Obituaries are in a way 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 I am writing. On 13th December, I was deeply grieving the death of Hema Upadhyay, 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 in his Kochi studio came to us 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 friends and even the gallerists. According to his family, Rajan's condition worsened a couple of days back, and he breathed his last at 8.30 pm on 11th February.
I don’t 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 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 toward its roots. The horse is an emblem of the first arrival of the Arabs even before the arrival of the Dutch and the Portuguese on 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 M.K. 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. Then came the great onslaught of the social media, which demanded an expanded surname for registration of an account. Rajan M.K. 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.
Kochi was changing in the 1990s. Globalization was not new to Kochi. All the cool people in Kerala were from Kochi in those days. Malayalam film industry too was centered in the city. Art had found an abode there in Kalapeedam established in 1960s. There was a Chitram gallery run by 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 Ernakulam were definitely not the hub of Indian contemporary art as we see today, there were attempts to bring art to the city by 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 M.G .Road was hired by young artists to 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 (KMB) foundation was set up, it was Rajan who made the ground fertile for the growth of Indian contemporary art in Kochi.
After obtaining his post-graduation in painting from the fine arts faculty of Baroda in 1996, Rajan decided to go back to Kochi and set up his studio, rather than trying his luck 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, then a journalist with The Hindu, also came to Rajan’s circle and they decided to be together in life.
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. 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 and found occasional success in both Mumbai and Delhi art markets.
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.
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 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.
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 about 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 camps that I had organized. What I remember is one night at the shallow seashore 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 (he was an accomplished tabalist.) I followed him with my not so trained fingers (though I too had learned tabala during my school days). We were the wings of the migratory birds then. One of them has flown away into the horizon, to the mighty atelier of a simple god.
(A full version of this article is available at JohnyML's blog By All Means Necessary: (http://johnyml.blogspot.in/2016/02/one-more-artist-departs-life-and-times.html)