Interview: Riyas Komu

‘It is my attempt to reclaim fearlessness’

Print edition : June 26, 2015

Riyas Komu. He says his work "On International Workers' Day, Gandhi from Kochi" was conceptualised in 2015 to trigger a discourse by placing the history of violence against a man who stood for non-violence. Photo: H. Vibhu

In conversation with Riyas Komu.

Born in 1971 in Kerala, Riyas Komu took his master’s degree in fine arts from the JJ School of Arts, Mumbai. In the last decade, he has created a striking body of work spanning varying media and genres. His works are noted for their strong political stances involving intense critical and creative engagements with the public domain.

His work has been part of many prestigious and museum shows across the world, including “Paris-Delhi-Bombay”, Centre Pompidou, Paris; Prague Biennale; 52nd Venice Biennale 2007; “Concurrent India”, Helsinki Art Museum; “Indian Highway”, Museum of Contemporary Art, Lyon; Herning, Denmark; “India Awakens: Under the Banyan Tree, Essl Museum, Austria; “Finding India: Art for the New Century”, Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei, Taiwan; Milan Museum; “India Contemporary”, GEM, Museum of Contemporary Art, Hague; “India Now: Contemporary Indian Art Between Continuity and Transformation”, Milan, Italy; and “India Xianzai: Contemporary Indian Art”, Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai. He is also the director of programmes, Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

Both Gandhi and Marx are iconic figures though they follow different semiotic and political trajectories. What prompted you to bring these two together? Was it a figurative/aesthetic or political/interventionist impulse? There were protests from some quarters about the “abuse” of Gandhi.

When I exhibited this series as part of “Missing Pavilion”, a show that was curated by Gayatri Sinha along with five student curators from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, I had stated about Gandhi that, “This work is very explicit against secrets. The words are known. The man is part of our blood. New pavilions will be built on his chest. Salute him for being around”. Initially the background of these works was left as white. I changed it for the new show “On International Workers’ Day, Gandhi from Kochi”. This is my experiments with Gandhi to learn Gandhi by repositioning him from a context I observed during my last four years in Kochi.

My direct interactions with the people of Kochi have been crucial. Especially, the working class labourers have been a revelation as to how this workforce is being used for political manipulations. This workforce is a residual past of the old glory of Kochi complemented by its rich trade history and a celebrated history of “working class blues”. But now you see this workforce as the most frustrated, and most of the families are poverty-stricken and alienated. I cannot see or have never felt there is a hope for their future unless the system stops taking advantage of their misery.

Marx has been part of our blood. But I have not made any deliberate attempt to juxtapose Gandhi with Marx. But in response to my works I was very happy to see the article contributed by K.P. Shankaran for BRICK, the tabloid I published along with the show. The criticism doing the rounds against the work for using this photograph of Gandhi is astonishing. Here the representation of Gandhi is the argument in the project to amplify his expressive look, body and loud smile. Most importantly, this painting is based on a photograph taken in 1931, when Gandhi was 62 years old. He was travelling from India to England on a ship to take part in the Second Round Table Conference, which he attended as the sole official Congress representative.

Gandhi didn’t die of fever, he was murdered. At a time when history is being reinterpreted for political mobilisations and power gains and when the perception of politics is manipulated through well-designed commercial campaigns, it’s very important to fight back with icons like Gandhi for counterargument by juxtaposing our time with his principles and the ideologies that he stood for. Here Gandhi is painted, but a Marxian presence is celebrated. It complements the relevance of these icons but amplifies Gandhi.

I’d like to paraphrase Anita Thampi, one of the leading poets of Kerala, that the Gandhi figure is a marvellously simple one that submits itself easily both to the doodling child and to the master artist; so minimal that a dot or a line cannot simplify it further—an inner and outer simplicity and a stark directness of this figure can readily lure anyone to make it their logo. This figure can easily mislead anyone into thinking that it can be used any which way.

But the historical gravity and political vitality the symbol wields are not that simple; nor is its intellectual and spiritual depth so light. In Gandhi’s case, the tactic of blacking out something that refuses to succumb by appropriating it is not going to work. Because, Gandhi is a rhizomatic image that is too sharp for such manipulations.

And Gandhi appears in our lives as a constant reminder of non-violence and tolerance. So it is in this site that Gandhi is positioned as an icon of resistance and fearlessness, which is the most important political weapon we should carry. It’s my attempt to reclaim fearlessness.

This show has an interesting interface between two sets of figures and texts. One is a set of poster figures of the smiling, toothless Gandhi, bony and bare-chested with key words from his panchsheel that are “slashed” with their dark, current predicaments. On the other are the litho stones engraved with bare historical facts: tomb stones, as it were, of traumatic events that mar/k post-Independence Indian history. What kind of a dialogue/interface/conflict did you want to project or trigger?

