In September, 2012, the Baroda-based Malayali artist KP Reji set up base at a lodge near Fort Kochi. And every day, at 8.30 am, he would set out towards Pepper House, a venue of the Kochi Muziris Biennale.
There, on the first floor, inside a large hall, with its windows facing the sea, Reji would sit and ponder about his life, while a blank canvas remained—silent and mute, against one wall.
Slowly, images from his childhood in the village of Allapuzha—the Venice of the East, would come up. “I remembered the time when, during Gandhi Jayanti, a lot of schoolchildren, carrying knives and brooms, would clean the school premises and cut the overgrowing grass lining the roads and highways,” he says. “Although it was done in the name of the apostle of peace, we were using a bit of violence, by using the knives.”
At other moments, he remembered trips to Kochi where he saw large ships sailing towards the Arabian Sea. He also recalled the paddy fields, which were aplenty, when he was growing up. “But our family lost the land because a new railway line was coming up,” says Reji. “As for the others, some of the fields were converted into the more lucrative fish farms.”
Soon, Reji started painting. And, at the end of three months of 12-hour work days, Reji has produced a remarkable triptych, a 15’ x 10’ oil painting. On the banks of a river, are a group of boys, with knives, but with a playful look on their faces. Next to them are a flock of ducks. There is also a snow-white goat nearby. But what is eye-catching is the sight of a naked man who lies across a broken bund to prevent flood waters from flowing into a paddy field. Right behind them all, and with a towering presence, is the aircraft carrier, the INS Viraat, painted in grey, which is gliding past peacefully.
Asked about the presence of the carrier, in a sylvan setting, Reji says, “We brought this from Britain. It gives an indication of our long relationship with the British because of their 200-year rule of India.” Reji says that the overwhelming experience for viewers is a sense of loss. “The work has enabled them to go back to the past,” he elaborates.
“There are evocative images... a carrier, small children, ducks and a paddy field. My aim was to take cliche images and present them in a fresh manner.”
But he is reluctant to use the word, ‘simple’. “I prefer to say that I avoid complications in my work,” he says.