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All That Glitters

Kanhai’s painting with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in the background and PM Modi in the foreground may find a place at the Statue of Unity

Padmshri awardee painter Krishn Kanhai got his latest art work unveiled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The life-size potrait of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel impressed PM Modi so much that he suggested that there should be a special place for the painting. “When PM Modi saw the painting, he said that he wanted it to be kept at the Statue of Unity (at Kewadia, Gujarat). This is the biggest compliment that I could get. Lakhs of people visit the Statue of Unity, it will be a big thing for me,” Kanhai says. The painting has Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in the background and PM Modi in the foreground. “When the lockdown was announced in March 2020, I thought of making a painting of PM Modi as he is one of the most popular leaders of the world. First, I thought I would make PM’s painting with Mahatma Gandhi, then I decided that I should go ahead with Sardar Patel,” Kanhai says, explaining how he decided to pick Modi and Patel as,the subject of his painting.

Always prepared to draw things that take his fancy, Vrindavan-based Kanhai, was 15 when his classmates started asking him to show his drawing prowess in school. “It all began after seeing my father Kanhai Chitrakar. And as the son of a renowned artist, my friends at school used to push me to draw something on the blackboard,” he says. “So initially just with chalk, I used to draw peacocks, flowers, and sometimes Radha-Krishan on the blackboard. After completing my high school education, I completely focused on painting,” he informs. Notably, Krishn Kanhai’s father, also a Padma Shri awardee, was also an acclaimed artist and a painter who pioneered an art form known as Kanhai gold painting, which is somewhat like the well-loved Tanjore art, but the Kanhai’s are proportionate, unlike the Tanjores, which feature short, stout figures. In addition, the Kanhai paintings use only 24-carat pure gold, which is applied more liberally than the fine-touch gold typically used in other Indian paintings. Pertinent to mention, Krishn Kanhai, throughout his artistic career spanning over four decades, has painted thousands of portraits on the now perishing theme of Radha- Krishna and their tales. He has, however, not confined himself to the traditional style, but has also introduced certain significant techniques of his own that make the canvas aesthetically appealing and spiritually rich. In a way, he can be called a fusion artist for making beautiful use of enchanting Radha-Krishna postures and turning them into contemporary modern art that is eye-catching and unforgettable. So, following the footsteps of his father and mentor Kanhai Chitrakar, young Kanhai was encouraged to carve out his own niche in the artistic world. His son, Arjun Kanhai, a BFA from University of Southampton, UK, is also an expert in traditional and portrait painting. It is seldom that a father and a son have been honoured with a National award like Padma Shri. The Kanhai Family and the Bachchan Family are the only two families in India where both father and son have won the Padma Shri. “What I learned from my father at the age of 15 gave me recognition after 25 year of struggle into the painting world”, underlines the dexterous artist. Kanhai’s first work was a portrait of Swami Haridas, which he sold for Rs 4 in 1975. “This Rs 4 was my first earning through a painting and it gave me a sense of satisfaction that my paintings are being liked by the people,” he says.

Initially I used to draw peacocks, flowers, and sometimes Radha-Krishan on the blackboard with a chalk After completing my high school education, I completely focused on painting Narrating the three-decade-old experience of working alongside his father, Kanhai says he was 27-year-old when he decided to create his own art form, It is after this realisation that he started working on folk themes to revive the Brij and Yamuna Bank Culture into his artwork and gradually came to evolve a style of his own, which bore his personal stamp. It did not take much time for him to get known, as the precursor of the Yamuna Ghat Painting School.

Since then Kanhai’s paintings have received great acclaim due to their improved artistic composition, use of oil paints and embossing material, realistic style of large canvases, excellent gem-setting work, and an opulent 24-carat gold foiling. Yes he often uses pure gold and precious gems as raw materials for his paintings. “Painting using pure gold was done a long time ago, but this form of art had become extinct in North India in recent times. Thinking of creative ways to make a painting more beautiful, I revived this form,” says Kanhai.

He brought a new dimension to the art arena by creating paintings that recited visually mesmerising stories. Groomed under the expert guidance of his father he earned international recognition and the epithet of the artist with the Midas touch. But it is not just the Radha-Krishna paintings or the portraits that depicted folk culture for what he is known for. He kept experimenting with his artistic work.

He is also known to the political elite of the world, with several Presidents and Prime Ministers among his clients whose portraits were done by him. The list includes names, like former Prime minister of India Atal Bihari Vajpayee and former Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani, former US President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary Clinton, former US President Barack Obama and his family, besides eminent industrialists like Adiya Birla and his wife Rajshri Birla, and veteran Bollywood actor-turnedpolitician Hema Malini. In 2016, on a special request from the Uttar Pradesh Government, Kanhai painted a life-size portrait of 22 Chief Ministers of UP – past and present along with 19 past and present Speakers of the UP Assembly, besides two life-size portraits of Mahatma Gandhi. “I feel that I am fortunate to be the only artist whose 40 portraits are on the walls of Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha,” he says.

“Sheer hard work is the only key to success. You have to give everything to achieve something in your life,” he speaks. In the future, the veteran artist plans to open a “Kanhai Art Academy” in Vrindavan and share his four decades of skills with the young generation.

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