An Interview with Raghavendra Rao: Visions of the Living Past and the Komagata Maru

Komagata MaruRAGHAVENDRA Rao is an award-winning visual artist based in Bangalore and Vancouver. Over the past 20 years, his works have been exhibited around the world including India, Sweden, Scotland and Canada. A talented musician, singer and scholar, Raghavendra Rao is a featured artist in Ruptures in Arrival: Art in the Wake of the Komagata Maru


When did you first learn about the Komagata Maru?

I first learned about the Komagata Maru In 2012, from Dr. Anne Murphy (who also happens to be my wife) while she was working on events related to the centenary commemoration of the founding of the Gadar Party.

Later I watched ‘Continuous Journey’ by Ali Kazimi as part of that program and listened to scholars and others eloquently talk about it.


Komagata MaruTell us about your pieces in the Ruptures in Arrival exhibition? What inspired you about the story?

I wanted to do some work on the Komagata Maru incident after I attended the events on the Gadar Party… and talking with a number of people including Anne. However, I didn’t know what it would be… I had plans to make three-dimensional interactive pieces as well. But, as I looked at the archival pictures of the people on board the ship, I felt like making portraits of them. I looked for photographs of people around that time in the archives online and found many photographs of South Asian men doing different kinds of manual labour. I decided at that point to make portraits of these in a style that would resemble aristocrats / kings – centrally placed, and almost regal. But, in this case, with my work, you would see a patch of red around them which could connote violence and betrayal.

To me, the most poignant experience was while I was working on the paintings, looking at the archival pictures for so long… it made me feel as though I know these people. It is like some kind of connection that got created during the process.


Komagata MaruTell us about the Visions of the Living Past: Visions of the Komagata Maru exhibit in Bangalore?

It was received really well, as artworks and of course the subject matter moved everyone who visited the show. Each and every person asked ‘How come we do not know of this really important part of our history?’ It was interesting for me as I am not a Punjabi and most of the viewers were not Punjabis but they all said ‘our history’. It is significant to notice that it is not just a ‘Punjabi-Canadian’ story but a vital part of Indian history too… South Asian history too.



How do the themes of your work soon to be on display at the Surrey Art Gallery connect to larger themes in your practice?

Through the international residency programs and workshops I have taken part in, I have interacted with artists from different parts of the world and I understand how processes of making art are influenced by political and social contexts. These interactions have helped me in situating my own, as I call it, “context specific” work. When I began the transition of moving to Vancouver, I started understanding this new ‘context’ slowly. ‘The Imaginary Landscape of the Komagata Maru: Visions of the Living Past’ has emerged from my Canadian experience in the last year and a half. Through this, I reflect on and imagine the experience of early South Asian settlers to Canada at the beginning of the twentieth century. And it helps me to understand my own experience in a fuller way.


Komagata MaruWhy is the Komagata Maru narrative important today?

It is as important a past for white Canadians as it is for South Asian Canadians, or Chinese Canadians or members of the First Nations. And it is also true that there are ramifications of it today and we also find parallels today, in immigration policy today. It is a story of discrimination that happens even today all over the world in the name of different communities – not just racially defined ones. So, this story speaks to all of us, and tells us about the present as well as the past. We need to listen to it, to understand ourselves and our world, and particularly if we want to change that world for the better.

Raghavendra Rao’s work will be on display until June 15 at the Surrey Art Gallery’s exhibit Ruptures in Arrival: Art in the Wake of the Komagata Maru.

Naveen Girn is the Project Manager for “Komagata Maru 1914-2014: Generations, Geographies and Echoes” featuring a group of 8 institutions across Metro Vancouver collaboratively commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Komagata Maru Episode (