Adam Khan’s black beard and cozy, brown, oversized, homemade sweaters and caps are trademarks that any local would recognize. There is a rustic look unique to him, a look that is shared with his antique stone house and garden maze; clearly a big part of who he is in many ways.
One of Kodai’s best-known resident artists, Khan gained prominence locally by the 1980s. In those days, he was often found in the KMU library talking with friends about art and culture and Kodai over a cup of coffee; or out and about town, heading to someone’s yard to help landscape it.
Today, locals drop in to visit, and he has always welcomed small groups who visit to see his garden and art work.
I first got to know him when I asked him to be Kodaikanal International School’s IB DP Visual Art Examiner, after taking students once up to see his studio and work. Taken with the interesting nooks and crannies of his house, with its antique furniture, paintings on toilets, and the driftwood, fungus and ferns incorporated into art works, they would settle happily with colours and pencils to create. He would study the Grade 12 art students’ final exhibition, and interview and assess the students; until it went fully online, when he withdrew. Khan calls himself a Luddite, (a person opposed to new technology or ways of working). His only concession is a small basic cell phone (necessary to order gas).
‘Adam Khan’s intimate paintings of profuse gardens tightly intertwined around his enchanted cottage revealed much more than botanical details; a nod to the French painter, [Pierre] Bonnard,’ says artist and curator Ann Peck, who lives between Vermont and Kodaikanal (where she is Khan’s neighbour) and features Khan’s work in an exhibition of local artwork in Kodai every year (on hold because of the pandemic). ‘Adam has been my soulmate for 20 years in plumbing the never-ending possibilities for artists in the hill station of Kodaikanal, drawn there like bees to a honey pot. He passed my gate nearly every day to chat about the next pending exhibition of a tightly-knit group of artists in town [whilst] eager to include the newest artist just off the bus, portfolio in hand.’
Khan is also known locally for his wines and jams, made for ‘self and friends’, from local fruits. So well-known, that a regular visitor, a huge and rather destructive male monkey, once downed about four liters of wine, spilling the rest in the process. He was happy to note, ironically, that ‘it hasn’t visited since!’, implying the resultant hangover was the reason.
Khan’s home is a ‘wilderness oasis’ in an ever increasingly built-up town. Initially he painted by going into the jungle, now the jungle comes to him. Arches and crannies, old wood sheds, all are covered by a riot of vines and flowering shrubs. There are many that he says he never planted, but that were brought in by his wild visitors; most welcomed, except the destructive monkeys.
‘Colors and scenery keep changing and Nature has been my guru’, Khan told The Hindu in 2018, classifying his work as Impressionistic realism; ‘juxtaposition of light and form is the essence of my art’, he said.
‘The bison’, he said, ‘used to be my gardeners, clipping the grass and shrubs for me’. They still visit, but with increasing difficulty, as an eight-foot wall now circles most of the property.
Khan lives on one of the oldest properties in Kodaikanal, next to what was once the site of the second house built in Kodai, Roseneath Cottage; initially the Collectors’ House, later a Bishop’s residence. (Sadly, this 1845 building, in the Madras style of red mud and stone rubble, was allegedly knocked down by the developers of the property when the owner of the house was not in residence.)
The artist’s own residence is the North Lodge, a simple, seasonally-used duplex which was built in the early 1900s, after the London mission bought the property in 1907 for missionaries to stay in during the April/May ‘hill season’. It was likely built by the 1920s according to Khan, based on the architectural style and materials used. Each side has a verandah, and there are two rooms, a bathroom, a small kitchenette (which serves Adam as his indoor studio), and a shed in the back which is sometimes used as a teaching studio or for work on larger scale paintings).
Khan has been an inadvertent hermit in recent years, as, after the destruction of Roseneath, he is worried that if he leaves his residence for any length of time, the same will happen to his house. (For more, see ‘Trouble in Paradise for Artist from Kodai’.)
The Birth of Adam Khan
The Adam Khan we know started out from England with a different name, escaping work in the film industry, because his family insisted that he could not make a living from art.
At one point, he decided he had to be an artist, no matter what, and set out on a journey across Europe, Africa, and into India, looking for a way to learn by visiting artists and training with them. In Capri, Italy, he found his art ‘guru’, a retired British artist, sculptor and potter who took him in as an apprentice, in the old Renaissance style, and taught him how to ‘make a living while still being able to continue to learn how to be a better artist’, Khan tells me.
He travelled down into Africa, funding his travels with art exhibitions in Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya. When Indian refugees fled Idi Amin’s take-over of Uganda, he joined them on their ship, (a 12-day journey for 12 British pounds). Food was provided, but it was so poorly cooked that very shortly a group of Gujarati women took over the kitchen. Memories include sitting on the prow, watching the sunset, and listening to the sailors below playing the tabla and harmonium, preparing them for arriving in India.
After landing in Bombay, Khan began to explore India. While he was meditating in Agra, a swami looked at him, saying ‘You are Adam Khan’, and he immediately felt that, yes, this was who he was, and left his birth name, John Maurice William Roberts, behind.
His journey led him to Kodaikanal. Here he settled, working sometimes as an artist, sometimes as a landscape architect, and a tutor and mentor to others wanting to learn to create art.
Through ‘The International Artist Guild’, he provided a studio stay option for visiting artists for some years (until the demolition of Roseneath Cottage, and, of course, Covid-19 lockdowns).
In early years, Khan explored the region around Kodai, going into the sholas to explore. He started by painting wild animals in their wilderness homes. A friend from Austria visited and pleaded with him to paint his garden, saying she wanted to do an exhibition of his pieces in Austria. Khan’s garden-based works sold well in the Austria exhibition, and one followed in Chennai’s Dakshina Chitra in 2018.
This was a turning point, and since then, the garden, though more and more overgrown and wild with its bison, Malabar squirrels, wild cats and birds, has become his place to paint and meditate. ‘It is hard to draw the line between the two,’ he notes.
In his studio space, Khan works with hands, cloths, cotton buds (anything but paint brushes) and oil paints, in thin glazes, as much paint ‘taking away’ to create, as putting ‘on’; painting the garden, flowers and its visitors, tame or wild (a cat is always a part of his household).
Khan definitely prefers to start an art work with a walk into the garden to see what catches his attention, and then begin to work in response to that call. ‘I need to love what I paint,’ he says. ‘Painting is a way of discovering myself―always different, a kind of meditation.”
Khan works with oil paints only, with a limited palette: blue, yellow and red (no green in his tubes, though his paintings are rich with a vast range of greens, olives and maroons, made by blending the colours he has) augmented with white, burnt umber and yellow ochre. Never black; ‘Black is only used by artists to hide mistakes,’ he says. Out of this range, he makes ‘near black’, with glossy blue highlights that work for Malabar squirrels and gaur alike.
Khan also recycles materials such as packing boxes and furniture. He has had several commissions during lockdown, one a series of monkeys painted on an antique teak dowry chest, a gift from a grandmother to her grandson to link history to the boy’s own interests. His ‘best work ever,’ a client told him.
‘I use my hand. I use my eyes. I use my heart, as soon as my brain comes into it, I lose contact with the painting’, he says. This is what he calls ‘passionate meditation’.
Adam can be reached at 04542 240 019 if you want to talk art, or how to move a Kerala wooden heritage building.
All photographs by Barbara Block