Vijay (Victory), 1965
A leader of India’s modernist movement, Khanna is an avid proponent of modernism as a universal art form. In Vijay he draws from the Japanese tradition of sumi-e, or black ink on paper. Channeling the ink wash, he courts accident to produce dark atmospheric forms reduced to their essences, a technique that evokes a sense of withdrawal. Unlike Khanna’s figural paintings, which display narrative movement and relative clarity of form, his black-and-white abstractions such as this one defy storytelling.
Born in Lyallpur, in the Punjab (today Faisalabad, Pakistan), Khanna began his professional life as a clerk with Grindlays Bank in Bombay. There he met M. F. Husain, who introduced him to the Progressive Artists Group, with whom Khanna exhibited. Largely self-taught, he won numerous accolades including, in 1962, a Rockefeller Fellowship that enabled him to spend time in Japan. His works are deeply inflected by such travels and other wide-ranging experiences.
Khanna’s early works are steeped in optimism. During the later 1960s, two decades after independence, Khanna’s art entered a darker phase as he addressed social issues connected with the bloody Partition and expressed his flagging faith in his country. Khanna’s interest in Japanese sumi-e coincided with his growing taste for Abstract Expressionism; the two styles intersected in his solo show at New York’s Egan Gallery in 1965, which showcased his abstract explorations. Because Khanna’s engagement with Abstract Expressionism is less well understood than his figurative work, Vijay brings to light the important yet underexamined period in the artist’s career when he lived and worked in New York.