“As soon as I desire I am asking to be considered I am not merely here and now, sealed into thingness. I am for somewhere else and for something else. I demand that notice be taken of my negating activity in so far as I peruse something other than life: insofar as I do battle for the creation of a human world -- that is a world of reciprocal recognitions.” (Fannon)
As I sit down to write this paper on KP Krishnakumar, and the brief history of the Radical Group, I think of Marina Abramovic’s performance called ‘Cleaning the house’ 1995. On my part it calls for an excavation: of a time and place so far away, in a historical sense; and so vexed-for an outsider like me, an upper middle class, woman, from the North, (significant categories in what we are going to talk about) that, to say the least, it is nothing but painful. Whatever I say, cannot be outside of caricature myself, to start with.
A silence of 20 years indicates the magnitude of the catastrophe. Suicide, is not a place one willingly visits, there is no pleasure involved. It is the most ‘un-homely’ place of the abject, the place where all dialogue stops, and only questions remain. He chose it as a last resort, when all his troubled attempts at structuring his life, and his political consciousness, had failed: as a final triumphant and tragic gesture. (The Radical Group had decided to discontinue for a year through a calamitous series of meetings after the camp at Alapad, in December 1989).
Curiously and uncannily, 1989, also marked historically, the collapse of old style communist idealism, along the dateline of the world.
Q/…”I” want none of that element, sign of their desire, “I” do not want to listen, “I” do not assimilate it, “I” Expel it. But since the food is not an “other” for “me”, who am only in their desire, I expel myself, I spit myself out, I abject’myself’ with the same motion through which “I” claim to establish myself. (Kristeva)
He could have walked away, in the silence of a Chinese, Zen, scholar/monk; (something not so far away from him), but in saying so I would be forgetting that he suffered from manic depression and stomach ulcers, for the last so many years, and was too proud to reveal this or treat it seriously. Here, I am also suggesting that he was utterly sincere to the intoxicating idea of revolutionary praxis, more than anyone else in the group; as the anchoring necessity, in his life. And it was his singular brilliance and passion, that was able to transform the material of his own struggle -- as that of his friends -- into a meteoric political ‘moment’, a gesture that, despite its briefness, impacted, and continues to impact the discourse on Contemporary Indian Art in a thorny and subversive way. This itself is a vindication and a tribute to him.
Q/-“it also requires a shift of attention from the political as a pedagogical ideological practice to politics as the stressed necessity of everyday life -- politics as a performativity” (Bhabha)
Issues can be dealt with, theorized more easily when they don’t touch your life on the inside. This Toni Morrison phrase defines what Krishnakumar in his persona and his politics enunciated, both within and outside the Radical Group. It was not so much his charm and charisma, ‘othering’ bourgeois metaphors that pluck him out as the ‘hero’ from the crowd --
Q/ “Is the language of theory merely another power ploy of the culturally privileged Western elite to produce a discourse of the Other that reinforces its own power-knowledge equation” (Bhabha)
--as it was his tragic love - in the ‘absence’ of a real reciprocal passionate love with woman -- a transference of ‘presence’ towards his class brothers, comrades - that remains unique. Even if he always complained that his friends were not ready, that they were too weak to really undertake the historical task; even if he wanted to quit and peruse his own ambitions, he could not.
Q/”This then is the first definition of the tragic hero: he is a man confined, a man who cannot get out without dying, his limit is his privilege, captivity his distinction” (Barthes)
He was paradoxically too old fashioned a man for the urban liberated bourgeois woman, and too modern for his own Malayali woman. He slept with many, but could not commit his love. He had already given it absolutely to a fellow English art student in Shantiniketan, and was devastated on knowing that the child she was carrying and wanted to bear, was not his. This is the first, fatal, appearance of ill luck in his life -- that Benjaminian hunch back that was to reappear from time to time.
Q/ “A massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which, familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome………On the edge of non existence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me. There abject and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture.” (Kristeva)
I remember him, as a man who wrestled with all possible contradictions of art, politics and life; let them circulate inside his body , until his unspeakable experiences distanced him from everyone, terrified everyone including me -- and fatally isolated him -- the very thing he was most terrified of.
