Veteran artist Muthu Koya looks back on his artistic journey

It is an interesting conversation to walk into. Veteran artists N.K.P. Muthu Koya and Kaladharan are deep in conversation about consumerism. The lure of beautiful packaging and alluring shapes all meant to entrap the customer.

The conversation meanders to plastic, waste till it veers back to Koya’s exhibition of watercolours. The exhibition comes as something of a shock because one expects to see Koya’s signature surrealism and what one gets is nature studies. He points an accusing finger, in jest, at Kaladharan, “he is responsible for it. I told him no but he wanted to. And I just went along. This is not what my audience expects from me.” For art cannot limit itself to being a ‘thing of beauty’, an artist has a socio-political responsibility too.


The watercolour studies are a ‘diversion which is an essential element that contributes to the real body of work.’ The ‘real body’ of work is where Koya, the artist as creator is the master who decides “where the sky should be.” This ‘congenital surrealist’ spent his childhood alternating between Lakshwadeep and Kannur. As a young man he studied theology too. Drawing too happened, “since Islam forbids figurative art I used to draw abstracts.”

A chance encounter with M.V. Devan, whom he calls his first guru, changed the course of his life. “There are some people with whom if you spend even five minutes, it changes your life. Devan was one such person.”

That meeting led him to Madras School of Arts, under the tutelage of the legendary K.C.S. Panikker and a peer group of artist such as Akkitham, C.N.K, Adimoolam, Kanayi Kunhiraman and T.K. Padmini. “This was a place and time when all of us were equals. Clearly these are fond memories, the days spent in Madras learning under the ‘acharya’. “Actually a Tao guru. A Tao teacher lets you discover yourself, which is what Panikker did too. He permitted dissent, debates and let us identify the deficiencies in our works.”

Koya confesses to swimming against the tide, then. Impressionism was widely prevalent, at the Madras School too, his works were ‘contrary to that style.’ In fact, his works caught the acharya’s eye and he is said to have told him that his works “don’t look Indian. Panikker’s criticism was a compliment. This meant he took note of my works.” Koya maintains that he had no specific points of reference when he forged his signature style of paintings.

Dali for instance? “Not at all. When someone referred to me as the Indian Dali, I went looking for ‘this Dali’. I didn’t know who this was. I was innocent of Western influences.” He goes on to say that he had enough inputs to derive inspiration for his style.

A debate on his works, Koya doesn’t mind but there is no space for what he perceives as neglect. For, he believes in that art should have a purpose. His works are heavily loaded socio-political statements, with an element of dissent, “are reflections of my own thoughts which are disturbed given the current socio-political situation.” His oeuvre which is surrealistic provokes thought and induces a sense of unease. .

He lashes out at certain ‘iconic’ artists for creating ‘templated’ works sans experimentation and playing to the market. “An artist has wasted his life if he does not represent the time he lives in. He is not contemporary then.”

The show is on at:

Nanappa Art Gallery till October 10.