February 22, 2020
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Right, Says TED

Dropout to Al Gore’s pal...an artist arrives

Right, Says TED
Right, Says TED

Since multi-tasking is today’s mantra, should it be any different for an artist? From refusing to go to college to become a cartoonist at age 17, to teaching himself how to paint, to becoming a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) speaker and now a teacher at MIT’s interdisciplinary NuVu studio, it’s been a hectic ride for Raghava K.K. Still, at 31, he doesn’t look any worse for wear when Outlook meets him at the Art Musing gallery where his latest “sold-out” show, ‘Exquisite Cadaver’, is on display.

The show’s name is apparently a take-off on the word game we have all been part of where players construct a sentence, one word at a time, with each person knowing only the word that precedes his. The paintings are bizarrely like fairy-tale illustrations—the unedited kind where the hidden subtexts are laid bare for close inspection. And so they are, says Raghava, the paintings represent his very own mythology of growing up in India post-independence, laced with perspectives gleaned from subsequent years. He cuts up his own paintings and their themes, mish-mashing old work with new. This obsession with multiple perspectives and “many selves” is a theme that runs through practically all his work. It is also the theme behind his wildly popular TED talk that led cnn to dub him one of the 10 fascinating people you’ve never heard of.

Raghava at his Mumbai exhibition. (Photograph by Apoorva Salkade)

Raghava talks about his five “lives” as an artist, which saw him go from penury to getting patronage from filmstars to playing house dad, from obscurity to fame and fortune, from being lauded to being threatened. Of course, the TED talk has been a game-changer (it had people like Al Gore, Bill Gates and Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page in the audience). It filliped him, put him right at the top of the “idea economy” that he says is right now taking over the manufacturing economy. The media attention meant instant celebrity, so much so that now many of America’s who’s who are now his friends. Al Gore has asked him to do a children’s book on the environment and he has collaborated with Paul Simon to create music-inspired art. The TED talk has also resulted in two more ‘roles’. The first of a businessman, on the board of INK, India’s very own TED, whose first edition brought such eclectic personalities as Deepak Chopra, James Cameron, Matt Groening and Philippe Starck to India, where they collaborated “without their egos”. The next edition is in Jaipur in December this year.

The other avatar is as a storyteller—something he is most kicked about, because it holds together some of his favourite things—children, technology, his obsessions with multiple realities and, of course, art. He has designed what he calls “shaking stories”, his own curious take on storytelling. For one, instead of a book, his stories play out on the iPad. His first story is about “things children do with parents”, from potty training to taking a bath.

Once loaded, children can play around with the different elements, from getting the bathroom rug to crawl across the floor, hit the wallpaper to play the drums and also change the gender of the parents, from a gay couple to a heterosexual couple, by shaking the iPad. “It’s meant to expose children to as many perspectives as possible, to teach them open-mindedness,” says Raghava. Shaking stories is his way of “separating facts from biases”. He would love it if shaking history books told the same story, of the independence struggle, “from India, Pakistan and Britain’s perspectives”.

That would be, according to him, the very first step to getting rid of an “outdated, propagandist” education system that is designed to create conforming worker bees rather than innovative, creative, thinking adults. It’s worked for degree-less Raghava, maybe it’ll work for the world too.

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