So, why is the sculpture at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale titled Boatman-2? The artist behind the work is no more to explain it, but his brother who visited the contemporary-art show has a sombre story to reveal. One from the late 1980s, when India’s visual art scene was undergoing a revolutionary churning in many aspects.
The tale goes like this: A quarter century ago, K P Krishnakumar, who fellow artists always hail as an extraordinarily talented and charismatic, completed a striking work casting a boatman. It was done in fibreglass, but the work happened to perish in a fire during an exhibition at Geneva, recalled K P Madhavan, brother of Krishnakumar who had led a revolutionary pan-Indian art movement before killing himself at age 31 in end-1989.
“Krishnakumar did get some insurance money as compensation. But you know how insignificant it could mean for the creator of the work,” trailed off Madhavan, standing next to Boatman-2 which is put on display at Pepper House, Fort Kochi.
That is when Krishnakumar, who had led a short by stormy movement under the Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors Association which he formed after his studies in places like Thiruvananthapuram, Santinikentan, Baroda and Delhi, thought he would work on his boatman for a second time. Again, using fibreglass.
“The act shows how much my brother was committed to his art,” noted Thiruvananthapuram-settled Madhavan, who had come with his family the other day for the biennale.
Madhavan sighed with a streak of gratification when he called it “gratifying” that a couple of works of Krishnakumar have figured at the country’s first biennale. The second sculpture is being exhibited at the Durbar Hall Art Gallery. Even so, there are quite a few Krishnakumar works that are largely inaccessible to the public, as they are stored at the late artist’s house in a central Kerala village. A chunk of his 50-odd paintings and sculptures are kept by Krishnakumar’s mother Ammalukutty Amma at her residence near Pattambi of Palakkad district.
It was on a request late last year from the biennale co-curators, Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, that the aged lady chose to temporarily lend the two works at the ongoing festival, pointed out Madhavan, who came with his wife, besides their son and a daughter.
Madhavan’s son Unni Krishnan, who lives in Mumbai, reminisced how Krishnakumar would describe in “frequent” postal letters his experiences of stays abroad during art exhibitions featuring his work. “Come this August-September, and we are exhibiting works of my uncle in Mumbai,” he said. “The preparatory efforts are on.”
Unni Krishnan’s sister Shanti Krishna nurtures only vague memories of the legendary artist, but has had a close view of his celebrated works.
Madhavan remembered that Krishnakumar used to seek his financial support for tasks such as printing pamphlets and brochures. “I would help him in what little way I could,” he added, his eyes turning misty.
“This is the first time that an art exhibition has given prominence to Krishnakumar. The event even commemorated his death anniversary on December 26 last year,” said Madhavan.
It was a day after Christmas, 23 years ago, that the exuberant Malayali hanged himself, choking to death the art movement he had founded only in 1987 - just 21 months before the inexplicable suicide.
As Madhavan left the main venue of the biennale at the sea-facing Aspinwall House, he met Jyothi Basu, a fellow Malayali who had been closely associated with Krishnakumar and his movement. “Long time since I met you last,” Madhavan greeted Basu. “Meeting old friends like you and my brother’s work, I feel Krishnakumar is still amidst us.”