Friday, October 10, 2008
Keeping the Ears Closer to the Ground
Kakkathuruthu (Island of Crows) is an island located around 25 kilometers away from Kochi. Like any other island seen in Kerala’s backwaters, this also has the beauty of wilderness; coconut trees, paddy fields, fish harvesting ponds, weeds, small vegetable plantations, goats, cows, dogs, hens and cats. From the mainland of Kochi, you come to the shore of the backwaters and there is a person waiting for you with a boat; a kind of waiting, as a mainlander perhaps you would not understand.
While walking with Raghunadhan K, well known sculptor, who is now a ‘permanent resident’ of Kakkathuruthu, he tells us the story of the island. “Once upon a time, nobody was living in this island. Then came the land reform act. The landlords did not want to give away the fertile land to their tenants. So they found out places like this and sent the working class people away from the mainland. But they survived as the nature was so kind to them. Now they live a happy life here, without avarice, though they have to depend on the mainland for essential services,” says Reghundhan.
We, myself and artist K.M.Madhusudhanan, who is having his solo show at the Gallery OED, Kochi (curated by me), look at the people, especially women, who have come out to see us, occasional visitors from mainland, different in dress code and manners. They are all dark complexioned, with the sheen of oil on their skin. Their smooth white teeth flash smiles at us. They reverently look at Reghunadhan and he returns the smile; a kind of patriarchal acknowledgement of their presence.
Reghunadhan’s tryst with Kakkathuruthu is an interesting story. I don’t think there is a precedence like this in the recent history of Indian contemporary art; a whole village respecting an artist who is living amongst them, with them and for them. Even before Reghu became one of the much sought after names in Indian contemporary art, people in Kakkathuruthu recognized him as an artist- then came Mumbai gallerists, Delhi gallerists and a host of curators from all over the world.
All of them come to the shore of the backwater, in their flashy cars. But you don’t have the same car of James Bond, which could float on water. The oarsman is waiting for you. He asks you to balance the body and place your weight on the wooden seats so that the boat would not topple. You may be a good swimmer in the five star pools. But the backwaters have darker recesses that could beckon you to listen to its stories. “Be careful.”
While you marvel at the scenic beauty around, the weeds come up with the waves made by the movement of oar and ask you, “Where are you from?” But you don’t hear the queries of fishes, weeds, waves and the gentle breeze passing between your hair and ear.
“Slowly get down, go straight and take a right, follow the clearing and you reach Reghu Mash’s residence,” the boat man tells you. He knows where are you coming from and where are you going and when you would come back. Siddhartha.
Reghu Mash means Reghu Master. Reghu himself does not know who gave him this name. ‘Mash’. Everyone calls him Reghu Mash. It is magical realism. You don’t know the origin of your name. But Reghu can trace it back.
“I have never taught in any institution except for a six months stint Madhavan Nair Foundation in Edappally, Kochi. Some students of that time came here searching for me and I was comparatively new here. They might have asked the local people ‘where is Reghu Mash?’ Following them other students and friends came. The villagers slowly recognized that all these people were coming to meet ‘Reghu Mash’. I became their Reghu Mash. Now I am very happy when people call me that way though my college time friends find it a bit strange,” Reghu smiles.
Our driver is slightly confused regarding the ‘left turn’ he is supposed to take. He stops the car and asks one of the young guys hanging out near a junction in the highway. The young brat puts his head into the car though the front window and looks at us with a gleeful smile and asks:
“Reghu Mash or Toddy shop?”
Myself and Madhusudhan laugh and tell him that we are going to meet Reghu ‘Mash’.
“People like you come to this side only for two things: either you want to meet Reghu Mash or you want to drink some pure toddy,” the boy explains. We thank him and take the left turn and go.
Reghu and toddy are intricately connected. Whoever goes to meet him at his island ‘kingdom’ is treated with toddy, fish fry, a good meal, a walk through his studio and a lot of stories, which obviously carry a lot of wisdom. Reghu’s kitchen is always open and full. There is a full time cook, who doubles up as Reghu’s local protector, helper and errand boy. So many young art students from local colleges come, go straight into his kitchen and eat food.
“I don’t lock any of my drawers,” says Reghu. “Because nobody is driven by greed here.”
I am witnessing a historical meeting at Kakkathuruthu. Madhusudhanan and Reghu were classmates. Above all they were the founder members of the ‘Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors Association’. After a long period of trouble and tribulations, now with success in hand, they are meeting after twenty years.
And they talk like long lost brothers, one time comrades and all time mutual conscience keepers. But they have matured over a period of time; the agitation of yester years has given way to some kind of serene calmness.
Reghu came to Kakkathuruthu in 2002. He was already in Kochi, doing odd jobs like interior decoration for jewelries and textiles shops, painting altar pictures for churches etc. When Anoop Scaria of Kashi Gallery took him to Kakkathuruthu at their Kashi Retreat, Reghu said one thing to Anoop:
“I will work here. But you should not ask me to move unless and until I do it voluntarily.”
Anoop agreed immediately and Reghu started doing his sculptures there. And he was purely an outsider there. People gave him not so friendly looks.
‘I found out one thing, all the male members drink quite a lot. I knew that I am a better drinker than anybody. I got the confidence of the island people by drinking with them, eating with them and defeating them in both these fronts,” Reghu smiles.
He says he has been rehearsing for this drinking session all his life.
Reghu did not have enough money at that time. So he went to any house in the village and asked for food. He participated in their ceremonies. He became one of them. Now he shares their worries and happiness.
That’s why when Kashi Gallery presented Reghu’s solo show, the whole village celebrated as their victory. You would not believe it: the villagers made banners saying ‘All the best for our Reghu Mash’.
“These banners were tied all over the place. Even in the main junction at national highway, this banner was put up by the young people from the island,” Reghu says.
May be no Indian contemporary artist is treated with such reverence by a people who don’t have any stake in art or art market. They just celebrate their ‘own’ artists. When Reghu transports his huge sculptures from the island to the mainland by boat, it is another festival day for the villagers.
After six years of stay, Reghu has developed a deep relationship with the place.
“Many gallerists, artists, curators, critics, art collectors and friends have visited this place and I feel that it is my place and I need not go anywhere else to live or work,” Reghu says.
When money came after a couple of shows, Reghu did not invest that in concrete buildings or gold (the way local Malayalis do). Instead, he bought almost an acre of land near the backwater and started doing agriculture. Now it is the harvesting time. Also he has a fish pond and prawn breeding pond.
“The needs of the human beings are minimum and I want to find my food from this land where I cultivate my plants, art and thoughts,” says Reghu, the artist who does not want to go away from the people whom he loves.
(Reghunadhan in the picture with specs)