A work of art is never complete for an artist: Keshav Venkataraghavan

Meet the man who makes Krishna come alive with his soul and spirit
A work of art is never complete for an artist: Keshav Venkataraghavan
A work of art is never complete for an artist: Keshav Venkataraghavan

It wasn’t supposed to be an interview. We were meeting to talk about his Krishna For Today series, among other things. I was prepared to meet the artist but found myself face to face with a Grand Mâitre – a teacher, a philosopher and a gnani.  Keshav Venkataraghavan’s strokes of pen and plume are that of a soul at peace as much as they are that of an enquiring one, the ultimate paradox that is life.

It is not often that you meet people who exude knowledge without clutter. Keshav’s conversation is as neat and complete as his lines on canvas are, fully rounded like a complete jathi in dance. You see the same combination of firm and light strokes whether they are in the cartoons he illustrates for The Hindu or Krishna’s paintings. In fact you cannot interview Keshav. You can only listen, absorb, be challenged and contemplate as he speaks of the Italian Renaissance (Raffaello is a favourite) or Vishnudharmottara and the treatise on painting in it called Chitra Sutra. “I view art as a whole – dance, music, sculpture, architecture and more all go to makeup my understanding of a complete artist,” he says. “You cannot appreciate one art and not another – for me that is impossible.”

Keshav’s journey into painting started with an enquiry into myths and symbols in Indian art as represented in the epics. He had studied the European masters and sketched some of their greatest works. His search for a mean between tradition and modernity brought him to ancient Indian texts which he says are “ideas conveyed through symbols.” For him the poison that Shiva holds in his throat is a difficult conversation that all of us encounter in life – conversations stuck in our throats that we can neither spit nor swallow as both would damage greatly. By now it is getting impossible to take notes. Listening is the only option by now.

Keshav’s Krishna is beyond religion and dogma, beyond nations and nationalities. It is free of human frailties and prejudices even as they are understood and dealt with. He has Chinese Krishna and a Greek one and according to him if Krishna were walking on the streets today, he would most probably be wearing jeans and a T. And this is a line I love from Keshav: “You can only break rules when you understand them well.” Who better to hear that from than a consummate artist who wears his knowledge so lightly?

Arjuna, for Keshav, is the mind and Kurukshetra is a war within all of us. The Pandavas and the Kauravas are the two armies living within us, symbolising our gunas (only mortal souls are swayed by gunas) and Krishna, the teacher, is the Supreme Force. The stories of wars and conflicts, the various manifestations of the good and evil in all of us become redundant if we get to the essence of what we are all capable of attaining – this is the message in the paintings. For Keshav, this is Ananda. He quotes the Vedas to say “Ananda ithi brahm” – Ananda is the truth. Or you may wish to say satyam, gyanam, anantam, brahman. For Keshav the gnani, Ananda is Krishna in all his manifestations for he represents our greatest joys. Krishna is a symbol for eternal joy and the fear of death belongs to mortals. The Gita says the soul does not die but due to ignorance the soul identifies itself with the body. The Bhagavatha tells us how to conquer the fear of death.

When Keshav started studying the epics he was unaware how deeply into symbolism this journey would lead him. It was a leap of faith into the unknown. “The epics have conceptualised abstract human thoughts, personified them and created beautiful stories. Once you understand the stories, they vanish because their universality engulfs you,” says this creator or caricatures and painter of gods. The Chitra Sutra establishes guidelines and ideal measurements but does not limit the artist’s imagination, much like the kalpana swaras in classical music or Jazz. Keshav says faces are idealised rather than actual and size is seen in comparison to either a social or political role. I begin to wonder if drawing cartoons for a newspaper and painting Krishna as soul food is how Keshav manages the sublime and the real. He laughs. I am overjoyed to learn that when he paints on a large canvas, music helps him to explore his strokes.

Keshav first contributed caricatures and illustrations to the well-known Tamil weekly Ananda Vikatan. Soon he was to sketch the legends of Carnatic music during the December season in Chennai and his repertoire ranged from Semmangudi to Maharajapuram Santhanam. He refers to Satyajit Ray’s documentary on the goddess of abhinayam Balasaraswati and master of Odissi Kelucharan Mahapatra, the perfect tribhanga, the backsweep in dance, the comparative rigidity of Bharatanatyam when viewed with Odissi – the flow of thoughts and imagery is breathtakingly endless. By this time I have realised there is absolutely no point in even quickly jotting points - how do you contain a Kshirasagara in a thimble?

Utkala (present day Odisha) is where Keshav says Indian art as we know it had strong roots and spread to fairly distant lands. This Eastern art is based on idealism (a perception of what we see in ideal terms) rather that classical realism which is the Western classical art. This school of art extended from present day Iraq to Angkor wat in Cambodia, he says. We speak of Jayadeva’s Ashtapati and Krishna in those stories. Keshav hesitates. “Some concepts are difficult to convey to an audience that may not have the maturity or openness of mind to see what is being depicted…I have done some work in this area and will exhibit them at some point,” he says.

Whatever the situation and however difficult the struggle, Keshav’s Krishna’s are always in control and at peace. The displayed works include the Experiments with Krishna series, New Forever Series, Single line series (eka-rekha), Dialogues with Arjuna series (focus on the Bhagavad Gita), the Kaliamardhana series, the Govardhana series, Krishnapremi series (the monkey is an old metaphor for the mind but Keshav chose the Orangutan which has a saffron hue to denote detachment) and the Vatsalyam series which deals with the grace and benevolence of the cow which is the jeevatma or a personification of the earth.

The story that took my breath away was a twitter conversation Keshav had with a 12 year-old boy from Odisha. He was in the process of painting Krishna as Lord Jagannath with Balabhadra and goddess Subhadra. Via twitter the boy guided Keshav about the nature of Krishna as worshipped in Puri, the stories behind that deity and other details generally unknown to the general public. If this is not divine intervention, what is?

View some of his work here

(All images have been produced from the artist's blog with permission)

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