Keshav Venkata Raghavan is a Chennai-based artist and a devotee of Krishna. Even before he could communicate through words, he knew to tell a story through his brush. Though Keshav did not have formal training in fine arts, he would spend hours observing and learning from the Renaissance artists as well as those from India. After his decade-long study of Bhagvatam and Mahabharat, Keshav realized his calling and a sense of gratitude lay in dedicating his artworks to Krishna. A series of work followed, including rednitions of Krishna's Bala Leela, Dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna at Kurukshetra, Dashavtara and the many forms of Devi.
Through his works, Keshav depicts various episodes from our epics and Puranas. From him “art is telling stories through pictures. Drawing is a language that doesn't require words. So it communicates what one wants to say in a direct way, depending on the communicating skill of the artist.”
In this interview with CSP, Keshav tells us about the link between his art and devotion, and his muse in Krishna.
What were your early inspirations?
I began drawing from childhood. My early inspirations were Ravi Varma and the paintings of the Renaissance masters, Rembrandt and later, the impressionists. Then my attention turned to Indian contemporary art. I was inspired by M F Husain and Ganesh Pyne and many other artists from the Bengal school. When I delved deeper into Indian art, I got to learn more from the writings of Ananda Coomaraswamy and Stella Kramrisch. I was particularly interested in the works of S Rajam, an artist who inspired me and directed me towards Indian art.
Born in a very traditional family, I was accustomed to the cultural practices at home. The literature was mainly on bhakti. We had Bhajans at home and in the neighbourhood. Storytelling at home was also in the main epics of Ramayana, Bhagavata and Mahabharata. So, the stories were etched in my mind very early. I should also mention the impact of the Amar Chitra Katha which triggered my interest in such art.
When the drawing process led to Indian art in course of time, I was introduced to the treatise on art, Chitra Sutra, a part of the Vishnudharmottara. This led me to learn symbolism in Indian art and also relook the stories of our epics in a new way. It was eye-opening.
Can you tell us about your style and technique of art?
Indian art has taught me all about art. It is a continuous process of learning. The techniques keep changing according to the need and the medium one is comfortable with. I do paint in all mediums like watercolour, oil paintings, acrylic, mixed media, etc. I mostly work in watercolours for my daily work.
Ultimately, creativity is in expressing oneself. Freedom. It was an endless opportunity waiting to be explored. It also became a daily practice session, which continues a journey of self-discovery.
In your works, you have depicted Devi, Hanuman and avatars of Vishnu. Why did you choose to focus more on spiritual renditions through art?
Krishna, Rama, Devi or Hanuman – when one looks at an image, it reminds one of the various exploits, or leelas, of the particular deity. It helps focus our turbulent mind and bring it under control.
Devotion is a way to attain the Supreme. Since time immemorial, art has served as a way to fix the mind on the Supreme.
It was a practice of our forefathers to offer their services as an offering to the Supreme. Art was no exception. Drawing and painting, like music, dance, sculpture and architecture, were offered as a service to the Supreme. In fact, the Chitrasutra says that art is not complete without the allied arts.
When and how did your artistic tryst with Krishna began?
The secrets of the imagery, the body language and storytelling by the early Indian masters were awe-inspiring. Eventually, it led me to the idea of Krishna. He became my muse. He lent himself to drawing.
A magical moment for one who experiences it. The art produced with such an experience is an inspired one. It lends a sense of unexplainable beauty that cannot be produced just by having an excellent technique, or the knowledge of the scriptures. It is an experience of Ananda. When one is involved in the art so much that they forget the self.
Ananda, which is joy or ecstasy, is a state of mind when it is in equilibrium. We experience joy or peace, for some moments. But one would want the moment to extend to eternity. That infinite joy, according to our scriptures, is symbolised by Krishna. A good work of art is created, when one experiences the divine within.
Your works depict Krishna’s leela and learnings from the Bhagavad Gita. What do you seek to communicate through these works?
Indian epics have conveyed our deep philosophy through their stories. Our art also reflects the same philosophy through symbols. Over a period of time, the symbols have become so common that it was easy to understand complicated concepts in a simple way. Even abstract ideas could be portrayed with ease. Once we understand the idea behind the story, the stories vanish but the meaning remains.
The ideas which our stories contain are not age-old. It contains values that are eternal and it can deal with very contemporary issues we face today. Properly understood, it seeks to convey how to resolve or tackle such predicaments. It is the main reason that it continues to be relevant. Hence it continues to be read, discussed and debated about.
Drawing is a medium that is meant for a universal audience with an interest in the subject. There has been an interest globally in the new attempt in showing such stories from the epics.
What makes Indic visual arts distinct from the many schools and styles of art practiced across the world?
Every nation creates art according to the society and problems faced by them or the environment one lives in. It is an expression of one’s view of how society crumbles or adapts to the changing scenario. In every system, there are many styles based on the perception of different artists.
The art of the West is mainly academic realism. But the Eastern or Oriental Art is not based on realism, but an ideal portrayal of a subject. It is a perception of the artist, rather than reality. It is the taste (rasa), and the feel (bhava) of the artwork, that resonates with the viewer over a period of time. This shapes the sensibilities of the art aficionado.
All the art works are made by Keshav Venkata Raghavan and can be seen at Krishna For Today