Urban shadows

Different strokes

Urban shadows

Through his evocative and intriguing works, Krishnaraj Chonat (born 1973/Chennai) has, over the last decade, revealed vignettes of contemporary urban living and the contradictions it holds.

Inappropriate planning, skewed notions of development, unchecked environmental destruction and growing social inequities are some of the themes explored in his works, which include evocative sculptural installations and performance.

Chonat’s recent exhibit at Galleryske was titled Lotus Eaters. It had, among others, two life-size coracles (set in the form of an open Oyster shell) hanging from the ceiling. In the adjoining room, three automobile wheels delicately made of unfired clay stood upright, while a clump of broken clay pieces with a burning flame took the place of the fourth wheel. Exceptionally rendered and presented, these works stood out as silent but meaningful metaphors, provoking serious thoughts about living on the edge.

In an informal and freewheeling chat, Chonat, who has had several successful international shows and residencies, shared nuggets of his journey so far and thoughts on art and life. Excerpts from the interaction...

On his early interest in art: I was good at drawing and sketching from a very early age, often pestering family members to pose for my sketches and drawing on blackboards in school. Seeing my interest, Yusuf Arakkal (my father’s colleague in HAL) suggested that I join art classes at Chitrakala Parishath (CKP) during summer vacations. The CKP campus with its lovely trees was a wonderful training ground. Later, I became a regular student of CKP and graduated from it. Thereafter, I moved to M S University, Baroda for a post-diploma. Funnily, my specialisation was in printmaking, which I disliked for the tedious technical processes involved. I was more at home making charcoal drawings or painting with watercolours; sculpting with found materials became another passion.

On initial struggle as an artist: Back in Bengaluru after post-graduation, it wasn’t easy to make a living as an artist. I took up several odd jobs... like making murals. I hated doing them, but couldn’t refuse because they got me some money. I also taught art to children in some schools. All the money I made in those days was spent on my travels across the country.

On major influences: During the CKP days, Gangadhar was a great inspiration. An exceptional draughtsman himself, our entire batch benefitted from his wonderfully nuanced teaching. Later on, I happened to listen to an awe-inspiring lecture by Dr Kapila Vatsayan; it triggered my interest in ancient temples, monuments and historical sites, which I visited later on in life. Local and world literature, and classical music have also had a great influence on me and my work.

I can live for days just listening to maestros like Balachander, Doreswamy Iyengar, Kumar Gandharva, Ali Akbar Khan, among others. I can also spend long hours just watching the expanse of a tree, its gentle swaying in the wind or its reflection in water. For me, a tree is not just a physical entity but one which has a much deeper cultural and social connotation. No wonder, it appears in my work in various ways.

On what shapes his art: All the ideas for my work come from observing people and their behaviour, landscapes and everyday happenings. I feel personal experience and close observation are the best educators; many singular experiences have compelled me into thinking deeply about issues otherwise often overlooked.

An example: In 2003, on a flight back home, I observed that the behaviour of an otherwise friendly elderly lady seated next to me changed dramatically just because I ordered a non-vegetarian meal! My dietary choice seemed to have made me her enemy! I always wonder how and why a personal preference can go to such an extent as to make or break social relations.

Similarly, when I was working with leather, it came as a surprise that some of the biggest traders in leather business were actually orthodox Brahmins from South Canara. I saw them pray religiously, eat strict vegetarian food etc while being entrenched in a business involving hide, flesh, meat and tanning. Some of them thought I was a Muslim simply because of my interest in leather and my beard! They seemed relieved the moment I told them my name. All such experiences affect my work in some way or the other.

On his art practice: My process is to observe, think and analyse. I try to comprehend life in all its glorious complexities and the great interconnectedness. My practice involves experimenting and devising ways in which an artwork could ‘manifest, articulate and reconfigure’ the style of the culture from within the world of that culture. My work is both a response and a question to assess the true character of our predicament in our denatured nature: “How close is really close enough?” In practical terms, I’m comfortable working on many projects simultaneously. An abiding interest in exploring a range of materials, techniques and working methods also help me devise visual strategies that inform my work.

On working with different mediums: Handling different materials has always been of interest to me. Even as a young boy I would work on discarded sand moulds at the HAL factory and make sculptures using rudimentary tools. As I grew up, I would visit junk shops and yards, and pick up odd things, which I used in my sculptures. I also made friends with small-time workers who taught me how to use fur, leather, stone, wood, discarded e-waste, clay and found objects.

On future projects: I have a few ongoing projects and dozens of ideas in my mind which are waiting to take shape and get executed. Earlier I would feel very frustrated that they took time to actually happen in reality, but over the years I have learnt to live with them and allow things to breed inside and refine, internalising their essence at a slow pace.  Since I constantly seek newer challenges both in material and representations, many of my long-standing concerns come up for fresh explorations from time to time. 

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