As politics gets messier, the common man finds a voice on the canvases of Siva Kesav Rao.

All isn’t well and it clearly reflects in Siva Kesav Rao’s works on display at Lalit Kala Akademi (LKA). At times faceless, in grief, struggling to survive, in conflict with those in power, they surround the viewer in the top hall of the gallery space. The monochrome in charcoal brings out the pathos even more strongly with the density of black absorbing the onlooker totally. All 40 pieces of Rao, mostly in charcoal barring a few in dry pastels and oils, are rooted in our daily lives, and they go on to include the latest growing phenomenon of protest and agitation. Ask the Hyderabad-based artist if the movements of Arvind Kejriwal and Anna Hazare ignited this body of work, and Rao reveals that he has remained preoccupied with socio-political subjects for a while, before street agitations became the norm.

A particularly interesting work is a 30-year-old painting depicting a muscled man occupying a seat of authority. This canvas flanks a work which has Mahatma Gandhi on it, whereas on the other side of the painting of Gandhi is one depicting the current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, wearing dark black glasses and a wristwatch with no hands. The artist recollects the past through Gandhi who went on to become Father of the Nation, then casts a gaze at the present through the portrayal of the current Prime Minister, considered reticent, and then hints at the future of Indian polity through an unlikely person wielding control. “The painting became relevant today so I included it,” says Rao who also incorporated a few Gandhi works from his last year’s series on him. Rao who studied at Hyderabad College of Fine Arts and M.S. University Baroda has also mastered the craft of natural dyeing and hand block printing.

“Something dreadful happens today, we talk about it and then forget it the next minute. At least these works will create a record of the happenings around us if nothing else. In any case I am not interested in drawing room art. Art should be socially provocative,” says Rao pointing at his dense works on unmanned railway tracks, child labour, corruption and communalism, etc.

And nothing else except the medium of charcoal, which is difficult and not that popular, would have done justice to the subject enabling the artist to employ the chiaroscuro technique successfully, which then brings out the poignant mood portrayed. Two women crying, holding each other, mourning the loss of their beloved ones in a fireworks unit blast at Sivakasi, is one such example.

But even where he leaves the company of charcoal to take to oil, Rao remains as effective. In a work on the Muzaffarnagar riots, which is from his future series, Rao says, he is trying to express more with colour and form. A sparsely populated canvas with three figures, out of which two are injured kids lying down while the third one looks away with clenched jaws, has the red on the faces and hands of the sufferers, communicating their angst. His division of canvases into triangles also adds novelty to the work. There is another set of works, again from Rao’s future series, in which he is experimenting with colour and form. These are to do with agitators and their psychology.

(At Gallery 8, Lalit Kala Akademi, till March 1)