, consciously tried to keep the film simple, “hoping that it appeals equally to a layman as much to an art critic”. While the target audience is the art community, its students and connoisseurs, the team was surprised that many people “disconnected with the art world have loved the film and mentioned that they were unaware that so much effort has gone into an art work.”

And the film is about that painstakingly slow process of producing great art. About half hour into the documentary, there’s an empty white canvas — as tall as a man and thrice as wide — placed next to a (nearly) complete panel. Khanna uses charcoal to draw lines and we see, from where we stand behind the camera, the veins in his hand, green and branched, and the charcoal lines on the canvas, grey and branched, and wonder what life he’ll breathe into it. Those minutes, filled with a quiet suspense, are especially dramatic and it feels like a small gift to watch his lines turning and twisting into a face, a hand, an expression: a painting born from memory and exceptional talent. 

Khanna’s skill, says curator and critic Gayatri Sinha, is to be able to hold the gaze of the viewer, whatever the scale of the painting, book-sized or a very large canvas. Long before A Far Afternoon, Khanna had painted other enormous artworks, including the Maurya Mural, (which took 60 months to complete) and the Chola one, all of 90 feet long. They taught him that ‘scale is something that doesn’t scare’, and gave him a ‘measure of confidence’.

Khanna’s paintings are about the contradictions of life. They are firmly ‘aristrocratic’, as artist A. Ramachandran puts it, setting Khanna’s eyes twinkling. But he’s also deeply observant of wedding band players who, despite their garments of rich reds and velvets, lead poor lives. And it is their stories — a lifetime spent waiting for the wedding party — that fill Khanna’s frames. The film switches neatly between the worlds: the real roadside one of the bandwallahs and their off-key music, and the calm spaces where they are brought again to life, on an empty canvas, with masterly strokes.

The documentary (divvied up into five parts to reflect the five panels in the paintings) also offers small peeks into Khanna’s early career. He recollects his first sale (‘modest’), when Hussain sent him a telegram saying he had sold Khanna’s painting for Rs.250. “Was I thrilled?” Khanna says with a gurgle of happiness, sudden and short.

Artist’s sense of humour

Throughout the film, there are lovely and unexpected instances of Khanna’s humour. At one point, he holds up a frayed cloth that he uses to smudge lines off the canvas and calls it the “best possible use of underwear”. I asked Sruti if she expected that from a person of his stature. “It was a surprise,” she replies, “only because he gets very quiet while he paints. But that is the kind of happy man we see when he is outside the studio. When one interacts with him, age is blurred. He never carries his stature around and I believe that is what made him different from other artists over the years.” He was, she says, probably the only artist who never picked up fights with others.

In the last part of the film, the painting is ready. Khanna explains why he took a whole day to work on a basket that was previously covered with orange cloth, which he thought leapt up and overwhelmed the canvas. He talks of details, colours, light; a tree here, a staircase there. And then he signs the painting, not with one of the several ‘naughty’ names he had thought of, but with the title A Far Afternoon”— a line borrowed from a poem — and dates it 9th October 2014.  

Sruti says there have been discussions about showcasing it through TV channels and online media. “Ultimately the producers will plan how to release it. A copy will also be distributed to libraries. But all this will happen after it has had its run at various festivals.”

Directing A Far Afternoon made Sruti realise that she loves documentaries, but, she confesses, she was initially nervous when asked to make the film, “because you have heard stories of artists being moody and, especially the old ones being very cranky and non-cooperative. But with my first meeting I realised that he is a man full of life. There were times when he could go on and on till the end of the day while the crew and I (who were probably one-third his age) got very tired.” Khanna, Sruti says, is always trying to do something that he has never done before. “He lives and breathes art everyday. I think these are the qualities that make him the remarkable man and artist that he is at 90.”