South By Southwest

In a little less than a decade, artists from Kerala have shown an unprecedented ability to court success and their work has, in many ways, become synonymous with the energy of Indian contemporary art. LAKSHMI INDRASIMHAN traces the story of the Kerala artists

IN JANUARY 2008 at Bodhi Art Gallery’s newer, ‘edgier’ space in South Mumbai, Malayali artists and their acolytes swilled wine, gazed at the giant sculptural installations by Rajan Krishnan and feverishly checked out the scene for the one thing missing — Malayali women. Rajan, a friendly, unassuming Malayali, was only the latest artist from India’s southern-most state to be having a solo exhibition. In just the last month, six Malayali artists have held solo shows in Delhi and Mumbai. Riyas Komu was included in last year’s Venice Biennale, the world’s most prestigious exhibition of contemporary art. CK Rajan and Valsan Koorma Kolleri showed at the Documenta festival in Kassel. And the work of TV Santosh, Jitish Kallat, Surendran Nair, Shibu Natesan and others regularly command huge figures in auction. All the while, the list of Malayali artists of note is only getting longer.

“Kerala has become a sort of hunting ground for fresh talent,” says Anoop Skaria, co-owner (with his wife Dorrie Younger) of Kashi Art Gallery in Kochi that has over the past decade played a huge part in the development and exposure of Malayali artists and its positioning on the international art map. “The good thing about the boom is that people like Gopi Krishnan are finally getting recognized,” says Skaria. “The bad thing is that there is over commercialisation, and borrowing of ideas.” So what explains the last decade’s surge in artists from Kerala and their success.

A not insignificant role has been played by Bose Krishnamachari, a fashionably bespectacled and surprisingly diminutive artist-curator, who has never been shy about aiding and promoting upcoming Malayali artists. In 2004, he organised a show of 69 Malayali artists called Double Enders, which attracted both contempt for its supposed regionalist agenda and admiration for the range and quality of the work on display. Regardless of its reception, Double Enders and another show, Bombayx17, changed the paradigm for Malayali artists. People saw it as the dawning of a new wave of Malayali visual art —lots of digital work, photography and painting too, but one that reflected the diversity of Malayalis living in different parts of the world.

“Earlier the Malayali artists had a very cynical, frustrated attitude. They didn’t know how to make work. Now they all have become confident. Artists like EH Pushkin, Ratheesh T, Zakir Hussein, Aji VN have all found incredible opportunities,” says Bose. Such was the appeal of Double Enders that when Binu Bhaskar, a young photographer, first heard about it he jumped into a cab and drove from Cochin to Borivili in north Mumbai to meet Bose. “Bose brought the idea of praxis, not just talk. Art had been passive for the past decade, and along with the economic boom, he came and shook it up. He energized everyone to start working,” says Riyas Komu.

So this wellspring of Malayali artistic productivity is not entirely by chance. And to look at the work is to recognize that much of it shares a common influences and concerns even while expressing difference and idiosyncratic individual vision. The explanations for this are varied. Anoop Skaria thinks it is Kerala’s position on the crossroads, as a place that has seen a mixing of different thought: Leftist, Muslim, Christian, Hindu. “The cultural background was conducive to a certain kind of intellectual upbringing. Memory is very strong. The Left actively supported art, in the form of theatre, cinema, literature — it was all a part of campaigning. Plus Malayalis are very argumentative and knowledgeable,” says Komu. “There is the sceptical nature of the Malayali: you scrutinise everything, problematise it, subvert it,” says TV Santosh.

Asked if there is anything known as a Kerala “school”, Shireen Gandy, director of Gallery Chemould Prescott Road in Mumbai, concedes that there was a tendency among early Kerala artists to be concerned with nature and the jungle. “They were like Henri Rousseau,” she says referring to their mystical jungle-scapes, reminiscent of the works of the 20th century French painter “But today, I’m not sure if there is any stylistic commonality.”

But different regions of India do manifest varied stylistic concerns. “The Bengalis always focussed on beauty — an Abhanindranath Tagore school of thinking. Kerala doesn’t have that,” says Baiju Parthan. “Instead there are the dichotomies of a very elemental, rural culture, very close to the earth and then you have highly intellectualised urban life. A melding of the real with the unreal which reflects the dual realities they have to handle.

THOUGH ARTISTS from Kerala have expanded their scope far beyond a remembered physical reality, nature continues to be an important subject of their work. The ferocious, psychedelic work of Jyothi Basu, the challenging chromatic range of Anil Kumar Janardhan’s flora, the illustrative intensity of Ratheesh T — all retain that concern for the expanses and mysteries of the Keralan landscape as might occur in an OV Vijayan story. “Basu and Ratheesh’s work definitely stems from Kerala. That magic realism which is reflected in Kerala literature — it offers a refreshing new narrative that hasn’t been looked at yet,” says Komu. “And Jyothi is representative of a particular kind of Kerala mind — the dreamer’s mind. But you see a politics emerging. The painting becomes a sound.”

