by Reginald Massey
It is not often that one encounters a celebrated painter who is also a celebrated novelist but one such is Balraj Khanna who was born in the Punjab. He and his French wife Francine have lived in London’s Little Venice for decades. The reason being that he’s only a long shot away from Lord’s which he says is a sacred spot for him. Khanna is quite simply a cricket fanatic. The story of his life reads like a novel. Many years ago in India when he was not a particularly hard working student he met the writer – critic Mulk Raj Anand who perceptively felt that the young man had possibilities and advised him to make for England. He even provided Khanna with letters of introduction to his several influential friends in London. Anand knew many members of the Bloomsbury Group and his works such as The Coolie and Across the Black Waters are now held up to be landmark novels of Indian fiction written by Indians in English.
At Victoria station Khanna, with only a passable Master’s in Eng. Lit from an Indian university, encountered a very hostile city. He had very little money and prospects were very bleak. But he had a bagful of high hopes. In the Swinging Sixties racial discrimination was rampant. Britain had never had it so good as long as one wasn’t a dark skinned colonial. In order to survive he had to gratefully accept whatever he was offered. He soon became aware that all Indians and Pakistanis were treated with contempt by working class whites. To make matters worse, it was some established Asians in Britain who exploited new Asian immigrants even more than whites did. He had ambitions to get to Oxford but that was not to be.
Those were difficult days with landladies blatantly putting up notices such as: ‘No Negroes or Coloureds, No Irish and No dogs’. I could not believe that I had come to the country of Shakespeare, of Shaw and of Bertrand Russell. Khanna felt the same. His novels are documents of those difficult days. He writes with rich humour and absolutely no rancour.
Khanna fell in with Francis Newton Souza, a leading Goan painter much admired by the critics and the art buying public. Soon Khanna started painting furiously and his paintings sold for good prices. He was taken up by the leading London art galleries and the critics noticed him favourably.
His abstract style derived from several sources (Picasso, Syed Haider Raza, and Souza among others) is not aggressive or extravagantly suggestive. Rather, it uses a visual language that seduces the viewer by its skilful use of colour, shape, form and line.
During 1971 – 72 he painted Birth of a Nation: Bangladesh which now hangs in the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. He later lectured on Indian Art at Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester universities. His first novel Nation of Fools (1984) won the Winifred Holtby Prize awarded by the Royal Society of Literature. It is recognized as one of the best 200 novels in the English language. Another novel Partition, set in 1947, won the Mahatma Gandhi Prize. The next novel, Sweet Chillies, was well received as were Rajah King of the Jungle, The Mists of Simla and Indian Magic. His non-fiction work (Kalighat Paintings, Krishna the Divine Lover and Human and Divine, 2000 Years of Indian Sculpture) is well-researched and informative. His mosaic at the Welsh Museum of Modern Art is highly regarded.
At the moment an important exhibition titled Artist and Empire is being held at Tate Britain. Khanna’s painting Forest Walk (72 inches by 96 inches) is on display. The exhibition will last till April 10, 2016.
How true that you can’t keep a good man down even though he never went messing about in boats on the Isis.
Reginald Massey has been writing a regular Book Page for CONFLUENCE for years. His poetry and prose on a variety of subjects have been widely published. Most of his books are available from Amazon UK.