‘Harkrishan Lall (March 8, 1921 in Ludhiana, Punjab – 6 September, 2000 in Kottakal, Kerala) was one of the distinguished Punjabi painters who painted life and landscape for almost half a century. In all his artistic endeavors, he had one objective that is to produce paintings in as painterly a manner as possible. There is a distinct fragrance of Indian miniature painting in his work. His simple and spontaneous style has an immediate appeal which marks him out as one of the best colourists on Indian art scene.
‘Colour was Harkrishan’s passion and he transmitted its sensory effects on canvas with all his creative and imaginative power. His landscapes interspersed with human figures; animals and birds have a unique freshness and charm. His landscapes in spite of its vast dimensions do not make you feel small, figures seem familiar and animals of the wildest nature appear friendly for the treatment and deft handling of colour.
‘This is how he expressed himself in 1996:
I realize now that applying paint is the most important task an artist has to tackle. Texture and tone and technique have all to form an integral part in a work., and it is not advisable to concentrate on just one aspect. Formerly I used to work with a pre-conceived idea in my mind. Now a days I saw a form/shape itself, and studying nature abroad. I understood how infinite is the variety of its richness and how futile it is to restrict one self to reproducing one shape or form … the new realization has made me expressionistic in a different manner. I allow the colours to flow, sink, emerge, ignoring their local and representative value so that, eventually I can be expressionistic through the eye…Every colour must vibrate alone and in harmony.
‘Undoubtedly, Harkrishan is one of the pioneers of Indian modern art who was applying him seriously to landscape painting. This served as a stimulant for the later painters following the art of landscape painting.’
– Prem Singh
‘Inspired by the Impressionists and the post-Impressionists, Harkishan Lall, nevertheless, absorbed also the spirit of traditional Indian art, In Boats in Backwaters Lall creates an expressionist mood with strong, dramatic brushwork. Lall is also known for painterly use of colour and unusual colour harmonies. Landscape as a subject held an appeal for Lall. A spontaneous spirit pervades his paintings.’
– National Gallery of Modern Art, India
‘We meet here this evening to remember Harkishan Lall, our very dear friend and an eminent painter of this country who passed away on September 6. He had been suffering a long and painful illness. For the last six years, he had been under treatment for acute paralysis of the lower body at the Arya Vaidshala in Kottakkal, Kerala.
‘Born in Ludhiana on March 8, 1921, Harkishan graduated from Punjab University Lahore in 1940 and pursued further studies in art at the Sir JJ School of Art, Bombay and obtained diploma in 1947. During 1949-1953, he taught at the art department Polytechnic of Delhi. He was a member of the Delhi Shilpi Chakra – Artists’ Circle. In 1953, he visited Russia and Poland in a five-member artists’ delegation. In 1962, he joined the Ministry of Commerce and Industry as deputy director (design), but resigned soon after. During that period, he participated in many group shows and won numerous awards, including gold medals from the Calcutta Fine Art Society (1960) and the Bombay Art Society (1961). He had solo shows in Paris (1969) and San Jose (USA).
‘Harkishan and I became close friends right from 1940, when we were in the Sir JJ School of Art. KK Hebbar was our teacher in the first year; he gained our respect and we earned his confidence. We were fortunate to have a mentor like JM Ahivasi and an imaginative school director in Charles Gerrard. Whereas Gerrard aroused our consciousness for appreciating our inherited art traditions, Ahivasi encouraged us to think with a free mind and gave us invaluable insights into the realm of art.
‘Harkishan and I had mutual regard for each other’s work. He would always discuss his work with me to the extent possible. He was fond of the best things in life – he loved music and poetry and was a connoisseur of wine and food. His close friends included poets like Amrita Pritam and Sahir Ludhianvi and film music composer Jaidev.
‘Harkishan will be remembered as a painter who painted people and landscapes for more than five decades. Influenced not only by impressionists like Pierre Bonnard and post-impressionists like Cezanne and Van Gogh, but also by Ajanta murals and Pahari miniatures, he endeavoured to create works in a truly painterly manner. His themes, however, gradually changed from the intense expression of the horrific experience of Partition of the Punjab to romantic landscapes structured in semi-Cazannesque style. His art is an expression of deeply felt urges infused with a freshness of artistic approach. He painted spontaneously in unusual harmonies of colour creating an instant appeal.
‘He was in love with colour and the paint media. He handled his favourite oil media with great ease and command. He strongly believed that a painting had to be painted well, absolutely well, to possess a painterly quality. He painted in thick impasto and hence his works are enriched with a tactile quality. He used to say: I feel a sudden outburst of creative energy. At that time, my inner self is projected on an imaginary plane craving for expression…I go through the process of improvisation, keep in view the balance, rhythm and proportions, and transfer that order and feeling on the canvas.
‘There is certain amount of fantasy in later landscapes of quiet and still forms that he created when roaming the valleys of Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh and the desert towns of Rajasthan; two contrasting regions. But then he, in his later works, always projected a suggestion of rest and repose, of tranquillity, of brooding stillness. Described as a frontliner of the landscape genre, his forms of nature possess a tremendous range. He added a variety of birds in his last series, painted in the late 1980s.
‘Harkishan was far from being an imitator of nature. He created beautiful patterns featuring birds. He obviously had a statement to make and he made these powerful statements in pure plastic terms. He described sentiments in terms of colour that had the eloquence of a poem. His view of nature was not a commonplace representational scene painting; it was, as it were, a view of nature that was the expression of the man himself.
‘On his show in Bombay in 1988, he wrote to me: This exhibition is very very important to me. It may even be my last. I want friends from all over to see it. I will exhibit 15 paintings I did during the last two or three years. Earlier, I was trying to grasp an eastern consciousness. But I have been evolving. I feel this is the beginning. Now I want to paint my own. My work should belong to the world.
‘He enjoyed living a bachelor’s life in Bombay and was very fond of the city. He once said: ‘A city like Bombay is the only city in this country I can live in. It does not matter whether it appreciates art or not. You can live the way you wish’. He was not a lonely bachelor, but an artist wedded to life. He also said: I have few belongings; even my cupboards are filled with paint. An artist’s life is terrible, very painful. If I had another life, I’d love to be a poet. Then I could fly.
‘Talking about death Harkishan remarked: Death. What about it? Look here. It’s the donor card stating that my eyes should be taken the moment I die and given to the needful. Death is not important, what’s important is life. And he was one who lived life to the full’.
– Pran Nath Mago
[An abridged version of the memorial speech by Mago given in New Delhi on 19 September, 2000]
‘Harkishan Lall and Sahir Ludhianvi were life-long friends. They went to the same college and were influenced by the communist movement in their own ways. In his formative years Harkishan sketched village funfares of the Malwa region eg Chhapaar da Mela and Ludhiana industrial workers’ struggle etc. These works titled Sarzameen-e-Yaas, Strike and Baghawat were in Sahir’s collection.’
Information compiled by Amarjit Chandan.