In this paper I am using a structure of quotation and commentary, not following a chronological but a surreal method, letting the mind excavate buried material as if from the unconscious; happy for the liberating value of the found (text) fragment, in a montage with the ancient form of the’ commentary’, towards a dialectics that can help break down myths, I hope, to reveal the concrete. Connecting Benjamin’s own fondness for collecting quotations, using these as Questions, and commenting alongside them in a kind of Dialogue as reflection.
Endless conversations with my friend C.K Rajan over these 20 years, have helped, to look at the ‘still-life’ from as many different angles/points of view as possible, in a Cubist method. And nothing has helped more than reading Benjamin, precisely for his peculiar, quasi-romantic call for solidarity with the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat, as the barometer of a progressive intellectual attitude.
So, paradoxically and emblematically, I open this section about the Group with a quotation from Bejamin’s essay on Moscow.
Q/ “ Admitedly, the only real guarantee of a correct understanding is to have chosen your position before your came. In Russia above all, you can only see if you have already decided….But someone who wishes to decide ‘on the basis of facts’ will find no basis in the facts” (Benjamin)
Q/ “However little one may know Russia, what one learns is to observe and judge Europe with the conscious knowledge of what is going on in Russia. This is the first benefit to the intelligent European in Russia.” (Benjamin)
Let us now look at a brief history of the group; all of whose memebrs, except me, came from Kerala. WithMarxist governments periodically elected through parliamentary democracy, and a high rate of literacy in the state, Marxism was a habitual daily diet here. But conservative official Marxism was perpetually under the scanner from the youth and the intelligentsia in the 70s and 80s, influenced by extreme left positions of the CPI (ML) GROUPS. As young art students, Krishnakumar and his friends - Alex, Mathew, Madhushudhanan, Surendran, Karunakaran, Reghunathan, Rimzon, Jeevan, and others were plugged into this atmosphere, constantly engaged in argument; debating correct political and artistic attitudes, mand denouncing reactionary ones. Fighting for their rights to a better education, making posters during the Emergency in 1975, participating in street protests, all this politicized them in a direct way. So there was no self-conscious divide, between the political and the quest for an expanded language of art-making, that would encapsulate even existentialist dilemmas. Within such a passionate ‘Politics of Friendship’ (Derrida), in that magical, youthful, non-alienated, comrade-time; where adult capitalist realities of individuality, competition, professional success, women had not entered; the seeds of the Radical Group lay. These early debates also carried seeds of friction, which were to deepen in the later years, reflecting in the formation of the group, from which Rimzon, Surendran, Jeevan others were excluded.
Q/ “ Indeed what distinguishes the Bolshevik, the Russian communist from his Western comrade is this unconditional readiness for mobilization. The material basis of his existence is so slender that he is prepared, year in and year out, to decamp.” (Benjamin)
The idea of revolutionary energy and Leninism was somehow more compelling than the negotiated terrain of democratic Marxism in India. Coming from lower middle class backgrounds, sometimes even proletarian backgrounds, he material conditions of existence connected them to positions of the peasant and the proletariat, not vi petit bourgeois routes of empathy and solidarity, but as something immediate and real.
This is what ‘marked’ them and their intervention within the discourse of the visual arts. The empowered idea of the margin, speaking for itself: challenging the discursive hegemony at the centre, in the north. This challenge was raised along the politics of the South-North axis, and in placing the class struggle at the fulcrum of a reading of cultural history. This is why the ‘Questions and Dialogue’ manifesto, released during the first collective exhibition in March 1987, in Baroda, was received like an anarchist ‘bomb’.
