He breathes life into coir portraits

From the sketching to the final assembly, the entire work is done manually

He breathes life  into coir portraits

Twenty years and hundreds of art pieces later, K R Raghu is still cagey when you ask him about the process that makes his wares unique. The Ernakulam-based artist specialises in art works on coir. He has a special place for meticulously done portraits in his exhaustive collection and he claims there isn’t much competition to keep him on his toes.

Raghu, however, remains guarded on the technique. That a Malayali artist chose the fibre from coconut husk to express himself fits a pattern but the less than marginal presence of professionals in the coir art market makes Raghu’s work significant. 

Raghu’s subjects come across the spectrum: from traditional dance forms to celebrity politicians to wildlife to historic monuments, the spread is exhau­stive. In the age of digital art and stencil work passed as coir art, finding his place in the market has been a tough ask. For starters, Raghu is an artist who works on coir and not a technician who assembles the fibre on stenciled or copied images. That, accor­ding to him, makes the difference.  

Dabbles in oil painting

“I come from a family of artists; some of them have been professional artists and there are also the ones who turned out art directors in films. My stint as an artist and illustrator in some of the children’s magazines in Malayalam gave me exposure and helped me polish my skills.

 During this phase, I also dabbled extensively with oil painting. By the time I was 30, I was ready to make a move on to something unique and that’s when I took to coir,” the 50-year-old artist told Deccan Herald.

Raghu’s coir portraits are quite a hit and the artist continues to get commissioned for portraits of political leaders and movie stars but it’s still the Taj Mahal that holds a special interest for him. The colle­ction includes portraits of Mahatma Gandhi, E M S Namboodiripad, Mother Teresa, President Pranab Mukherjee, Defence Minister A K Antony and Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. Raghu has also done portraits of Mala­yalam matinee idols Mohanlal and Mammootty, apart from other popu­lar actors. Portraits apart, Raghu extensively works on tiger-heads and lion-heads in 3D. Lord Ganesha – also in 3D – is a recurring motif in the artist’s work.

In the 1990s, Raghu also worked on an extensive project where 60 portraits of Vladimir Lenin were done on coir. The commissioned work was handed over to some of the Communist nations. “Most of my work is still commissioned by government agencies or PSUs. When celebrities are on visits to the state, organisers who hold their events approach me for portraits they could gift the guests. Apart from art that’s sold through exhibitions, individual clients also ask me to work on their chosen subjects,” Raghu said. 

Halfway through the conversation, Raghu does open up on his technique. He starts with sketches on a plywood base on which the fibre is glued to. The colour schemes are identified initially and different varieties of coir are sourced for gene­ra­ting the desired effect. “Right from the sketching to the final assembly of elements, the entire work is done manually. As a rule, I don’t work on stenciled or digital images though there is a trend favouring such techniques,” he said. 

Based on dimensions The work come at a basic price of Rs 12,500. The price range, based on dime­nsions, runs up to about Rs 27,000. On an average, Raghu takes four days to complete a basic piece of wall art.

The artist feels that the potential of wall art on coir is growing the world over – especially in airports, government institutions and high-end hotels – and the pieces also make a good gifting choice.

The overseas market for coir wall art is also opening up. Raghu already has clients from the US, Singapore and other places. Taj Mahal is a favourite for clients from the Arab nations. At the recent Coir Kerala 2014, an international expo organised in Alappuzha by the state Department for Coir Devel­opment, eight of Raghu’s works – most of them landscapes – found a buyer from the US. Raghu’s two daughters have shown interest in art but the artist says they are unlikely to take up coir as their medium. 

The artist, though a regular in government-backed events and art exhibitions, is yet to branch out as an individual artist in a big way. He still works from his home studio in Thevara; the possibilities of well-mounted expos to exclusively showcase his art still appear distant.

“I’m quite happy the way things are. I’ve had a financially successful career so far. When I feel a certain monotony creeping in with all the commissioned work, I venture out into work that excites me more – like the motifs of Kathakali or other dance forms where I can play around with a lot of colour,” he said.

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