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n a pleasant evening in late February, Marutis and Suzukis alongside Benzes and Ambassadors pulled up to the white pillared rotunda of the Taj West End. Bangalore’s young and Bangalore’s wealthy stepped out, elegantly and traditionally attired. Silver-haired gentlemen men discussed their latest business ventures, while women clad in designer ethnic outfits in shades of embroidered oranges and sequined reds chatted about India’s best “five star schools” for their children. Young men in handsome kurtas and women in silver-threaded saris laughed as they sipped on cocktails. Above, chandeliers glistened and ahead, the stage was being set for a much-awaited event.

It was a night of Anthropomorphism, presented by Raghava Kalyanaraman, or simply Raghava KK. But while India’s glitterati was used to admiring the handsome paintings and watercolors of this emerging artist, no one was prepared for the colorful and mesmerizing show in which the young artist brought his work literally to life. Giant canvases depicting the faces of two women with mischievous smiles, camouflaged in a vivid scheme of oranges and reds, graced the stage. Human dancers, painted with hues of oranges, reds and green, stood in front of the paintings. When the traditional strums of the sitar and heavy beats of the drum began, the dancers were transformed into moving parts of the painting.

While India’s glitterati was used to admiring the handsome paintings and watercolors of this emerging artist, no one was prepared for the colorful and mesmerizing show in which the young artist brought his work literally to life.

One dancer’s stomach was painted with the face of a mysterious woman; the inhalations and exhalations of the dancer brought a life-like steady movement to the face. “I painted the dancers in one color on the front and another on the back, so that they would blend into the painting when facing one way, [and] pop out when facing the other,” explains Kalyanaraman. The impetus for this unique and innovative show came from Kalyanarman’s realization that while his art was static, as an artist he felt very dynamic. Kalyanaraman believed that dance would be one way to breathe life into his paintings.

Seeds of the Future

Kalayanaraman calls Bollywood actor Kamal Hassan his mentor. They talk regularly about art, his future and life in general. Kalayanaraman “hopes to do for art what Kamal Hassan has done for movies.” And Kamal Hassan says Raghava is well on his way. The famous actor was the chief guest at Raghava’s night of Anthromorphism in February. He praised the young artist for his passion and his energy and expressed his honor in being able to associate himself with such talent.

Just as Kamal Hassan has stretched out his hand and companionship to Kalayanaraman, Kalayanaraman has stepped forward to support a new generation of artists. During his last three exhibitions in Bangalore, Kalayanaraman invited three young students from Fame India (Foundation for Action Motivation and Empowerment), a school that caters to children who are coping with mental retardation, muscular dystrophy, down syndrome and cerebral palsy. Kalayanaraman has interacted with the children at their school on several occasions, and has expressed an interest in maintaining a long term relationship with the children, conducting workshops with them and helping them put on an exhibition of their own. Shashi Satyanarayanan, a teacher at Fame India says Kalayanaraman “recognizes them not as disabled children, but as artists.”

Pankaj, a 15-year-old with muscular dystrophy, smiles as he talks about Raghava. “His work is different from ours. I use brushes. Raghava paints with speed and uses only his hands and feet. I like his background colors … he likes to start with a lemon yellow, I always start with a crown yellow.” Kalayanaraman encourages the children to be unique and to embrace artistic freedom as much as possible. Pankaj remembers Kalayanaraman’s advice: “We should not think of perfection (as we paint), but do was we like, and paint what comes to our minds.”

Kalayanaraman began working with school children and terminally ill children at a very young age, while he was still a teenager and a cartoonist. In Bangalore, he reaches out to Fame India, but as he is an international man, his target is not only India’s youth but youth around the world. He has started a pet project called “Wei-Ji” that aims to inspire and build confidence in economically backwards and ill children through art workshops. The program was piloted with a group of children form The Robin Hood Foundation in New York City. He has also worked with other children in the Bronx and in the Boston area. Kalayanaraman’s environment, wherever he is, is his greatest source of inspiration, and he strives towards giving back as much as he gains.

Pretty pictures

Of course, Kalyanaraman is used to breaking new ground with his work. He divides his time between India and the United States, and while he is only 23 years old, his work has been celebrated in both. Heather Roy, curator of the Artana Gallery in Massachusetts, wrtes that “Bangalore-born painter Raghava is the most widely celebrated emerging artist in India. Exhibitions of his dreamlike watercolors on canvas, painted with his hands, are hosted by prominent galleries throughout India. Corporate collectors include the likes of Intel, GE India, and The Hindu, while the media (MTV, India Today and Times of India) feverishly cover Raghava’s art. In the United States, the Indo American Art Council has curated his painting to be auctioned by Christie’s, and the Queen’s Museum in New York recently collected a work for its permanent collection.”