Q/ “Must the project of our Liberationist aesthetics be forever part of a totalizing utopian vision of Being and History that seeks to transcend the contradictions and ambivalences that constitute the very structure of human subjectivity and its systems of cultural representation” (Bhabha)
Q/ “Is our only way cut of such dualism (oppressor/oppressed/ centre-periphery/ negative-positive) the espousal of an implacable oppositionality of the invention of an originary counter-myth of radical purity?” (Bhabha)
Alongside the attractions of Marxism as an ideology of liberation, Art was equally and primarily a proposition of freedom. And significantly one can note right from the beginning in the choice of artistic affiliations, a reaching out, outside of the subcontinental art history, to universal coordinates within High Modernism. And we shall go on to discuss this further down the paper. A new and radical art, was the aspiration; and a ‘good’, ‘full’ intellectual life was the dream.(good understood in a Gramscian way, and full a word Krishnakumar loved)
The idea of a formal group, did not exist at all in the beginning. After completing studies in Trivandrum, Krishnakumar and his friends ventured out into to Shantiniketan and Baroda, important centers for Art education in the North. This period of study exposed them to a milieu totally different from what they knew. Outside their comfort zones, and away from their vital comradeship patterns , they felt perhaps for the first time the alienating effects of the bourgeois education system. Even Shantiniketan, Tagore’s, liberal university, seemed pre-modern and quasi feudal ; and Krishnakumar struggled here with authoritative figures, for his anarchic tendencies. He made numerous portraits of new acquaintances in plaster and cement, numerous drawings in Indian ink, and read as always, very furiously. He has established a dialogue, albeit not a very smooth one, with a daunting figure like K.G Subramanyan, and a friendship with Sarbari Roy Chowdhury. He was educating himself, reflecting, testing the waters.
From this time onwards, he consistently and frequently wrote letters to most of his friends in Baroda and Kerala, keeping a conversation going; a practice he was to continue as long as he lived. It provided him an immediate outlet for his passionate thoughts on events, people, books and ideas. Very spontaneous but finely crafted, they carry an attention to language that is extraordinary. Along with his work, I believe his letters are significant documents of his restless genius, his self-consciousness of himself as a modern intellectual. And I hope these can be collected and published, one day.
Meanwhile, his friends, studying at Baroda, had made much greater progress in their art than him. They were on the path of individuality, absorbing elements from the Narrative Movement, in an existentially loaded humanist and Expressionist manner. After Shantiniketan, Krishnakumar joined tem, first at the Kanoria Centre for Art in Ahmedabad, and then in Baroda.
In the early 80s -- the Faculty of Fine Arts was an informal laboratory for a new interrogation of the ‘Modern’ within contemporary Indian art. Within a post-colonial allegory of an authentic location; a linguistic and geographic search for roots: a place for narration and people was theorized. An argument was mounted -- via Timothy Hymen’s ideas in support of British Narrative painting, Kumar Sahani’s work on Epic narration, and Geeta Kapur’s defence of the paintings of her colleagues, Bhupen, Gulam, Nalini, Sudhir, Vivan and Gieve -- that challenged the ideas and persona of J. Swaminathan, and his particular material/ mystical, almost Gandhian form of Modernism, that attempted to connect the consciousness of the village to the urban one. So, we can read the discursive terrain in the visual arts in the 80s as also a ground for hegemonic contestations of multiple strains of Modernisms within Contemporary Indian Art.
In Baroda, one was right in the middle of all this. This needs mention, because in articulating another strain of Modernism, the Radical Group, prematurely and unwittingly I think, entered this phenomenology of a hegemonic contestation. They had neither the economic or structural means to sustain themselves or their critique on a longer basis, and so itremained -- a gesture.
During the mid 80s, younger batches of art students at the Trivandrum College of Art, had taken on the struggle, from where Krishnakumar and his friends had left off. They organised an artists camp in a fishing village, (sponsored by an NGO which worked with fishermen) and exhibited this work in Trivandrum. There were some splendid paintings by Reghunathan and Jyothi Basu. It was immediately apparent, this radical mix of political understanding, comradeship and artistic ambition, which Krishnakumar was envious of. He felt that he and his friends had lost something in the pursuit of their ambitions. These artists: C.K Rajan, Hareerdran, Jyoti Basu, Pushkin, Alexander, also proceeded to study at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda. Along with Krishnakumar’s friends and Prabhakaran, an older artist who was also studying in Baroda at the time, they were to become part of the Radical Group at the inception.
Sanawar at that time, was his only constant friend and accomplice to this idea. Krishnakumar, had been offered a studio at the outhouse of Vivan Sundaram’s Kasauli residence, and was making sculptures for a major international show in Geneva….Already he had a sense of his intellectual prowess and talent as an artist, and was increasingly drawn to the idea of a political group as a necessary form for survival and struggle, against the hegemony of bourgeois ideology in the north. He alone saw the significance of an artist union for such a task. Certainly the energies of a ‘Politics of Friendship’ that we mentioned earlier, were what he wanted to reinvigorate, but already he had begun to play the fatal game -- in his own words -- ‘winner takes it all’.
