Sitting at the large window sill that brings February’s cool sunlight and air into his spacious studio at Akurli Om buildings near the Lokhandwala complex in Mumbai, artist Raj More looks at the sprawling slum below him. Named Kranti Nagar (Township of Revolution), the matchbox like concrete and tin structures spread all over with a peculiar order in its apparent chaos and end up at the foot of a hill which has a forest cover lining the adjoining reserved forest called Sanjay Park. Raj points at the pale brown hutments at the edge of the hill and tells us, myself and my fellow traveller, that though those dwellings look closer in fact they are located quite far. “There is no electricity and no water supply there. Life out there is an ongoing fight against the odds. Yet, children from those slum clusters come to the school below here and occasionally I work with them,” Raj says. “People from my clan are also there in Kranti Nagar,” he continues, “and I go there often, meeting people, participating in community activities and even giving some art lessons to the young people.” Raj seems to be quite earnest in his acts. Does he do this because he has got his clansmen living there? “No,” says Raj emphatically. “I do it because these slum clusters reminds me about my own past life in this big city called Mumbai and it tells me about the indomitable spirit of human beings not only to struggle and survive but also to win and live a life of their own.” True to his words, Raj is one of the rare painters of Mumbai’s life, its people and all what makes Mumbai the maximum city.
(Raj More's studio- a partial view)
Raj More is a well known artist and his fame is heavily depended on his perennial interest in the chosen city of his life, Mumbai. Television channels and newspapers have featured Raj for his ‘Mumbai’ works. His face is familiar even to the ordinary public in Mumbai because he gets featured in the page three columns of newspapers whenever he attends an art do in the city. Raj is stylish in a very peculiar sense; his style, the curly mop that he has and the tough dark complexion give him the charm of the black singer James Brown. Closer to home, he looks more like a serious version of the Bollywood comedian, Johny Lever. The name Johny seems to be his lucky charm as the major liquor brand Johnnie Walker recently featured him in their short film series that highlight ‘inspiration’. Fame has not touched his core leaving him tipsy and making him forget his roots. Calling himself an ‘accidental artist’, Raj too had his share of slum life where once he had lived and worked in an one room tenement. “You can take slum life in two ways; one, you could take it as a breeding ground for your future thoughts. Two, you can get steeled by the circumstances and become one of the slum dwellers. I was lucky to bring the essence of dreaming and toughening in the right proportions in my life. Today, when I look at the slum clusters from here, from this vantage point, I feel the same energy of survival. I do not regret having gone through that experience,” muses Raj.
(Painting by Raj More)
“Raj, naam to suna hoga’ (Raj, you might have heard of my name)- this is one famous dialogue that most of the Shah Rukh Khan characters speak as an introduction to his love interest in many of his early movies. The name Raj is self referential. Raj is king. Raj is one who is born to win and rule. So the name, when it comes to a Khan character, is a metaphor. Our Raj, Raj More too had come to Mumbai to become a film personality. In fact his destination was not Mumbai. It was Pune. After his school education he managed to escape from his town Akola in Vidarbha district in Maharashtra, where he had a comfortable life in a well to do family. His mind was not in academics and he had the ability to draw. More than drawing he had the ability to mimic and act. Pune was the nearest destination where he thought he could nourish his big screen dreams by joining the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). In Pune he worked with theatre groups and earned his name as an actor and team leader. But the FTII dream was not becoming true. Nothing to hold him back, Raj reached Mumbai and tried to join the film industry. It was then someone advised him to join Sir.J.J.School of Art to pursue a degree in fine arts. Raj did not want to become a ‘painter’ as he knew how to paint and working with technicians in the film industry painting sets had become a play for him. He wanted to learn visual communications and he obtained admission in Applied Arts at JJ School of Arts. But in the Applied Art department he was more like a painter and with the unfulfilled desire to join FTII in mind he took photography as an optional subject. To cut the long story short, Raj did not get admission at the cinematography department of FTII. This was a turning point in his life. He now wanted to devote all his time to paint.
(Painting by Raj More)
As a student Raj was a nonconformist. When J.J. School was all out there to support abstraction in art, Raj decided to stick to the figurative genre. He thought that abstract art was a sort of eye fooling and texture making than making real sense to the artist or to the viewers. But then he understood abstraction as the essence of things and he felt that even in the figurative work there is a tremendous sense of abstraction. It was then he started loading his brushes with colours. He was not looking for a clean and shiny painterly surface. He wanted to build the surface of a painting layer by layer. Soon he found his tool too; the palette knife. He started working like a mason, making brick like layers on the canvases though due to the pressures of the then existing market (and fast moving market) Raj was painting the conventional subjects; Buddhas, Hanumans, Lotuses and so on. A solo exhibition in 1999 at Jehangir Art Gallery, immediately after his graduation, was a super success. Suddenly a new artist was born in Mumbai’s art market. Everyone wanted a Raj canvas but the artist was not ready to go by the demand. The growing dissatisfaction with his own art language, especially the themes, sharp criticism from the peer group and an energetic art scene spearheaded by seniors like Bose Krishnamachari, Jitish Kallat and so on, helped Raj to evolve as an artist with a larger mission and a sharper focus. Mumbai became his pet theme, slowly but steadily.
