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The lesser known colour-field painter of India

Pandit Bhila Khairnar belongs to a small and rare group of colour-field painters, who holds his first solo exhibition in the Capital

Untitled, oil on canvas, 2018, by Pandit Bhila Khairnar. Photo courtesy: Gallery Threshold
Untitled, oil on canvas, 2018, by Pandit Bhila Khairnar. Photo courtesy: Gallery Threshold

In the Capital, Gallery Threshold opens Pandit Bhila Khairnar’s first solo show in Delhi titled Cosmic Balance, which focuses on the poetry of colours. These works—single canvases and triptychs—have a certain meditative quality. Instead of defined forms and figures, the Nashik-based artist uses gradations of tonality to tell a story. For instance, the yellows and greens, which give way to a dull, subtle orange, talk about the terrain in Khairnar’s hometown. The greys, tinged with red, invoke the artist’s fascination with that mystical moment—when dusk gives way to twilight.

Khairnar belongs to the handful of colour-field painters in India—a style which, according to an article on The Art Story, an educational, non-profit organization that seeks to demystify modern art, emerged in the US in the 1950s, when Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still independently started searching for a style of abstraction that might express a yearning for the infinite. “To achieve this, they abandoned all suggestions of figuration and instead exploited the expressive power of colour by deploying it in large fields that might envelope the viewer, when seen at close quarters," it states.

In India, however, colour-field painters have continued to be a rarity. Tunty Chauhan, director of Gallery Threshold, counts the names on her fingers: V.S. Gaitonde, Rajendra Dhawan, Natvar Bhavsar, Sohan Qadri. “The numbers are few, maybe because the field is devoid of images, figures or recognizable human forms. One could say that it exudes an ‘isness’, which can only be felt," she says. Colour-field painting also calls for an evolved viewer who can read a narrative about the intangible and respond to the emotions the artist is trying to evoke. “Which is why artists who do this kind of work get their recognition a little later, especially in India," she says. A stark example of this is Bhavsar, who has come to be known internationally for a unique idiom that brings together American technique and Indian heritage. However, even though Bhavsar is one of the most widely collected Indian artists in the US, it’s a mystery why he hasn’t been shown in India much. In fact, he had his first ever retrospective in Mumbai, titled Homecoming at the DAG only last year, at the age of 83. In such a scenario, Khairnar’s work becomes significant, and needs to be shown more.

As art historian and writer Georgina Maddox says: “The physicality of Khairnar’s work is different, since he is known to destabilize one hue with the existence of the other." Her own engagement with his works evolved recently. “Initially, you might dismiss them as just colours on canvas. But as you spend time, you start developing a relationship with them."

Khairnar lives and breathes each painting, till he reaches an expression that he wants the viewer to feel. You can probably compare the works to classical music, which allows you to move beyond the obvious, to a higher spiritual level.

Khairnar mentions that the key is to let the cosmos guide you, which is why the show is aptly titled Cosmic Balance. As to why he chose colour-field painting, he says, “‘Choose’ is a word that doesn’t apply to me. I am guided by a higher force that flows through me and regulates my natural state of being." The play between light and dark, the “visual and air aromas"—communicated by a slight gust of wind—get absorbed into his subconsciousness.

Khairnar moved to Mumbai from rural Nashik in 1992, where he completed a diploma in fine arts from the LS Raheja School of Art. However, in 2012, he returned home, as the commercial style of city life proved to be restrictive. Now, he paints freely, often going for long meditative walks in between. For him, abstraction can’t be defined by a sentence or a story. It is only meant to be felt.

Cosmic Balance is on from 4 August-5 September at Gallery Threshold, Delhi.

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