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The enduring significance of Krishen Khanna’s ‘The Humiliation of Draupadi’

The artist’s depiction of the act of violence against Draupadi, and her public shaming, remains a deeply powerful one

Krishen Khanna painted 'The Humiliation of Draupadi' in 1986. Photos: courtesy DAG

Artist Krishen Khanna has always been a painter of the human condition, be it his depiction of the night-time workers and truck drivers in a series called Rear View, or Ramu’s Dhaba, showing the roadside tea stall as a space for exchange, where people of all classes mingled to an extent. “Somewhere in the mid-1970s, Krishen Khanna turned to what may be described as ‘epic’ themes that mark a people’s poetic imagination and establish the crucible for ethical behaviour,” writes art critic and curator Gayatri Sinha in her book. In 1975, against the backdrop of the Emergency, he painted the Christ cycle of paintings, which dealt with themes of persecution.

“His interest in the philosophic complexity, power and gender domination in the Mahabharata, however, has been an enduring interest over the last five decades. Central to his paintings of the great Indian epic are the figures of Draupadi, wife of the five Pandavas, and Bhishma Pitamah, as leader of the Kauravas in battle, whose duty to those with whom he is aligned is in conflict with the larger question of ethical conduct,” elaborates Sinha in the book.

One of his seminal works in this context is The Humiliation of Draupadi (oil on canvas, 1986), drawn from the episode of the Mahabharata, which has been a subject for many artists across centuries. Instead of painting the disrobing of Draupadi, Khanna depicts the public shaming as she is made to sit on Duryodhana’s lap. The work evokes some very strong reactions within the viewer—of revulsion, disgust, empathy, and anger at this act of violence against a woman. In the ongoing exhibition, Navrasa-The Nine Emotions of Art, on view at DAG Mumbai till 10 January, this painting is part of the section on Bheebatsya Rasa: The Anatomy of Disgust, which looks at works that draw attention to the ills in society and provoke strong reactions “as a way to healing the wounds we have experienced at its hands,” mentions the curatorial note.

According to Kishore Singh, head of exhibitions and publications, DAG, the painting evokes many other moods and bhaav as well. “This is a woman being humiliated in court. Her husbands are present. Her in-laws are there. The nobles are present. And yet no one does anything. Krishen Khanna very masterfully paints the melancholic mood using a lavender colour, which is rare for him, and is also rarely seen in a non-celebratory scene,” he says. The image of Draupadi sitting on her haunches also marks a catalytic moment in the Mahabharata, when the stage is set for war. “It is interesting to see a male artist putting across a very feminist perspective. There is not just an element of disgust in the work, but of anger, heroism and courage. All of these come together to make this a very significant work of art,” adds Singh.

According to Sinha, Khanna’s painting compresses present and future events by placing a black dog in the foreground. “Through a certain disassociation of sensibility, we may disavow its mythic origins and read in the composition the prescient forecasting of the unleashing of the ‘dogs of war’ and the tragic culmination of events. Such a mixing of metaphors, histories and location is typical in Krishen Khanna,” she writes.

'Navrasa-The Nine Emotions of Art' can be viewed at DAG Mumbai and New Delhi till 10 January

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