Obituaries in a way are the reviews of not only the lives and works of the departed ones but also that of the writer himself. In a gap of exactly sixty days this is the second obit piece that I am writing. On 13th December I was deeply grieving the death of Hema Updhyay and on 12th February I am saddened by the demise of Rajan M.Krishnan, a well-known contemporary artist who has been a close friend of many and mine too. Almost a year back the news of an unexpected brain hemorrhage at some wee hours of a night that hit Rajan M.Krishnan in his Kochi studio came to us, friends like a body blow and all of us have been anxious all these while about his well-being. Somehow his family chose to keep him away from the friends and even the gallerists. Nobody knew for almost year what has been happening to him. They say, his condition worsened a couple of days back and he breathed his last at 8.30 pm on 11th February 2016.
(Painting by Rajan Krishnan in my show)
I do not remember whether Rajan had any exhibition in 2014. When the stroke came unannounced at Rajan’s studio, someone told me that he had been working hard for a year for his forthcoming solo show. If I am not wrong, Thekkan Kaatu or Dokhiner Hawa curated by me as a part of the 47th Annual Exhibition of the Birla Academy of Fine Arts, Kolkata was Rajan’s last exhibition in which he was represented by a brand new work, the image of an Arabian horse standing stately at a sea shore, in his hallmark grey and white style. Rajan was embarking on a journey to understand the positive and negatives of colonialism by going towards its roots. The horse is an emblem of the first arrival of the Arabs even before the arrival of the Dutch and the Portuguese to the Indian shores. Like a stark image in a Tarkovsky film, this horse stood alone in a desolate shore before galloping into the history of Indian sub-continent. Rajan was a film buff and he liked the films of Andre Tarkovsky who had sculpted in time and painted on the celluloid.
Rajan was Rajan MK. Artists changed their names, rather expanded their initials when money came in the art market. The art market controlled by the north Indian entrepreneurs and the international art scene that addressed people with their surnames for adding western politeness to their eastern counterparts demanded the south Indian artists who went by their initials and first names change or expand their initials. It was amusing for us to see our Rajan becoming Rajan M.Krishnan. Over use or over familiarity smoothen the edges of a crude joke and the names became familiar and normal. Then came the great onslaught of the social media which demanded an expanded surname for registration of an account. India got its surname via facebook. Rajan MK or Rajan M.Krishnan, the person behind the name was the same, smiling, argumentative, mildly persuasive, friendly, polite, but assertive enough when it came to his art.
(Painting by Rajan Krishnan)
Kochi was changing in the 1990s. Globalization was not new to Kochi. All the cool people in Kerala were from Kochi in those days. Cinema industry there too was centered in the city. Art had found an abode there in Kalapeedam established in 1960s. There was a Chitram gallery run by the noted painter Late C.N.Karunakaran. In 1987, after the death of K.P.Krishnakumar, one of the leaders of the Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors Association, a few artists had started living in and around the city. Though the twin cities of Fort Kochi and Eranakulam were definitely not the hub of Indian contemporary art as we see today there were attempts to bring art to the city by the public and private agencies. Lalitha Kala Akademy under the leadership of Ajayakumar revived the Durbar Hall and made it exhibition worthy. Woodland hall at the MG Road was hired by young artists and put up their shows. At Edappally the Madhavan Nair Foundation had started its activities in the early 1990s. At Fort Kochi, Dravidia and Kashi were at their inception stage through tree festivals, Bob Marley festival and so on. Many years before the Kochi Muziris Biennale foundation was set up, it was Rajan who made the ground fertile for the growth of Indian contemporary art in Kochi.
(Rajan Krishnan in my Daman camp)
After obtaining his PG in painting from the fine arts faculty of Baroda in 1996, Rajan M.Krishan (who was still Rajan MK) decided to go back to Kochi and set up his studio there rather than trying his luck out there in Baroda itself or in more lucrative cities like Mumbai or Delhi. For almost five years nothing was heard about him as the market was not seeking out young artists, nor was it looking at Kochi as a potential port of landing contemporary art. It was not that Rajan played the role of Vasco Da Gama for contemporary artists in Kochi. Artists were already working there and what they lacked was an anchor. In Rajan they found one as he had already started associating with Anoop and Dorry, the founders of Kashi Art Café and Gallery. At Rajan’s modest studio in Kochi artists gravitated for animated discussions, food and music. Renu Ramanathan, a journalist with the Hindu daily also came to Rajan’s circle and they decided to be together in life.
(Rajan and Renu - source facebook)
Rajan-Renu or vice versa was much stronger and lauded in Kochi and elsewhere than the duo in the KMB leadership. It was through a very definite highjack attempt masterminded by one of the Biennale leaders that Rajan was dethroned and he had to find alternate ways to establish himself in Kochi. The overthrowing of Rajan took place through facilitating schism between the Kashi Gallery management and Rajan M.Krishnan. Soon Kashi became the front office of the Mumbai based art market operations in down south. Rajan had to help other galleries to come up and collaborate with them. While the Mumbai market was using Kochi as a recruiting center, whether you like it or not, it was Rajan who gave an identity to Kochi based artists and so many of them came out of his studio who found occasional success in both Mumbai and Delhi art markets.