Q/ “It is this reversal of the power structure that makes life here so heavy with content. It is as complete in itself and rich in events, as poor, and in the same breath as full of prospects as a gold digger’s life on the Klondike……True, a certain intoxication can result, so that a life without meetings and committees, debates, resolutions and votes (and all these are wars or least manoeuvres of the will to power) can no longer be imagined. (Benjamin)
If we understand political leadership as a quality of astute strategy and timing along with ideological clarity: we can see Krishnakumar as a brilliant intellectual and a radical artist, a passionate comrade even; but hardly someone with the gifts of leadership. However this was the subliminal demanded within the social fabric in Kerala. Its literate, Marxist, directionless youth needed a leader and the intoxicating daily-fix of revolutionary rhetoric. Financially at a dead end, dogged by depression, he was trapped into the delusion of a lone revolutionary.
As an informal group in the earlier years, there was much greater camaraderie, solidarity and debate around the issues of Art and Politics among the members, differences and distances notwithstanding. With the formalization of the group, and the subsequent annihilation of artist-comrades, one by one, his authority became absolute around a set of followers. That he accelerated the course of things with such speed, driving 13 of his artist comrades, along a path they were not prepared for, was itself fatal.
His close friends had warned him of a closed parochial organization, and he himself on numerous occasions saw the dangers of such a structure. But there was no turning back, once the wheel had been set in motion.
Born in Kuttipuram, a small town in the Mallapuram district of Kerala, Krishnakumar was distantly related to Eddesery, an important radical Malayalam poet of the 60s. He was interested in this legacy, in the poetic gesture and in the use of mythical imagery. A line of Eddessary, recounted by Alex Mathew to me, goes like this: ‘to kill a tiger, sometimes we may have to throw a Buddha statue on it.’
Literature was always an important source of inspiration, a means of being able to step outside the limitations of a very provincial situation. As an artist Krishnakumar started with all the provincial romance attached to the ‘artist’ -- he would say: ‘I was a Picasso at 16…’ and he secretly identified with the libidinous creative energy in Picasso. Kerala was in the forefront in translating 20th century literature into Malayalam; and its vibrant society culture exposed Krishnakumar and his friend to the marvels of world literature and cinema.
Goethe had suggested that the possibility of a ‘world literature’ arose from the cultural confusion brought on by wars and local conflicts in Europe. I’m suggesting here, that a deep conflict was present in the minds of these young Kerala intellectuals -- and this is typical of petit bourgeois life lived within the simulacra -- between the fascinating world of modernity out there, and the terrible gap that opened up with their location and its particularities, felt to be deficiencies of some sort.
All these contradictions were lived out by Krishnakumar in his work. If we look at the drawings from around 1982-83 (Trivandrum and Shantiniketan), we notice that everything is articulated through the immediacy of a ‘self’. This is very often a beast dog (dog-man, ass-man an ugly frog), and sometimes as in a particular drawing even a Buraq Minatour! If I read a type of abjection in this; in the early 80s this was, probably more of a feeling of deficiency in terms of class, race and sexual difference. The masculine presence is asserted, but as a beast. These drawings contain elements that were to become study-notes for later sculptures like Vasco da Gama, Boy Listening, Flowers and Revolution etc. in some instances even the distortions in his later clay modelling can be read within these.
Before leaving Trivandrum for Shantiniketan, he set himself the task of executing ‘100 drawings’ within a month, which he exhibited. It is clear from these drawings made with brush dipped in India Ink, that immediacy and physically dictated his choice of materials and styles. Everything that instantly translated his emotion and thought, attracted him. These were also demonstrations of his intellectual and physical vitality; important ingredients in the construction of a heroic masculinity.
If there are linguistic affiliations with expressionism (Kirschner, Kokoshka, Scheile), he is able to create his own wild type of drawing; a free assimilation of many influences, but tuned into the exigencies of a virile speaking subject. There is a state of ‘emergency’ in everything that he did (earlier with my limited understanding I had called this ‘frenzy’), that Benjaminian talks about in the Theses of the Philosophy of History; as if he was blasting ‘empty homogenous time’ or ‘the continuum of history’ -- inscribing himself within it, in the act of making art.
Q/ “The borderline work of culture demands an encounter with ‘newness’ that is not part of the continuum of past and present. It creates the sense of the new as an insurgent act of cultural
Published in 2010