Impossible India!

November 18, 2012

Growing up in Bangalore, I went to a very proper Christian school where I was taught by nuns, fathers, brothers, and sisters. Basically, I was brought up to be a good Samaritan, and maybe I am one.   I would go back at the end of the school day to a traditional Hindu house, which was probably the only Hindu house in a predominantly Islamic neighborhood.

I celebrated every religious function. In fact, when there was a wedding in our neighborhood, all of us would paint our houses for the occasion. I remember we cried profusely when the little goats we played with in the summer became biryani. We all had to fast during Ramzan. It was a very beautiful time.

I’ll never forget, when I was 13 years old, Babri Masjid — one of the most beautiful mosques in India, built by King Babur in the 16th century — was demolished by Hindu extremists. This destruction caused major riots in my city.  For the first time, I was affected by communal unrest. My little five-year-old kid neighbor came running into my home shouting, “Rags, Rags. You know the Hindus are killing us Muslims. Be careful.” I looked at him and said, “Dude, I’m Hindu.”  His face fell. He looked at me aghast and said, “What?!”

Our Muslim neighbors moved into our house overnight and ensured that we (the only Hindu family in the neighborhood) were safe. Local human ties were always stronger than larger religious or ideological ones. (Most of the agitation was politically motivated and funded. Divide and rule: one of the dirty tricks that we learned from the Raj).

Because of her ridiculous diversity, I believe that there is no one single India. India is truly the world’s most impossible democracy. Growing up here, we were exposed to a plethora of human realities. It was ingrained early in our systems that although we occupied the same space, our realities were entirely different.  And yet, we understood each other.

Figure 1.0: ‘Portrait Pop-it,’ Ink, watercolor, and acrylic on paper, 18” x 59”, Raghava KK, 2011

My older child, Rudra, was born in India.  We moved to New York soon after he was born. I was presented with children’s books over here.  Fun picture books subtly laced with values. The way I saw them, they served more as manuals on parenting than as stories for children. I was definitely not brought up the ‘Park Slope-Organic food- Evaporated Cane Juice–composting-self-righteous-mommy’ way.  I wanted to counter this propaganda in children’s books with my own. Or better still, to create a space in which many biased views could co-exist, or multiple points of view could flourish simultaneously. So I created a children’s book app for the iPad for my son called Pop-it.  Pop-it is a book about things very young children do with their parents.  By default, it begins with a homosexual couple bringing up a child.  If you don’t like it, shake the iPad, and you get a lesbian couple.  Shake it again, and you get a heterosexual couple. I wanted to deconstruct the notion of an ideal family. (

The next step would be to create a very patriotic book on Indian independence.  But when you shake it, you get Pakistan’s perspective.  Shake it again, and you get the British perspective.

I’d like to argue that exposure to many perspectives leads to creativity. And only when you are creative can you imagine yourself in the shoes of someone different from you. You learn empathy.

Creativity will engender a more connected and empathetic world.  India, currently the world’s largest democracy, the hotbed of omnipresent diverse exposures, creativity and empathy will now only be overtaken by the even larger democracy, the internet. I believe India can play a very important role as we become more and more active citizens of the Internet in helping us learn about diversity.

My greatest take away from Indiaspora this year came form Gandhi’s grandson, Rajmohan. He reminded us that Gandhi united the nation, the impossible collective, through a narrative.  This narrative did not emerge from India, he said. Gandhi, he points out, was an NRI. He studied in London and worked in South Africa. This distance gave Gandhi an ability to see India from a bird’s eye view and therefore to appreciate what those inside India could not. The question on my mind was, what is the next narrative that will emerge about India, and where will this narrative come from? From the outside? From the inside? Or from an interaction between the two? Will this narrative bring all Indians together? And can we, the NRIs play an important role in shaping this narrative?

While we think of this narrative, I only wish we keep in mind that we are a beautifully impossible democracy. Our narrative should celebrate our diversity!


This painting (Figure 1.2) represents the mindset of a contemporary thinking Indian, vaguely my age 😉  Indian historian Ramchandra Guha says that “Inside every thinking Indian, there is a Gandhian and a Marxist struggling for supremacy.”- I may add a Rajinikanth and Nyancat to the list!

Figure 1.1: “Safety Belt for the Census Bureau,’”Acrylic on canvas, 70” x 48”, Raghava KK, 2011
















Figure 1.2: ‘Transformers,’ Acrylic on canvas, 60” X 78”, Raghava KK,  2012


Figure 1.3: ‘Mona Lisa 2.0, Digital/New media, Raghava KK, 2012


“Mona Lisa 2.0” allows viewers to affect the artwork through their brainwaves.  An EEG device sends 13 frequencies from the wearer’s cerebral cortex to a computer that gauges the wearer’s state of mind, and accordingly changes the artwork.  The future of art lies in technology that will make art more accessible, immersive, and participatory.