(work by Rajan Krishnan)
Looking back I can say for sure that Rajan was instrumental in creating a Kochi art style which is more environmentally concerned, poetic and nostalgic. The large scale works that Rajan had started working on contained the images of the left over places where the industrial collapse had given a different hue of rusting and decaying. He was poetically expressing the degeneration of a literate society in Kerala. He, almost like a botanist documented the water plants, palm trees, the wild plants that grow along the river fronts and so on in his characteristic style. They were the emblems of a dying culture. Through them Rajan asked the initiated public to take responsibility of such degeneration of the eco system and the eco system of politics and culture in Kerala. Rajan was a village boy in his mind. Even when he was living in the city, he was thinking about the nostalgic life in a village; not because he was craving to go back there but because he knew that slowly such a life also would change and the environments will yield before the onslaught of urbanization and industrialization, which would eventually turn everything into rusting landscapes of abandoned structures.
(Rajan Krishnan in his studio)
Living with artists, moving around with artists and working with the artists seemed to have given a different high to Rajan. With him, another parallel commune of artists was getting formed in an island nearby under the leadership of Reghunathan, a sculptor. Reghunathan lived a marooned life in that island, depending on the local produce and the backwater fish, toddy and so on. He did his surrealistically sarcastic sculptures in thatched sheds and the transporting or those works to the mainland by boats was considered to a local festival of the island inhabitants. Reghunathan also initiated organic farming in one of the fields, all with the support of the local artists. Rajan was a willing collaborator in all these activities though eventually Reghunathan became a Biennale supporter and Rajan, a staunch opponent of the same.
(Painting by Rajan Krishnan)
I do not know whether Rajan’s opposition to the KMB was based on the alleged financial mismanagements or was it based on the personal differences or old rivalries. Whatever it may be Rajan was never a part of the Kochi Muziris Biennale. And one could definitely say that he was one of those few artists in Kochi who withstood the co-opting tactics of the Biennale management. They could collaborate, co-operate and co-opt all the art establishments including the public owned Durbar Hall in and around Kochi. It was only the establishment of a gallery called ‘Birds’ in Trivandrum and also something called ‘Triva Contemporary’ Rajan seemed to have affiliated with the then incipient or nascent Biennale. Birds and Triva died an eventual but natural death as they were not expected to survive more than two years. Rajan stood by them as those initiatives in a city where he did his graduation in Painting. But he showed a high amount of dignity in keeping himself away from the market tantrums.
(Rajan with his project Ore)
Bodhi came to his life during the boom years and changed him for good. Bodhi gallery was the one and only gallery that could play the role of a game changer in those years. Amit Judge of the Bodhi Gallery and Sonal Singh, his first lieutenant picked up Rajan M.Krishnan and gave him one of the most ambitious solo exhibitions in their Wadibunder Dockyard Gallery in Mumbai. Rajan, much before the Biennale could think of making art with the larger support of student community in Kerala, implemented a very ambitious project of making a million terracotta human and animal figures a la Antony Gormely and he called the project ‘Ore’. This took almost three months for hoards of art students in Kochi to make millions of those figures. It was ambitious and interesting and Bodhi supported it well. Perhaps, a compartment full of students came from Kochi for the Bodhi opening of Ore and they were carted to the gallery in two Volvo buses and Rajan was given a red carpet welcome there.
(Ore Revisted by Rajan Krishnan)
The collapse of market had affected so many artists and I don’t whether Rajan was affected harshly by it for I have never looked at anybody’s growing or diminish wealth. Even after the collapse of market, Rajan announced the making of two buildings for himself; one his studio in Kochi and another Walden Pond House in Iringalakkuda, Trissur where he spent his last years. The inauguration of Walden Pond house was an event and was celebrated in the social media. This Walden Pond house was an idealistic expression of Rajan’s wish to live near a pond, the woods, closer to nature, simply but beautifully. Henry Thoreau, the 19th century economist and philosopher had chosen to live near Walden Pond, retreat waterfront in Massachusetts. Thoreau said of this: "I went to the wood because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Rajan also wished to live a simple life but productive and philosophical life like Thoreau. But he could spend time there only in total amnesia.
I have been writing obits for a long time now. I wonder how death has become a part of my writing career. I have memories to share about the people who depart. Those memories are perhaps not an intimate relationship that I had shared with them. Those are memories that linger on even if I try to avoid them. Rajan participated in a couple of campus that I had organized. What I remember is one night at the shallow sea shore in Daman that we friends sat at a table and sang under the influence of an insane moon that was shining up there and the air thick with Eros. Rajan played Tabala on the table beautifully as he was accomplished Tabalist. I followed him with my not so trained fingers (though I too had learned tabala during my school days) . We were then the wings of the migratory birds. One of them has flown away into the horizon, to the mighty atelier of a simple god.