Kalyanaraman paints “metamorphisms” of what he sees around him, and his travels inspire and directly influence his work. His painting methods recall abstract expressionist Jackson Pollack, and watercolor is his tool of choice. They have a haunting and mysterious allure—and they certainly don’t seem like the work of such a young man. Yet his schedule seems like that of a more seasoned artist: While in India, Kalyanaraman constantly moves from city to city, showing off his work. He has made some lucrative sales in India, and his profile is gaining notice in the States, particularly in his Boston base.

But this talented artist never actually received any formal training as an artist, and he is fond of quoting Vincent Van Gogh in explaining how he approaches his work: “[I paint] just what I want. If it is impossible, it is impossible, but I’m going to try it even though I don’t know how it ought to be done.”

The only schooling he had in art were his classroom doodles in the Bishop Cotton’s Boys School in Bangalore. He had a knack for caricacatures, cartoons and illustrations—by the time he was a teenager, newspapers like The Times of India, The Asian Age and The Indian Express printed his work. Cartooning and caricatures helped Kalayanaraman feel “a heightened appreciation of the infinite expressive possibilities of the human face.”

Raghava KK
Animation of art

Kalayanaraman’s interest in the face and its expressions encouraged him to animate his art through dance, and Anthropomorphism was born. He approached his friend Ranjan Mullaratt, founder of the Kalari Dance Academy, to choreograph the work. Mullarrat is an expert on Kalariyapettu, an ancient form of martial arts that originated in Kerala. Mullaratt and he and his students put the show together in less than 20 days. Various paintings by Kalayanaraman were placed as backdrops while dancers posed in front of them. The choreography consisted of a combination of intense movements, thrusts, jumps, flips, expressions of the face and eyes, and graceful, fluid steps. Pavitra Chalam, compeer at Anthromorphism, describes Kalariyapettu as an art form “emerging in a new avatar … in dance forms, both traditional and contemporary, in theater, in fitness and in movies, too.”

At the show in Bangalore, audiences received Kalayanaraman’s experiment well, mesmerized by the colors and fluid movements that seamlessly blended into one. Perhaps it’s because Kalayanaraman carries with him the undeniable power of youth. At 23, he has everywhere to go, and nothing to lose. He has the ability, and he feels, “the responsibility, to take Indian art to the next level—to innovate and to experiment.” And as he has successfully jump started his career at such a young age, he has “time to make mistakes and learn from them, and to grow and evolve at my own pace.”

In fact, on the night of Anthropomorphism, several “mistakes” occurred. Technical issues delayed the show by about 20 minutes in the beginning, causing the audience to become slightly restless and fidgety. At the close of the evening, Kalayanaraman forgot to thank a a few special guests and mispronounced the name of one of his sponsors. Still, the artist graciously apologized for everything, citing his inexperience, and the genuine apology was received with ease by the audience. Bollywood star Kamal Hassan, the chief guest at the event, praised Kalayanaraman, adding that mistakes and blunders “happen to the best of us.”

And though it can be a struggle for young artists in India to gain respect and appreciation, Kalayanaraman has broken in, and the future looks promising. Recently, he was the art director for an independent film made with an Emerson College film school graduate. He also recently collaborated with a filmmaker to create “making of the painting” movies for 10 of his works. Down the road, he looks forward to exploring other possibilities in film. Kalayanaraman is currently in Boston, experimenting with entirely new mediums of art in lithographs, woodcuts and digital work. He is also interested in taking Anthropomorphism international.

He is emphatic that for him, art is about creation. It is not about painting directly from models or objects or faces, but about merging color, texture, pattern, scale and framing to compose “aesthetic artifacts.” Yet these very same “artifacts” are full of newness, permutations and manipulations of what he sees. Kalayanaraman’s art, like Kalayanaraman’s style, is fresh and rejuvenating. It is hobby turned passion, and he pursues it with a boldness and energy that looks to be unstoppable.n

Sindya Narayanswamy lives in India.
Published on April 4, 2005.
Photography: Courtesy of Raghava KK.

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Raghava KK

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  1. June 13, 2008, 1:02 am Abha

    wow! read this now, in 2008, but it sounds so wonderful.