India artist Raghava KK's "magic carpet ride" at TED2010 – video

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 KK, Colossal Sleeper, 2008, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.

Raghava KK, Colossal Sleeper, 2008, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.

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.

Raghava KK, Lady after bath, 2001, watercolor on paper, 22 x 30 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.

Raghava KK, Lady after bath, 2001, watercolor on paper, 22 x 30 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.

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.'”

Raghava KK, Many sides of the mask, 2006, Venice-Suite, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 54 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.

Raghava KK, Many sides of the mask, 2006, Venice-Suite, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 54 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.

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.”

Raghava KK, Blow me kisses, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 36 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.

Raghava KK, Blow me kisses, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 36 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.

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).

JAS/KN

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Raghava KK: Five lives of an artist
In this video “Five lives of an artist”, Raghava KK tells
the story of being an artist, how art took him to new
places and the different stages of experiences, which
led him to what he is now. Raghava is a self-taught
artist and who started his career originally as a
newspaper cartoonist. At the age of 27, he is already
one of India’s most celebrated, emerging artist.
With endearing honesty and vulnerability Raghava captured the TED audience’s attention. He did
nothing more than tell his story, a tale of several lives wrapped into one. Raghava starts his
journey by telling a little bit of his childhood. Everyone’s life starts with school seasons and with
inspiring teachers. Raghava started his artistic journey during his second grade, but it abruptly
stopped when he was caught drawing a bust of a nude by Michelangelo by a school nun. In the
ninth grade, he started drawing again. Drawing a flattering portrait of the school principal that he
gave to him as a gift, Raghava soon became popular with his caricatures.
“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 on top of the class. So for me, cartooning gave
me a sense of identity. I got popular, but I was scared I’d get caught again. So what I did was I
quickly put together a collage of all the teachers I had drawn, glorified my school principal, put
him right on top, and gifted it to him. He had a good laugh at the other teachers and put it up on
the notice board. (Laughter) This is a part of that. And I became a school hero. All my seniors
knew me. I felt really special.”
As Raghava continues with his story he mentions his family. He tells fondly of his mother and
how she taught him how to draw, but also how to love. About his father’s holistic approach of
living and moreover about how he quit school to pursue a career as a cartoonist. Cartooning gave
him a sense of purpose. His popularity rose and surely caricatured over hundreds of celebrities. It
was addictive and being in love with the rush, he soon became a media star in India.
Raghava has known success and failures, but he cherishes his failures the most. After drawing a
cartoon about the 9/11, he was banished from the cartoonists’ organization in America. It was
from that moment that he realizes the 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 hate
mails, Hundreds of people telling me how they could have lived another day without seeing
this. I was also asked to leave the organization, a cartoonists’ organization in America, that for
me was my lifeline. That’s when I realized, you know, cartoons are really powerful, art comes
with responsibility.”
Giving us an insight into the concerns of today’s young artists and processes of contemporary artmaking,
Raghava was concerned of his financial lifeline. Not only has that, but also of the works
that exposes a range of issues relating to the society and the world. The next step he takes is
quitting his job and decides to travel. Along the path he meets an artist who inspires him to
become an artist.
“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 koo koo, 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 work as a painter made a complete break with his cartoon career. He painted
watercolors on canvas using only his hands and feet. Showing videos of making several art
works, the scene later changes to how he suddenly works with performing arts. Wanting the
pictures to come alive and dance, he asks his friends to paint their bodies and dance in front of
the paintings.
“So I decided — 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. And 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 it had some other artists working with me.”
Raghava’s later art works were darker than his previous works, due to his mother’s illness. Along
the road, he decided to explore the darker side of the human mind. Because of it, his art work
turned ugly and he lost his audiences. Some of his works became autobiographical. It also
became more violent and political, due to a friend’s sexuality that was criticized in India.
“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.”
Having experiences of how an art can have a huge impact on the society, Raghava had to stop
with his productions. Not only losing his collector, he was also banned and threatened by political
activist. He decides to do something different and thus tells us of his last steps of being reborn.
Just becoming a father, he also got the news of his mother recovering, as well of the election of
India’s new president. Upon the decision of moving back to New York, his art work changes and
becomes whimsical.
I moved back to New York, my work has changed. Everything about my work has become
more whimsical. This one is called “What the Fuck Was I Thinking?” 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. (Laughter) These are just
different cartoons.
Over the years, Raghava would reinvent himself to use several different mediums. Coming back
to art, you learn of having a greater sense of responsibility and knowing its ability to affect
peoples’ lives. To that Raghava finishes his speech off with,
“For me, my art is my magic carpet ride. I hope you will join me in this magic carpet ride, and
touch children and be honest. Thank you so much. (Applause)”
Watch the Raghava KK: Five lives of an artist here. (Length of video, 17:56 mins)

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