In 1996, a sixteen year old approached his father, with utmost conviction and said ‘Dad, can I quit school and be a cartoonist?’ Thus began K.K.Raghava’s remarkable journey of art and expression that till date remains unconfined to any particular genre or medium.
“Sweet Jesus! This kid has already begun!”
K.K.Raghava’s first drawings in second grade – the bust of a nude by Michelangelo – won him a trip straight to the Principals office. Today, his art takes him across not just geographical boundaries but also those of culture, age, discipline and art itself. He has travelled the world exhibiting and collaborating with people for his work which includes painting, sculpture, performance and film.
It was his mother, Leela Kalyanaraman, whom he describes as a ‘bit of a hippie’ who taught him to draw. Raghava started drawing when he was very little but he began to make an identity for himself as an artist only in the ninth grade; he recalls how his talent for caricaturing teachers earned him a spot on the school notice board and popularity among his schoolmates. At sixteen, making an earnest promise to himself and his father to be ‘disciplined, curious, eager to learn, hard working and self sustained’ he dropped out of high school to pursue a career as a cartoonist.
“I would do birthday parties,, weddings, divorces…anything!”
Raghava began his life as a cartoonist drawing over 30,000 caricatures for anybody who needed his services. He was a member of the successful collective ‘Cartoonists Unanimous’ and his work was fast gaining popularity. He worked with many national dailies like The Indian Express, The Asian Age and The Times of India.
It was during this time that he also started teaching cartooning to children, thus uncovering a new passion. “…and from them”, he says,” I learnt how to be spontaneous and mad and crazy and fun...” When he was just 18, he started a cartooning school. Although he was so young, Raghava filled the shoes of a teacher as easily as he did that of an artist and continues to work closely with children in India and abroad. Most recently, he spent time with children at the Bronx, New York, where he designed a library in collaboration with the Robin Hood Foundation.
In 2001, a controversy created by one of his cartoons, titled Bite of the Big Apple, a tongue-in-cheek interpretation of the events of September 11, cost him his job and reputation and left him where he started. He was shunned not just by angry readers but also by members of the American cartoonist community. Disappointed with the realization that the freedom of expression was ‘only a token idea’, Raghava decided he needed a fresh start. He shut his school and went travelling.
Although one cannot ignore the hint of sadness in his voice while speaking of this incident, it gave him the opportunity to reinvent himself and start the second leg of his experiments with art. He took to painting.
“In the night I die and in the morning I am born again.”
These words, spoken to Raghava by Italian artist Luigi Ontani, who was a great influence, kick-started his journey as a painter. Having received no formal training whatsoever, Raghava, using inputs from friends, children and billboard painters, taught himself how to paint. On his travels he has interacted with several other artists and drawn inspiration from their lives and work. These include Claude Viallat in Nimes, France, founder of the Surface Art Movement and avant garde sculptor Alain Kirili from New York. Using fresh, unconventional methods and mediums and collaborations with other artists he developed his own style of painting. Raghava wanted his work to be ‘larger than life’ Raghava’s experiments included painting with watercolour on large canvases with his bare hands and feet. . “I want to dance while I paint’ he says.
His body of work consists mainly of abstract art. He encourages us to look at his works as a series of paintings rather than in isolation.” Over time, a family of artwork is born, randomly connected through use of the same, few, chosen pieces of vocabulary.”
He has collaborated with fashion designers, models, sculptors and dancers to create works that literally come alive with colour. He has created performance art piece ‘When Paintings Dance’ with the Velocity Theatre in California and has also worked with flamenco dancers.
His most important collaboration, he says, was with wife Nethra Raghava who he met when he was nineteen. Nethra took an active interest in his work and went on to become his manager. Their wedding, a traditional south Indian ceremony in Bangalore, was an installation by various artists with the clothes and décor, all being works of art, most of them done by Raghava himself. They have a son Rudhra, together and currently live in the United States.
In February 2010, K.K.Raghava shot to instant fame after his talk at a TED conference in Long beach, California titled ‘Five lives of an artist.’ He spoke about his evolution from a child into the man he is today. He was praised for the ‘honesty and vulnerability’ with which he spoke to the audience which included the likes of Bill Gates, James Cameron, Google’s Larry Paige and Sergey Brin and Will Smith. The 18 minute talk went viral on the internet and soon CNN was calling him one of the ten ‘most fascinating people the world is yet to know of’.
Raghava has received grants from the Robin Hood foundation to exhibit his works in the Bronx and also from the American India foundation to premier his performance art piece Anthropomorphism in California. He was most recently invited to the Musee d’art Contemporain to exhibit his works. He was also recently awarded a grant by the American India Foundation. Apart from this, he has given lectures at several art institutes, including the New Hampshire Institute of Art (Manchester, NH, USA) and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (Nimes, France). He also frequently holds art exhibitions in Indian cities. He has also developed an Ipad application, Pop-it at Home, which introduces a new form of story telling and also teaches open mindedness to both children and parents.
He has spoken out for the cause of freedom of expression and has also shown considerable interest in gay rights – protesting all along, using his art as a medium. He speaks of how the more provocative his art became, the lesser buyers he had for them. This is a battle which perhaps every artist fights – the one between survival and personal expression. Raghava has fought this battle beautifully, emerging from every fall (And there have been many), like a phoenix.
Raghava currently resides and works in India and in the United States with his family. He is looking forward to working with children in the Congo. There are talks about a children’s book for which he is working with Al Gore.