A few years ago, Raghava KK found himself teetering on the edge of art-world celebrityhood. He was precocious and chirpy, a gifted cartoonist-turned-artist, trumpeted in the media for being a “brat prodigy” who was “already a veteran with about 10 international exhibitions behind him”. The works themselves, frighteningly-hued watercolours, were sold out at almost every show.
And then, as Raghava notes drily, “things started to go bad”. Cue a publicized fallout with an organization he founded, and the usual misfortunes that are the lot of bright young things, and Raghava took a step back. He dropped out of the exhibition circuit, wisely choosing to spend much of his time working and preparing for his wedding, a big fat Indian “art installation” for which 7,000 people from around the world gathered in Bangalore.
Now 27, Raghava is back with a 34-painting show at Art Musings in Mumbai called Drawn & Quartered and much of the last few years’ anguish has been channelled into a surprisingly mature body of work. The colour palette remains, but this time acrylics—rose pinks, pale yellows, mauves, ash greys—have been tempered in monotone backgrounds that make them almost poster-like in execution. Split into four series, and priced Rs1.5-4 lakh, the works explore the abuse of money, fame and power, Raghava no doubt plundering from his own short-lived experience. Thankfully, the hyper-mix of colours and Photoshop realism has been forsaken for something less earnest, a strange amalgam of Baconian corpulence and Beardsley-like sexual perversion that occasionally hijacks figures from Picasso’s Guernica.
Opposite sex: (from left) History (2007), and World wrecked, they seek only oblivion (2008).
His women are fleshy and shamefaced, seemingly aware of their lumpy mounds, but unable to do much about them. Instead, they claw and scratch, some covered with pushpins, others with needle-head insects that serve as a continuous thread through some of the images. His men are similarly mutated, their bobble-heads inflated to comical proportions on squat banker-looking bodies. Sitting on stacks of money, they are an alarming manifestation of the crassness of wealth and success. With their paan-flecked teeth and oversized penises, it wouldn’t be the first time an artist has taken a pointed swipe at India’s emerging nouveau riche. The difference, however, is that now, these businessmen with their stockpiles of cash are the new buyers helping keep young artists like Raghava afloat.
Raghava is a gifted draughtsman, and his ability to deftly capture human folly in cartoon and classical strokes is on display. Even when he lurches back to his old ways—the airbrushed slickness pops up in his series Arrival of the [Swan]—there is something a little wicked about his figures. They might be cartoon-like in execution, but are explicitly adult in implication, with human orifices, appendages and nudity in unabashed acrobatic display. His fat women with their sagging misshapen breasts stand in irreversible juxtaposition to the taut perky bodies of his svelte young things.
There is no gift-wrapping the bizarreness of some of his works. Tamer viewers might be offended by the plethora of penises and she-men engaged in wild titillating exhibition. But others might be charmed by Raghava’s obvious disregard for any sort of linear convention. In one canvas, a coven of bikini bottoms swarms above a disgruntled man. In another, a mutant blob spews out an army of flies. Though it’s not quite clear what these mean, there is the sense that Raghava, bitten by the market that hoisted him to the top, is finally getting his revenge.
Drawn & Quarteredis on until 5 November at Art Musings, Colaba, Mumbai.