Shanto, the young man in Riyas Komu’s poster, is not someone you’re likely to know, though that may not preclude you from recognizing in his countenance something familiar. Because Shanto, like so many other citizens of this city, is a migrant—a small-town boy from Kerala who left a life of scant opportunity and money to make it in Mumbai.
He is, in every sense of the word, a real Mumbai Indian, as deserving of the moniker as the city’s IPL (Indian Premier League) cricket team, whose logo Komu has appropriated with intentional irony. “Whenever I think of freedom, I don’t normally think of it in the usual context,” says Komu. “I always notice people who don’t have freedom.”
Face paint: Komu begins by creating a grid of the face. Photograph: Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Komu, 37, is intimately acquainted with the travails of migrant labourers—a topic that has cropped up with frequency in large, unerringly frank oils of young men?such as Shanto, who flock to the artist’s suburban studio to take up jobs as wood carvers of his extravagant and complicated structures.
These works, unsettling in their blithe, Bollywood style execution, have made Komu into something of a champion for the underprivileged, a role he has assumed since 2001 when he first began taking in workers from his home state of Kerala.
“They’re poor, downtrodden, lower class, and not very handsome,” Komu explains. “And that forces them to move out of their village, but when they come to the city, they face the same issues here.”
It was only appropriate then that when asked to participate in this project, Komu turned away from conventional depictions of freedom and independence— which he remembers celebrating in his hometown of Thrissur by participating in marches and getting chocolates—and instead looked to his stable of carvers. Initially, Komu had wanted to stencil the Mumbai Indians logo on to the wall of a slum or a house, but the idea quickly evolved into a poster, with Shanto as the unwitting black and white face of it. “It’s freedom in relation to the migrant population. They have freedom to move to another place,” he says. “They are the strongest contributors in the world, so it’s a celebration of the migrant attitude of moving around.”
Komu’s other subjects have included the captain of the Iraqi football team;
Komu conceived and completed the work in two days.
The final poster
(All photographs by: Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint)
Riyas Komu is a Mumbai-based artist whose next solo show is at Bodhi Berlin, in October.