(Painting by Raj More)
“I am a Maharashtrian but I could not have called myself a Mumbaikar at that time,” remembers Raj. Negotiating Mumbai, the maximum city with minimum material circumstances for him, was excruciatingly painful for him. “Anyone would have fallen either for lobbying or bootlicking. I did not follow the suit. I just kept on working against all odds. People started recognizing my works slowly for their textural values and then slowly for their thematic orientation. Mumbai had already started enchanting me. I had fallen in love with Mumbai.” Raj started working with Mumbai images in an effort to understand the city and its people. Architectures, BEST buses, taxis, local trains and landmarks were the first images that came to him as dominant features of the city. He started bringing all these images as reflections. Sometimes these images are autonomous in his works and at other times they are interdependent. A BEST bus could reflect a commemorative statue and the heritage architecture while a car wind screen could become a ‘window’ to see the city through. Raj’s obsession with the city went further to a metaphorical level where he started viewing the city as a bull; charging down to attack. It could be his reflection on the sheer energy of the city of Mumbai or even he could be metaphorically speaking about the bullish run of the stock market. But soon we see his bull images wearing dark shades or cooling glasses. These glasses started reflecting the city and its peculiar visual emblems. Then came the helmeted head where the identity of the rider is obfuscated with the city reflecting on the helmet.
(Painting by Raj More)
These paintings are mostly red, black, blue and yellow in colour. One cannot say that Raj’s works have cool colours. They are all hot colours and highlight the sanguine nature of the city. The loaded strokes literally weigh the works and we could see the architectural features merging into a sort of abstraction in his works. These works could be called odes to the city of Mumbai. And each loaded stroke could also be seen as the building blocks of the same city. And if one tries to break it down to the constituent part of this city, one would reach a single slum cluster from which the city has metastasised into innumerable edifices and verities. Mumbai cannot be Mumbai if one avoids the cultural narratives created by the Bollywood movies. Raj pays tribute to this aspect of the dream city by painting eternally remembered scenes from cult movies and also by painting the images of the super heroes and heroines from various periods of India’s film history. Sometimes they are dominant in the pictorial frames and some other times they are seen reflected on the other emblems of Mumbai. In yet another manifestation they are seen submerged in other multiple layers of paints. Raj, like this also has paid rich tribute to Delhi also in his solo show titled ‘C for Delhi’ though his first and foremost love remains to be the city of Mumbai.
(an Old painting by Raj More)
In his studio one comes across a huge painting with a crowned crow as the iconic central imagery. The background is created by thick strokes of red in a symphonic pattern. A closer look reveals that the colour patches are nothing but the miniature version of the slum clusters that he sees everyday through the window of his studio. “Crow is a survivor and also a cleaner. Sometimes I feel that human beings in this city fringe are like crows; they clean the city and survive.” Raj cannot just get over with the slum clusters. “They are not my reality anymore. But they are there always as a reminder. They for me look like memento mori,” confides Raj. At the other end of the studio one could see an old Godrej Shelf. A second look tells you that it is a painted shelf. The olive green sheen is partly fading and the stickers on it are quite telling. Each sticker on the shelf speaks of the political and aesthetical choices of the owner. “It is one thing that every slum dweller wants to possess. You go to any slum house, you will see a shelf like this,” says Raj. Therefore, this shelf, in Raj’s works become an icon; an icon that the people there worship as the central image of their belief in life.
(JohnyML at Raj's Studio)
Raj does not work with any particular gallery. Nor does he approve of the kind of hierarchical structure that exists today in the gallery system. Many well meaning collectors and curators have helped Raj to build up his career successfully. He fondly remembers the names of Nisha Jhamwal, Yash Birla, Niyatee Shinde and so on for supporting him during the formative years of his career. In Delhi Ibrahim Alkazi helped him to root. United Art Fair One and Two directed by this writer and Peter Nagy respectively consolidated his position in Delhi further and today there are many collectors for his works and Rohit Gandhi of Palette Gallery is a promoter of Raj’s works. International fame came in form of the Best Asian Art Award in 2010. It was just a fun application for Raj and even he had forgotten he had applied for it. He was adjudged as the best Asian Artist by EM Gallery in Korea and ever since Korea is a second art home for Raj. In 2012, he received the National Award by the Central Lalit Kala Akademy.
(Raj in his old studio)
What happened to his ambitions for big screen? Yes, Raj has not forgotten it. He is already on his way to make his first short film. He himself has written the script and soon the shooting will start. As Raj seems to be reluctant to divulge further details of this film, I choose not to press on. Raj, however does not want to wear too many hats. “I want to be known for my works and through my works. There is no artistic self separated from my works,” he asserts. He is critical of the ongoing art scene in India. “There are coteries everywhere. Young artists lose out not because of these coteries but because they themselves become the worshippers of these coteries. One has to find one’s own path but unfortunately many are not doing it,” Raj opines. He says that he could become an abstract artist at any time now, but he is seriously critical about the kind of abstract art that our artists are doing these days. “I would call them seasonal abstract artists. The present flavour is V.S.Gaitonde. Everyone wants to do a Gaitonde act. But he has done his work and gone. Why can’t we think about our own abstract art?” asks Raj. A floor down in the same building, Raj has a spacious house where he lives with his wife Sangeeta More and two children, Lucky and Krish. Sangeeta does a lot of bag designs and decorative works and she has established a business platform for herself with her friends from the same building. When we take leave, I feel that the dialogue reverberating in the air, “Raj, naam to suna hoga.”