INDIAN ART ARTIST TALK TED CONFERENCE VIDEO PUBLIC SPEAKING
“Raghava KK: Five lives of an artist” (length of video, 17:56 mins) was recorded when Indian artist Raghava KK spoke at ideas conference TED2010 earlier this year. In the video, the artist tells an inspiring story of how art took him to new places, and talks about the different stages of experience which led him to become the artist he is today. He gives the viewer an insight into the concerns of today’s young artists and into the processes of contemporary art making. Raghava is a self-taught artist and who began his career as a newspaper cartoonist. At the age of 27, he is already one of India’s most celebrated emerging artists.
Raghava starts the talk by speaking of his childhood. He started his artistic journey during his second grade, but it was abruptly stopped when he was caught drawing a bust of a Michelangelo nude by a school nun. In the ninth grade, he started drawing again. Although afraid of getting caught, Raghava drew a flattering portrait of his school principal, which he gave to him as a gift. Following this, Raghava’s caricatures shot him to popularity within his school.
I think it was in my second grade that I was caught drawing the bust of a nude by Michelangelo. I was sent straight away to my school principal, and my school principal, a sweet nun, looked at my book with disgust, flipped through the pages, saw all the nudes. You know, I’d been seeing my mother draw nudes and I’d copy her, and the nun slapped me on my face and said, ‘Sweet Jesus, this kid has already begun.’
I had no clue what she was talking about, but it was convincing enough for me never to draw again until the ninth grade. Thanks to a really boring lecture, I started caricaturing my teachers in school. And, you know, I got a lot of popularity. I don’t play sports. I’m really bad at sports. I don’t have the fanciest gadgets at home. I’m not top of the class. So for me, cartooning gave me a sense of identity.
As Raghava continues with his story he mentions his family. He talks fondly of how much of an inspiration his mother was, how she taught him how to draw and how to love. Raghava also talks about his father’s holistic approach to living.
The artist eventually quit school to pursue a career as a cartoonist, which he felt gave him a sense of purpose. His popularity rose, he soon became a media star in India, and he caricatured hundreds of celebrities. For him cartooning was addictive; he was in love with the rush.
Of course, Raghava has known success and failures and he cherishes his failures the most. After drawing a cartoon about 9/11, he was banished from a cartoonists’ organisation in America, and it was with this that he realized there is a responsibility that comes with art.
The next slide I’m about to show you is a little more serious. I was hesitant to include this in my presentation because this cartoon was published soon after 9/11. What was, for me, a very naive observation, turned out to be a disaster. That evening, I came home to hundreds of [pieces of] hate mail, hundreds of people telling me how they could have lived another day without seeing this. I was also asked to leave the organisation, a cartoonists’ organisation in America, that for me was my lifeline. That’s when I realized, you know, cartoons are really powerful. Art comes with responsibility.
Following this “failure”, Raghava became concerned about his financial circumstances. He decided to quit his job and travel. Along the path he met an artist who inspired him to stop being a cartoonist and become a full time artist himself.
“He invited me to his studio. He said, ‘Come and visit.’ When I went, I saw the ghastliest thing ever. I saw this dead, naked effigy of himself hanging from the ceiling. I said, ‘Oh, my God. What is that?’ And I asked him, and he said, ‘Oh, that thing? In the night, I die. In the morning, I am born again.’ I thought he was cuckoo, but something about that really stuck. I loved it. I thought there was something really beautiful about that. So I said, ‘I am dead, so I need to be born again.'”
His early painted works demonstrate a complete break with his cartoon career. He painted watercolors on canvas using both his hands and feet and during his talk he shows footage of the making of several artworks. Later he moved into performance art and, wanting to make his pictures come alive, he asked his friends to paint their bodies and dance in front of the paintings.
“I had this crazy epiphany at two in the morning. I called my friends, painted on their bodies, and had them dance in front of a painting. And, all of a sudden, my paintings came alive. And then I was fortunate enough to actually perform this in California with Velocity Circus. I sat like you guys there in the audience and I saw my work come alive. You know, normally you work in isolation, and you show at a gallery, but here, the work was coming alive, and I had some other artists working with me.”
Raghava’s later artworks were darker than his previous paintings, due to his mother’s illness. In his own words, his art work “turned ugly” and he lost his audiences. Some of his works became autobiographical. When a friend’s sexuality was criticized in India he began to create violent and political artwork.
“So, after this, my works turned a little violent. I talked about this masculinity that one need not perform. And I talked about the weakness of male sexuality.”
After witnessing what a huge impact art can have on society, Raghava made the decision to stop painting and performing. He had lost collectors and was constantly being threatened by political activists. He decided to move back to New York where his artwork changed, even hinting at street art influences.
“Everything about my work has become more whimsical. This one is called What the Fuck Was I Thinking? and it talks about mental incest. You know, I may appear to be a very nice, clean, sweet boy. But I’m not. I’m capable of thinking anything. But I’m very civil in my action, I assure you. These are just different cartoons.”
Over the years, Raghava has reinvented himself using several different mediums. He professes to having a greater sense of responsibility and a knowledge of arts’ ability to affect peoples’ lives. For him, his art is a magic carpet ride and he wants everyone to ride with him.
Watch the video, “Raghava KK: Five lives of an artist” (length of video, 17:56 mins).
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