Book Review – BALRAJ KHANNA – Born in India Made in England
By Robin Dutt
Balraj Khanna is one of the most tireless and enthusiastic painters working in Britain today. His art, frequently featuring dancing motifs (seemingly anonymous shapes, yet full of life) on hyper colour backdrops, are celebrated around the world and many comparisons have been made with master abstract painter, Joan Miro. In both cases (and with also, say, Kandinsky in mind) Khanna seeks to create symphonies out of his canvases, scores and music sheets too which contribute to the flow and mellifluous nature of his oeuvre. Carol Jacoby of Tate Britain refers to ‘his strong intellectual base’, his style ‘at once distinct, personal and universal’. Bryan Robertson calls him ‘one of the most distinguished artists working in England’.
Much has been written about the very real connection between the Indian subcontinent and England, for many Indians, seen as a type of maternal figure. This aspect of respect, of course, did not come without certain disagreement, dissention and downright hatred of a conquering nation expressed by many – and few would, especially today, argue with that. The conflicts, massacres (on both sides), mistrust and distrust are items of historical reference material but still vivant and fresh, amidst much change and development.
This book is described as an ‘Autobiography of an Artist’ and if the first word inevitably involves the real essence of a journey, then one comes more than close to Khanna’s intention to set all down on paper. He’s a striking, elegant man, tall, sartorial and imposing, with snowy white hair and a ready laugh and smile which is more than memorable. You know when he walks into a room. Look at pictures of him as a young man at one of his openings and that man, defying time, is still there today.
Khanna grew up and witnessed the cataclysmic Partition of India in 1947. He went on to be a Foreign Correspondent between 1971 and 1972 during the India-Pakistan War. He began his love affair with England as a young child falling for the charms of the richness and poetic possibilities of expression – even in everyday prose. And then, returning to his work, are not his treasured motifs, apart from notes on a score, letters or ‘characters’ on a multicoloured page, telling a sensual and sensuous story? This love of the English language was the cornerstone (along with British culture in general) for his decision to come to London in the bitter winter of 1962, which many still remember – a time of ice and smog – where, as a ‘foreigner’ it cannot have been an easy task to simply merge with the day to day of being. Khanna has much to say about this. But an artist, in general, has only his work that he regards and understands as important. The minutiae of life’s little ironies and direct brickbats (forget the bouquets) are as nothing when you create other worlds within a new one.
Khanna with his infectious charisma made a superb start in England when at the age of only 28 he was invited to have a solo show at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and has had several private and public shows, notably at the Hayward Gallery, Serpentine Gallery, Victoria & Albert Museum and Brighton and Hove Museum. He has had a lifetime of lecturing at such august establishments as Oxford and Cambridge Universities and the Royal College of Art. As a talented writer, his novel, ‘Nation of Fools’ was awarded the Royal Society of Literature’s Winifred Holtby Prize for a first novel, in 1984.
In ‘Born in India Made in England’ one learns about the equally ‘special relationship’ one might often hear trumpeted, regarding the UK and US when one considers India and the UK. The text is written from such a personal perspective that the author’s voice is tangible and real. Snippets and snatches of remembered conversation, add a directional element. You can almost hear that famous laugh of his, in some passages.
This is an energetic, funny, sad and moving tale of one of India’s sons and one of England’s treasures.
Published by Unicorn Press. £25. (Hardback).