On Friday, March 12, 1993, thirteen bomb explosions rocked the city of Mumbai. So it was no surprise that the JJ School of Art was closed immediately. But at 4.30 pm, the suburban trains began functioning again. So, a young Riyas Komu and his artist friends took the train from Victoria Terminus to Bandra where they stayed in a hostel. But when the train stopped at Wadala, there was a shout: “There is a bomb on the train.”
Immediately, people rushed out of the bogies, including Riyas. But when he stepped out of the station, Riyas remembered that he had forgotten to take his bag. So he ran back. “The platform was empty,” he says. “The silence was eerie. I remember how fearful I was. Later, it turned out to be a false alarm.”
But those events in Mumbai affected Riyas deeply. “The thoughts and questions which filled my mind then–religion, displacement of people, migration, hatred and war–are still driving my art today,” he says. “In essence, I began to speak the language of resistance.”
Two decades later, this resistance carries on. His recent exhibition at Fort Kochi, called ‘On International Workers’ Day, Gandhi From Kochi’, was inaugurated on May 1, with a seminar on the relevance of Gandhi. In it, Riyas has placed five paintings of Gandhi against a red backdrop, with a lone white star at one side near the Mahatma’s face.
The Gandhi that we see is gap-toothed, bare-chested and frail. The painting is based on a photo taken in 1931, when Gandhi was 62. He was travelling from India to England on a ship to take part in the second Round Table Conference. Above each painting are the words, ‘Satya/Perception’, ‘Ahimsa/Violence’, ‘Antyodaya/Victim’, ‘Sarvodaya/Fear’ and ‘Swaraj/Control’. “I have stated the opposites, because we have let down the great principles of the Mahatma,” says Riyas. “This is my reading of the present situation.”
As for the red background and the star, Riyas says, “Some people told me that I was trying to make Gandhi a communist. But it is nothing of the sort. Red is the colour of resistance movements. It is also the colour of protest. As for the star, it is a symbol of hope for the future.”
Besides these paintings, in a glass enclosure, Riyas has placed litho stones, thick white slabs with writings on them, chronicling the several riots that besmirched India following the 1947 Partition. He has called this segment, ‘Stoned Goddesses’. “I wanted to understand the psyche of independent India through important, but cataclysmic events,” he says. “In the process, I have passed through several moments of anguish. And this sorrow is at the heart of much of my work.”
Nevertheless, the Kerala-born Riyas is optimistic. After living for 23 years in Mumbai, Riyas, one of the founders of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, has spent the past four years in Fort Kochi. “This town is a capsule of a larger society,” says Riyas. “It has a great colonial legacy. There are numerous communities living next to each other in peace. And there are an amazing 16 languages spoken here. In the end, the people of India will ensure that the country remains united, despite the upheavals that take place every now and then.”