The concern with nature also extends to the work of sculptors. NN Rimzon was one of the earliest installation artists in India who in the 1980s shunned painting to experiment with new media. Valsan Kolleri’s ephemeral installations, often using found objects and materials ubiquitous in Kerala (such as laterite stone), project a mood very different from the urban discontent found in the work of Delhi-based sculptors Sumedh Rajendran and Gigi Scaria. There is the literary sensibility of Surendran Nair, the cheeky, graphic work of Vivek Vilasini as well as the retooled historical imagery of Josh PS and the documentary photographs of Anoop Mathew Thomas. Other artists like Reji KP, retain the careful regard of Baroda school narrative-figurative artists like Bhupen Khakhar and Ghulamohammed Sheikh.

Baroda has proved very influential to generations of Malayali artists. “It had a great academy, supportive teachers, a laidback ambience that was similar to Trivandrum. The Malayalis always only wanted to go to Baroda. Bombay was seen as too commercial — art couldn’t happen there. I was only the second person to go to JJ School of Art after Bose. Even now there are very few Kerala artists there,” says Komu.

Komu’s arrival in Bombay in 1992 with the aim of studying textile design was simultaneous with larger national upheavals: economic liberalisation and the rise of the right wing extremist thought made a shift to more political art necessary. “I realised I couldn’t just devote my life to design. Political themes began to enter my work. I couldn’t escape it.” The fusing of Baroda with Trivandrum was best highlighted in the work of activist-artists like the late Krishna Kumar, Alex Mathew and CK Rajan, all of whom belonged to the 1980s group, the Radical Painters and Sculptors Association. They came to be identified with the intensity of the post-Emergency period in Kerala and their Leftist concerns had a huge impact on the aesthetic sensibilities of the period and after.

TV Santosh says, “I liked the idea of art having a socially constructive function — like theyyam is an artform powerful enough to heal people. We used to think artists couldn’t do anything because they were weak.” Santosh’s work reveals a disenchantment with the possibilities of technology and the havoc it can wreak — the Bhopal gas tragedy and the Chernobyl nuclear explosion are reflected in his monumental paintings that themselves seem to give off a radioactive heat.

But not all artists come from a politicised background. Baiju Parthan, widely recognized as an intellectual among his peers, is different from everyone else in the art scene. “He’s very reclusive, has his own world contrary to any other artist in India. He has his own original language using information, science, comparative mythologies,” says Komu.

But perhaps more than place of origin, it was the act of migration that impacted the Malayali artist. “There is also a big difference between small town Kerala artists and Bombay artists — the sensibility of somebody who is transplanted, rootless, trying to find their moorings,” says Parthan. “And this process gives them a different way of looking: a sense of loss, of humour. I don’t think someone brought up in Delhi has that same attitude — they tend to be very serious while these guys are fascinated by the urban, but also contemptuous of it.” “The culture of migration is very much a part of Kerala. and it’s a language used by a lot of Malayalis. Often what people can’t see from the inside, those from the outside can,” says Komu.

Malayali artist were also grouped together based on their use of media generated images rendered in a photorealist style. Known as “neomediatic realism”, it was fuelled by a sudden confrontation with satellite tv and the Internet. But for early adopters, neomediatic realism offered a singular form of expression. “I would get photos from different kinds of media. I found that if I made it a negative and manipulated it, it became a universal image,” says Santosh. Parthan’s interest in media arose out of a concern for how the world is created. “Images that have so much potential today, are tomorrow’s trash. I started to retrieve these images, to signify them and turn them into collectibles. I had a reason for it. But most critics didn’t care to look deeper— they considered it a fad, a quick sell.”

But neomediatic realism as practiced by these artists transformed art in India by making it attractive to a new breed of collectors. “A lot of people wanted to buy art, but couldn’t relate to extremely minimal abstract art. They saw these recognizable, well rendered images, and they could immediately connect to it,” says Parthan. “In the 1990s, the new nri collector — many of whom were Sindhis — didn’t want European stuff, they wanted Indian.” Thanks to their patronage, figuration came back in a big way. Now many art institutions are run by Sindhis who really revitalised the whole scene.”

This revitalisation has brought about the drama of today’s Indian art market. “Now everybody wants to be an artist because of the fame, the money,” says Jyothi Basu. But has this brought about any competitiveness among the Kerala artists? “No not at all. In fact we sit and discuss our work a lot,” Santosh says. “It’s more like we are competitive with ourselves.” In fact, everyone agrees that after leaving the pessimism and difficulties of Kerala behind, Malayali artists tend to work very hard. “Maybe that insecurity of not having a grounding makes you go that extra mile. Those artist who have achieved something are passionate —they’ll work 18-19 hours a day,” says Parthan. Migrating outside the state though vital to artistic growth was an opportunity unavailable to women in what Komu describes as “a male chauvinist society. and which might explain the dearth of female artist from Kerala.

For Basu, who worked for years as a set designer, success did not come easy. “There came a time when I was too conscious of political issue, so I stopped.” he recalls. “Work became a burden. Art is supposed to be a means whereby you don’t have to suffer again. There is already so much suffering in the world.”

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 7, Dated Feb 23, 2008
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