Alchemical variations: Balraj Khanna became a painter by accident, but his canvases are unique symbolic fusions of colour and form. Robin Dutt talked to him

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Balraj Khanna owes his life as an artist to a peculiar quirk of fate. He came to Britain in 1962 to continue his studies in English Literature at Oxford University but due to the turmoil in India caused by the war with China, papers from his university in Chandigarh never arrived and he was unable to resume them.

Inventive and resourceful, he seized on the opportunity to make something of his fascination with painting, and set about it with a zeal bordering on mania, working night and day.

Khanna is entirely self- taught yet he displays a discipline which many might assume to have been drummed in by years of art school. He has been tenaciously loyal to a particular discipline - making art out of childhood memories and everyday events, representing emotion in a way which curiously embraces abstraction and figuration in equal measure.

The street entertainers Khanna saw as a child in India, with their brightly coloured toys and puppets, made a lasting impression and these shapes crop up time and time again like familiar friends. Harsh critics may call his work formulaic. 'All art has to have some kind of formula,' Khanna says in a gently defensive way. 'Look at Hockney or Bacon. Art must have a common thread. But in reality, every painting is very different. At times the shapes I paint may look as if they are in the water, at others in the air. Sometimes it's a mixture of the two.'

But Khanna does cut an imposing figure. Tall, with snow- white hair and an air of ancient nobility about him, his seemingly formal, even brusque style belies the child within, still fascinated by the possible rather than the actual. His are fantasy works based solidly on the magic of Eastern streets. Performers' props and toys become symbols on his canvases, hieroglyphic clues also - poignant and nostalgic. In the purposeful anonymity of his works lies the possibility for all of us to create our own narratives.

He has arguably made the inclusion of sand in his work a personal hallmark. 'It has to be the right kind of sand,' says Khanna, as if talking about master oils. 'I find the best kind in the streets - not too coarse, not too smooth.' This sand he mixes with the primer which helps in the creation of gently undulating folds. The colour does the rest. This technique allows the suggestive interplay of light and shadow giving depth to the work. From a distance, one may be reminded of pointillism - like Seurat, Khanna is fascinated by light.

There is certainly an exotic aspect to Khanna's work - seductive even. The shapes are burning with pure pigment and can look like Indian sweetmeats. At times, they appear as forgotten species of creatures captured in a slice of sea. Shapes repeat themselves - spirals, spheres, gobstopper globes and stars, showing again Khanna's disciplinarian stance. 'All serious artists must be disciplinarians,' says Khanna. 'A flower unfolds according to a discipline - everything, every creature has a discipline.'

As with alchemy, so the artist takes various ingredients, mixing them to try to produce the sought-after gold. The same may be said of cookery, which it turns out is another of Khanna's preoccupations: he has produced a fine book on the subject of Indian food. After all, like vegetables or herbs, paints too are ingredients.

'Balraj Khanna: Rekindled Images' is at Y Tabernacl, The Museum of Modern Art, Wales to July 16, tel 0654 703355

(Photograph omitted)