In “Stoned Goddesses”, produced in 2012, I used one of the most historically important material on which Raja Ravi Varma iconised mythical figures. Lithostone as a material carries [on it] the images which it has produced to date.

In the Indian context lithostone is mainly attributed to Raja Ravi Varma who used it to portray gods and goddesses, which became a decor or an image of worship throughout the country. I used the same surface to project and document the violent massacres in post-Independence India triggered by religious fascism. “On International Workers’ Day, Gandhi From Kochi” was conceptualised in 2015 with this new series of paintings to trigger a discourse by placing the history of violence against a man who stood for non-violence.

Gandhi is not just the face of printed currency that jumps out of vending machines, Gandhi doesn’t represent the amount of bad loans taken by the corporates, but Gandhi represents the values that our nation was built on. My attempt is to break Gandhi, and his ideals which made him the Father of the Nation, from the confines of the fractals of a system that can’t stop spinning but continuously sideline Gandhi to the margins of our aspirational society and the resulting greed.

Gandhi as a metaphor should be respected as a value given back to an individual for shedding his blood and sweat for this nation. Gandhi should be remembered and celebrated as an individual who experimented consistently with the changing times and not as an icon that can be used for vested interests. I created these works not because I feel sorry for Gandhi but [because] I feel sorry for the ones who manipulate him.

In the discussions that followed the opening of the show, there were some references about another crucial missing link: Ambedkar. How do you “figure out” his non-presence here? Or, has it something to do with the specific political history and discourses of Kerala, where Gandhi and Marx were the two overarching presences?

The social reformers that Kerala has seen are the likes of Sree Narayana Guru and many others of his time who played a pivotal role in empowering the downtrodden. Land reforms, civil rights, universal education and health, attempts to annihilate caste and social inequalities, empowering women and, more than anything else, the history of social action and political engagement has made Kerala less reliant on Ambedkar as an icon. But at the same time it is important to observe that Ambedkar was celebrated and respected as a man who shaped our Constitution. That is how different societies acknowledge crucial contributions of legends.

Gandhi and Marx have an overarching presence in the psyche of the people of Kerala, but I would like to say in a social space that it’s also Gandhi and Sree Narayana Guru, Gandhi and Lenin, Gandhi and Stalin, Gandhi and Che Guevara, and Gandhi and Mao. This is not a romantic claim but a reality reflected as you travel the breadth of Kerala.

Your show, in its use of images and text, has something very “prosaic and pedestrian” about it. This can also be seen as an attempt to reclaim and reimagine the prosaic and the pedestrian. What is your take on this?

India, after Independence, has marched ahead with Gandhi’s idea of non-violence. This explains why we always try to redefine and reimagine India through Gandhi and his principles and adapt it to changing times, perhaps also as a reminder to ourselves of “how we got here”.

But what we are seeing now is reducing Gandhi to a gimmick or using Gandhi as “Fevicol” to cover crimes.

My art practice has always been an attempt to create an archive of our times. I have always tried to document the stories of the marginalised, the underprivileged and the displaced. You could see this in my series of paintings called “Systematic Citizens”, which depicts the youth who migrate to urban spaces from underprivileged villages. I have attempted to show such concerns in projects such as “Left Legs”, with the Iraqi national football team; “Mark Him”, with the Indian national football team; “Designated March By a Petro Angel”, a work that was exhibited at the Indian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2007; “Safe to Light”, a solo show in Tehran which looked at internal conflicts; “Related List”, a solo show responding to the atrocities of war and occupation; and many more.

In “On International Workers’ Day, Gandhi from Kochi”, Gandhi could be a disgraced farmer, a displaced villager, an untouchable social discard, a lost migrant, or a strange pedestrian who was thrown out of his home.

When I encountered this photograph I realised that what made Gandhi an icon was his simplicity to the core and his great understanding of India’s social space.

Your show has triggered a lot of discussions and also interesting “coalitions” between Gandhians, Marxists and Ambedkarites. How do you plan to take this interface forward?

Art should touch realities that we live with. In the new emerging political landscape, what we lack is a collective resistance against fascism. If you feel this show has triggered a coalition, I feel the reading as very promising.

In our contemporary context I see art as the last bastion of free speech and expression. The conversations that happened among social analysts, Gandhians, philosophers and poets did open up many opinions and new perspectives, which is the need of the time. Like the famous Gandhian thinker K. Aravindakshan said, “Normally a discourse around Gandhi is attended by very few and most of them would be senior citizens. But here it is encouraging and promising to see youngsters participating in a Gandhi discourse.”

As an artist my humble attempt will be to remind myself and others, through my work, of the times in which we live.

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