The enigma that is India

Painter Ken Johnson
Australian painter Ken Johnson captures myriad images of the sprawling country. His work ranges from the spiritual to the sardonic
By Shevlin Sebastian
A few years ago, Ken Johnson, one of Australia’s leading painters, was in a Bhajan Kutir (House of Worship) at the Thar desert in Rajasthan. Suddenly, a man arrived. He was destitute, and looked worn-down and hopeless. He said, “I have nothing in my life. If I keep moving, I will die.” The temple authorities told him to wait. They went inside and held a discussion. Later, one of them came out and said, “If you look after the temple premises, you can stay.” And the man started living there.
“This could happen only in India,” says Ken. “Despite having more than a billion people the country is willing to accommodate more. There is a heart beating strongly in India. In any other country, the beggar would have been turned away.”
Ken drew the room in which the destitute man lived. Painted in a light brown pastel shade, it shows a wooden bed placed next to a wall. Above it is a dark brown shirt hanging on a nail. Next to it is a clock, with a black dial, showing the time: 1.50 p.m. So the man is clearly past the high noon of his life. Apart from that, there is a photo of a goddess and of a man, who has a moustache turned up at the corners. It conveys, deftly, a sense of somebody who has very few possessions: living a bare life.
Ken first came to India in 1973 and instantly fell in love with the country. “As an artist, I have been impacted by the vibrant colours,” he says. “I never run out of ideas here.”
He has traveled to more than a hundred countries and encountered a bewildering mixture of peoples and cultures. “But Indians are very different,” he says. “In other nations, the people are so aggressive, while Indians are soft and kind…. most of the time. There is such a mind-boggling variety: from naked sadhus at the Kumbh Mela, to warrior-like Rajputs, and soft-spoken Malayalis.”
When Ken was assigned to do a cover of Bhagwad Gita, he began reading the Holy Book. “I found the Lord Krishna section the most interesting,” he says. “Krishna is an enigmatic figure, who prophesies and evaluates, and has interesting conversations, especially with Arjuna, about the way we should and should not live.”
Ken has done several works on Krishna with Arjuna, with Radha, and surrounded by gopikas. There is one of Krishna and Radha embracing each other, while he plays a flute. Done in a striking blue, Krishna has expressive black eyes and sensuous red lips. “I like the fact that Krishna is a bit of a rascal,” says Ken. “When the gopikas are taking their bath, he runs away with their clothes. This shows his cheekiness and the human side of God.”
Ken also has a bit of cheekiness. In his canvas, ‘Hot and Cold’, he shows cones and sticks next to a wall, with the word ‘Ice cream’ written boldly in Hindi. Above it is an electricity meter with black wires running out of it. “In the West you will not see wires hanging out like this,” he says. “But in India, it is all over the place. If you touch it, you could die. And yet this is a common sight. I saw this in Jodhpur.”
Nevertheless, Ken has been fascinated by the graffiti that he sees on the walls. “There are posters, drawings, political statements, doodles, and stick figures,” he says, “It is a society writing to itself.”
Ken, who is based in New South Wales, has also been doing some autobiographical work. In a painting titled ‘Transitions’, he drew his daughter Radha, when she was born ten years ago. “I also put her mother [a Bengali] and her grandmother in the middle. On the left is a Buddhist head which resembles spirituality. On the right, I paneled it off for the future, because I did not know what Radha was going to be. Thereafter, I waited. But now I have drawn a dancer. Radha has a talent for music and dancing.” In essence, ‘Transitions’ took a decade to complete.
All this and more can be seen at his exhibition, ‘Wider Circle’ at the David Hall in Fort Kochi. Asked why Fort Kochi, and not Delhi or Mumbai, Ken says, “Why not? It is a beautiful place and I have met some wonderful people with keen artistic sensibilities.”
(The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)