Kajal Deth: Artfully balancing the socio-political with the metaphorical
Affable, instantly warm and an impassioned conversationalist; Kajal Deth doesn’t understand the mores of formal interactions. The painter, photographer and graffiti artist is not one for small talks, instead – often at the first meeting – sets the ground for a more intimate discussion on life, art and philosophies; sharing artwork and seeking more in return. Everyone, for her, is a kindred spirit. This free-spiritedness permeates every piece of Kajal’s art. Her work, unfettered by societal decorum, forces the audience to comprehend it by entering the realm of the mysterious. Kajal’s art and photography are at once hard-hitting – covering the immediate socio-political aspects – and symbolic – using animals as metaphors for sensuality and spirituality. Her sensitive temperament also encouraged her to start socially relevant initiatives like Art Every Moment that documented the devastating Kerala floods while informing people about the destructive impacts of climate change and global warming.
In conversation with Cindrebay, Kajal who has a studio in Mattancherry, Kochi, Kerala speaks about how art came calling for her at a very young age, her philanthropic experiments and enduring love for fish.
“I was always artistically inclined. Growing up in the small village of Thiruvizha, Kerala, I would often draw pictures of my toys in my notebook. Once there was some carpentry working going on near my home and watching the men create wooden sculptures piqued my interest. I would get small wood chips to practise carving and soon started making miniature toys, cricket bat, and guitar, among others. In school, teachers loved my art and would ask me to draw four feet tall pictures of Hindu deities with pencil on the school’s walls,” says Kajal who has a Bachelor’s degree in Painting.
Of fish and birds
Kajal’s art is a puppet, the strings of which are pulled by her idyllic childhood, political views, emotional journeys, cultural affairs and current events. This affiliation to the past and present demystifies Kajal’s use of fascinating motifs in her art, like fish, a recurring theme. “My childhood home is surrounded by three ponds, and my maternal grandmother’s home also had one. Every vacation spent there was a chance for me to play in the water for hours. Sometimes, I would just stand still and observe the fish in the pond. They would swim to me, pecking on my feet and arms as if giving a friendly kiss. When I took up art as a profession, I found myself recalling those beautiful childhood memories for inspiration,” she says.
Fish, to me, is the symbol of both life and the pains inflicted by it, says Kajal. “It is sensual and spiritual. In one of my drawings, a fish kisses a wound on a woman’s back, trying to heal it, alluding to the creature’s sensual attributes. Another drawing shows a fish kissing Jesus’ feet, a more spiritual approach. The deep connection I built with nature as a child helped me understand that fish is a metaphor; its sometimes graceful, sometimes hurried movements are emblematic of the rigours of life,” she says.
Another theme recently added to Kajal’s ever-expanding repertoire is birds. The creature both adheres to and transcends the cliched symbol of freedom, becoming, instead, a representative of current events. “We have always caged birds, nipped at its independence. But, today, humans are confined because of a pandemic, and birds have reclaimed the blue skies as nature intended. My drawing of a bird sitting on a masked man’s head demonstrates this phenomenon, and also provides a commentary on current affairs.”
Tailor series and Art Every Moment
Kajal has continuously used her art to raise awareness about pertinent issues. “How much life could you see in a piece of fabric is a project I started to chronicle the lives of tailors living in Kerala’s small towns. I photographed tailors sitting either in front of their homes or out in the open, stitching and mending clothes, even as life around them was falling apart. I found this dichotomy quite ironic and melancholic. Many tailors have over the last few years lost their jobs as the move towards mechanisation intensifies. Most of those in the business are widows and the elderly if they lose their meagre livelihoods, where will they go? I thought the society needed to see their hard work,” says Kajal.
This initiative also allowed Kajal to improve her photography skills. “I love to photograph life in its completely raw avatar, without any manipulation. During the 2018 floods that ravaged Kerala, I travelled to Kainakari village in Kuttanad, one of the worst affected regions, with my camera and documented the extent of the devastation. The whole exercise took an emotional toll on me. I wanted the world to know about the tragedy that had befallen us and took more than 1500 pictures. These photos were displayed at an exhibition at Niv Art Centre, Delhi in February 2019. They were also viewed by more than 80,000 people on social media,” she says.
The floods and Kajal’s subsequent documentation of it inspired her to start Art Every Moment, an educational outreach programme aimed at informing Indian youngsters about the floods and the possible human-made causes – deforestation, global warming, climate change – surrounding it. “Through this endeavour, we want to motivate our participants to live a more sustainable life,” she says.
Kajal loves graffiti too, an integral part of Art Every Moment. “We encourage students to draw graffiti around a social issue on the walls of their academic institutions to reiterate the problems we face as a society. I recently painted a graffiti at Kottayam Kanjikkuzhi railway overbridge, which focused on ocean and plastic pollution. It was very well received, and I was supported by the National Service Scheme of Baselius College, Kottayam, and District Collectorate in association with Haritha Keralam Mission.”
Inspirations and influences
Given her propensity to lean towards socio-economic subjects along with a continuing love for the metaphorical, it is not surprising that Kajal as an Art student found inspiration in the works of Jackson Pollock, David Hockney, and Bhupen Khakhar. “Khakhar’s paintings chronicled the Indian middle-class. I am quite similar. I love to document people’s unique approach to their lives and their idiosyncracies. Later, as an established artist, I became enchanted with Marcel Duchamp’s works. His compositions are unequivocally considered by art historians and critics to be a milestone in 20th-century art. Amar Kanwar is another artist I respect immensely. His work sovereign forest was among many to be exhibited in the first edition of Kochi Biennale.”
Kajal has a special connection with Kochi-Muziris Biennale; she was their first Outreach Team Leader in 2012. “The Biennale, started by renowned artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, elevated Kochi’s status to an international level. As an artist, it was a privilege to be a part of the event and to see an array of outstanding artworks at display. In less than ten years, due to volunteers’ amazing work and participation by artists from across the globe, Kochi Biennale has become an important feature!”
Her recent drawing of a bird sitting atop a masked man’s head was featured on Kochi Biennale’s online gallery that was initiated to showcase work done by artists during the worldwide lockdowns.
“I am a visual artist and could never choose between painting, graffiti or photography! I like adding to my skills; picking up filmmaking, design, crafts, architecture, and performing arts, on the way. I choose the medium depending on the type of work and the concept given. I always carry a camera with me. Now, with lockdown in place, I am trying to do art that catches the attention of my followers on social media and gets a conversation going. After all, art is all about communicating, and that is something I love doing,” says Kajal.