It’s not often that an artist can confess to admiring Lalu Prasad Yadav. Loved though he may be in rural India, the Bihari politician incites violent reactions in big cities. So, when Riyas Komu says he likes Yadav’s oratory skills, it begs further probing. “I like (it) when he speaks on railway tracks and says, ‘Sab ganda hai, sab theek karna padega (everything is dirty, everything needs to be fixed)’ but, at the same moment, he’s also spitting on the track,” Komu, 37, says.
Wood craft:(left) A detail of Tragedy of a Carpenter’s Son III; Undertakers ; and the artist at his suburban studio.
“He’s not civilized, but he still emerges as one of the finest persons who understands the common man’s sentiment,” he explains. “In that sense, you like him.” Komu isn’t joking, and if Yadav is ever in need of a spokesperson, he could do worse than going with the young Kerala-born artist, who in the coming months will participate in Art Brussels 2008, showcase his works at Bodhi Gallery’s new Berlin outpost, star in a solo show at Sakshi in Mumbai, and still manage to juggle the unceasing demands on his time made by the stream of dealers, artists and buyers who stop by his automobile-garage-turned-studio on the outskirts of Mumbai.
The pieces — larger-than-life sculptures of footballers’ legs, a portrait of Younis Mahmoud, the captain of the Iraqi football team, toy-like carts carved with human organs—are characteristic of a larger body of work that intends to provoke as much as it does to unsettle. The ambition (in 2007 he participated in 10 shows), coupled with the scale (some pieces are nearly 20 ft long), has helped drive the demand for his works, which regularly auction for upwards of Rs20 lakh.
Komu’s appeal can partly be explained by his frank admiration for Yadav. Both are products of a certain community (Komu from Thrissur, Kerala), where religion and ideology coexist in uneasy alliance to breed discontent, rebellion and often, charismatic thinkers. In Komu’s case, the religion (Islam) and the ideology (communism) were very much instrumental in shaping his earliest views, though by no means are the sole identifiers of his work. His wooden sculptures will sometimes appropriate the communist insignia, and it is this unabashed embrace of currently unpopular and uneasy subjects that has prompted much analysis and Freudian deconstruction.
Komu, for his part, is open about his connection to both. Islam, he concedes, has always been part of his identity, but in much the same way that Hinduism is important to just about any even vaguely spiritual Indian. “Religious identity comes only in a place of analysis when someone else is analysing it,” he says. “I have done a larger series of migrant portraits — Systematic Citizens — that maybe doesn’t excite people because it is not associated with a particular religious sentiment.”
Which leads to the other white elephant in the room: political identity and, more specifically, communism. Much is made of Komu’s political affinities, which would probably matter less if his works didn’t so blatantly reference its symbols (his studio in Dahisar, a leafy suburb past Borivali, has posters of Chairman Mao tacked up on the wall). And Komu’s childhood, growing up with nine siblings steered by a father who owned a matchbox factory and who participated actively in the early communist growth of Kerala before transitioning to “a Gandhian living style,” possesses some of the aura of a fated beginning.
Even if Komu hasn’t himself ever written a manifesto, or marched hand-in-hand with his southern comrades, the connection will always prompt speculation, because what could be more irresistible to art wags than an artist rebelling against the market that funds his tirades? Komu himself is not fussed about the labelling, and you get the sense, by neither confirming nor denying it, he has become the mysterious brooding young man successive generations will look to as a cultural bellwether.
“When we were in school, we used to have strikes in the school if there was a bombing in Palestine,” Komu says. “It was always a subject of communist agenda to resist… It has nothing to do directly with your life. But still, that political consciousness was always there.”
Curator Ranjit Hoskote, who has written a catalogue essay for one of Komu’s exhibits, remains less convinced. “By the time he grew up, (communism) wouldn’t have been around,” he points out. “To isolate communism as a major strand of his work is not accurate. That’s not what his symbols are doing in his works. They’re pointing to other disquietude.”
And often, his most successful works have explored this disquietude, manifesting the unease and social discord of not just a transitioning India, but the world at large. When Aicon Gallery opened its London outpost last year, it was with a showing of works by Komu and American artist Peter Drake. One of Komu’s works Tragedy of a Carpenter’s Son III, was a wooden passenger plane inscribed with an Arabic good luck prayer recited by jehadis before a journey. The Elysian series, metal and charred wood sculptures of people, was derived from the Gujarat riots because Komu says he “was very much attracted to an individual who dies because of social anarchy”.
His portraits of village migrants are similarly unsettling, their blown-up faces vaguely reminiscent of Bollywood poster art, yet blithely unforgiving in execution.
Designated March by a Petro-Angel took that idea a step further, capturing the same woman from the Iranian movie The Circle in six different panels. Chosen by noted American curator Robert Storr for the 2007 Venice Biennale, the paintings catapulted Komu’s reputation internationally, placing him among the handful of Indian artists to have transcended nationality.
The work, which according to Komu’s exhibition note “symbolizes the Third World Woman, helpless in the face of internal adversities”, attracted a fair amount of attention. Storr attributes this to the sheer ambition of Komu’s style and content. “He was making very challenging works in a variety of different mediums and addressing very basic things,” he says. “His earlier works belong to a kind of genre in the 1980s and 1990s that was politically committed art and he did it very well, but then he made a jump and it was very interesting to see this young guy hit his stride.”
Indeed, it is Komu’s ability to work across multiple mediums, from photography and painting to video and sculpture, that has propelled him into the category of “artist” — not Indian, not political or religious, but simply artist. “His works play across a huge range of media,” Hoskote says, echoing Storr’s point.
Komu suffers no such problem. His team of carpenters is busy sanding down the footballers’ legs, and the captain of the Iraqi football team is nearly complete. Meanwhile, there is always an event of pressing social importance waiting to be documented. “The political interest is always there,” Komu says. “And, my works are constantly reflecting that.”