– Summer 2014

Mutable Bodies: K.P. Krishnakumar and the Radical Association

Shanay Jhaveri

K.P. Krishnakumar with members of the Radical Group during the exhibition ‘Questions and Dialogue’ at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda, 1987. Courtesy Anita Dube and Siddharth Photographix, New Delhi

The first Kochi-Muziris Biennale opened
 on 12 December 2012, in the Southern Indian state of Kerala. Conceived by the artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, the Biennale did not respond to a curatorial concept; instead, as the poet, critic and curator Ranjit Hoskote notes,
it built ‘off a millennia-old tradition of cosmopolitanism in Kochi’, with the assembled artists following ‘in the footsteps and landfalls of the merchants, scholars, soldiers and religiosi — whether Roman, Jewish, Arab or Persian — who have arrived in these parts over the centuries, making it their home, infusing it with their cultural contributions’.1 Amongst the mostly contemporary work, two sculptures by
 the Keralan-born artist K.P. Krishnakumar, who committed suicide on 26 December 1989, were displayed. The inclusion of Krishnakumar in the biennial was notable: this was the first time in the nearly two decades since his passing away that his sculptures were publicly shown in India. Despite such an absence, there is little doubt that Krishnakumar and the short-lived Radical Painters and Sculptors Association (often known as the Radical Group), the collective for which he was one of the primary driving forces, occupy a prominent place in Indian art history. What has been contentious

  1. Ranjit Hoskote, ‘A Biennale in the Making’, Tehelka, 21 December 2012, issue 52, vol.9, also available at http://www.tehelka.com/a-biennale-in-the-making/ (last accessed on 3 February 2014)

  2. These artists include Bhupen Khakhar, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, Jogen Chowdhury, Vivan Sundaram, Nalini Malani and Sudhir Patwardhan, who were presented together in the exhibition ‘Place for People’ (Jehangir Art Gallery, Bombay, 9—15 November 1981 and Rabindra Bhavan, New Delhi, 21 November—3 December 1981). In an interview Geeta Kapur, who wrote the essay for the show, specified that it ‘was a self-generated project of six artists and a critic. We did not anyway use the term curator at that stage and I functioned very simply as a member of a group or collective. This was therefore not my exhibition: though this misunderstanding continues — an amusing anachronism based perhaps on those later battles where I, and others, would actively claim the nomenclature and rights of a curator.’ See G. Kapur and Natasha Ginwala, ‘Geeta Kapur: On the Curatorial in India, Part 2’, Afterall Online [online magazine], 3 October 2011, available at http://www.afterall.org/online/ geeta-kapur-on-the-curatorial-in-india-part2#.UzwMfDkk6S0 (last accessed on 8 April 2014).

  3. Anita Dube, Seven Young Sculptors (exh. cat.), New Delhi: Rabindra Bhavan, 1985, unpaginated.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Untitled (Squatting and Bust) is one of four colour drawings carrying the provenance of the important 
Herwitz Collection to have recently surfaced. Davida and Chester Herwitz were US collectors who built a major collection of Indian modern art. At its peak the collection contained around 3,400 works. They first visited India in 1961. Mr Herwitz passed away in 1999, and in the following year Mrs Herwitz donated 850 works to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. It is not yet clear how or when these works entered the collection, but their importance is key to understanding Krishnakumar’s oeuvre, as the few drawings by Krishnakumar that have been shown internationally have mostly been monochromatic.

  7. Shivaji K. Panikkar, ‘From Trivandrum to Baroda and Back: A Re-Reading’, Nandan, vol.XXVI, 2006, also available at http://www.theotherspaces.com/Papers/2/default.aspx (last accessed on 3 February 2014). See also S.K. Panikkar, ‘Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors: Crisis of Political Art in Contemporary India’, in Ratan Parimoo (ed.), Creative Arts in Modern India: Essays in Comparative Criticism, Vol.II, New Delhi: Books and Books, 1995; and Santosh Sadanand, ‘Specters of the “Radicals”, or Where Have All the Radicals Gone’, in Deeptha Achar and S.K. Panikkar (ed.), Issues of Activism: Artist and the Historian, New Delhi: Tulika Publications, 2012, a section of which is also available at http://www.theotherspaces.com/Papers/4/default.aspx (last accessed on 3 February 2014).

  8. G. Kapur, ‘Modern India: A Retrospect on the Practice of Art’, India Moderna, Valencia: Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, 2008, p.356.

  9. Ashish Rajadhyaksha, ‘The Last Decade’, in Gulammohammed Sheikh (ed.), Contemporary Art in Baroda, New Delhi: Tulika Publications, 1997, p.258.

  10. S.K. Panikkar, ‘From Trivandrum to Baroda and Back’, op. cit.

  11. In the video recording that I received from the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the three other presentations, made by Jyothi Basu, K. Prabhakaran and K. Raghunathan, were in Malayalam and not translated,
 so I am unable to relate whether they looked at Krishnakumar and his legacy.

  12. Grant Watson, ‘Purabi’, in Shanay Jhaveri (ed.), Western Artists in India: Creative Inspirations in Art
and Design, London: Thames & Hudson, 2013, p.250.

  13. This is why the nature of Krishnakumar’s inclusion in the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, and the press’s reaction to it, is significant. While local press and a few national newspapers carried reports on Krishnakumar and his posthumous participation in the biennial, the effort by the organisers to reintroduce Krishnakumar’s work went unnoticed in the reviews by prominent international art publications like Artforum, frieze and Parkett. In the Indian art press, a cover feature in ArtIndia, written by the editor Abhay Sardesai (vol.XVIII, issue 1, quarter 1, 2013), did not mention Krishnakumar, while Take on Art, for a guest-edited issue on sculpture (January 2013), printed a mostly biographical article. Such oversight is probably the result of the disorganised logistics at the opening: Krishnakumar’s sculptures were unfortunately not yet properly installed (Boatman II was lying on its side) on the opening day, when most international reviewers and journalists visited. The biennial also presented a number of other South Indian artists, as well as the absorbing archival Varavazhi Project at Kashi Gallery, a collection of imagery from popular Malayalam magazines, in an attempt to highlight lesser-known artistic practices and mine forgotten histories. Again, such a subtext was not presented in a coherent or sustained manner across the biennial’s numerous sites, and went mostly unnoticed.

  14. Conversation with the Dexter Dalwood, 25 November 2013. Dalwood also shared an entry from the journal he maintained during his time at Baroda: ‘[Krishnakumar] is a very good sculptor, a lot anger from him and the other two students from Kerala... all of them really despise the education system here, the hypocrisy of some of the teaching staff, the bad quality of work, the lack of any scholarship etc. etc., they also are all very unhappy about the state of their home Kerala, particularly the role of the artist in it... I think the biggest problem is the lack of money and the abuse of privilege.’ Unpublished diary entry from 29 November 1985.

  15. Anshuman Dasgupta, ‘Sculptural Embodiments: Unmaking and Remaking Modernity’, in S.K. Panikkar (ed.), Twentieth-Century Indian Sculpture: The Last Two Decades, Mumbai: Marg Publications, 2000, p.18.