Project Description

Born to Lt. Vakkom K.Lakshmanan and K.Krishnamma in Vakkom in 1969, Johny ML started writing poetry at an early age and got his first poem published when he was thirteen. His father being one of the founder members of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) in Kerala, Johny developed an interest in politics and started following his father’s footsteps in village reformation. Reading collected writings by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in his teens left a deep impression in him and guided by his mother he started reading poetry and literature avidly. Johny finished his school education in Government High School, Vakkom. He took science stream for his Pre-Degree and spent two years in the Sree Narayana College, Sivagiri, Varkala. In 1987, he joined the University College, Thiruvananthapuram and completed his BA and MA in English Language and Literature in 1992. In 1993, he joined the Fine Arts Faculty, MS University, Baroda and took MFA in Art History and Criticism in 1995. In 2003, with the support of the Charles Wallace India Trust he took MA in Creative Curating from the Goldsmiths College, University of London, UK. Though he enrolled for a PhD in the IIT Hyderabad, he decided to discontinue it after a year. After working as a Junior Lecturer in a higher secondary school in Kerala, Johny opted to become an art historian and writer. He started off as an art critic in 1995 with Hindustan Times and Indian Express. He went on contributing art columns in all the New Delhi based dailies. His column in the Hindu Business Line in late 1990s consolidated his position as an art critic in Delhi. He has been having his short and prolonged stints as a political journalist since 1997. He became a senior correspondent with the Malayalam Vaarika and in He was with Malayala Manorama for a year in 2005. JohnyML is the founder editor of India’s first online art magazine, He also founded and edited one of the most popular online art journals, (now defunct). He has been an editor of the Art and Deal magazine. He contributes to Art India Magazine, Creative Minds, Art Journal and many other exclusive art magazines. Currently he writes in and Starting a blog in 2008 was a turning point in Johny’s career. As an avid reader and writer, Johny started making independent blog entries on art, culture, cinema and life. He named it after the famous statement of Malcolm X, ‘By All Means Necessary’.  He also goes by the name Aksharananda, which he has coined himself, while embarking on his personal journey of spiritual pursuits. This popular blog is largely followed by the art and cultural communities from all over the world.  Read this exclusive interview with JOHNY ML.

You had taken Science stream for your pre-degree, after this you have done graduate and post-graduate degree in Literature. When and how did you develop your interest in cultural criticism / visual art? How did the shift happen?

By the time I finished my schooling; I had started looking at ‘Life’ as something very special. I knew that life was not just about the living of a human organism and when it came to human beings it had a deeper sense and purpose. I started swimming in the shallow waters slowly daring the deeper zones. I knew that culture was nothing but a set of mutually recognizable values prone to various levels of contestations. I became curious about these contestations and frantically read cultural theories to understand it. It took a few years for me to know that culture was not a monolith but a combination of several imaginary monoliths, which could be, analyzed further to reveal the fundamental structures, which I found did not vary considerably from the others structures. Culture is a way of seeking the various manifestations of truth. Cultural studies prevail only because we acknowledge the manifestations and truth at the same time. If we go further to deem ‘Truth’ as the fundamental then cultural studies would come to an end. I have been interested in visual arts and I developed a style of seeking the truth of those visual imaginations done by different artists. Today, I can reject many visual art creations as mere junk because they have come from absolute ignorance. I prefer to look at more intimate, naïve and skillful rendering of art than the works of art hugely based on concepts and high philosophies (mostly derived from the western philosophies). I have never shifted my interest in literature. I have become more discerning about literature with age.

Your thoughts on contemporary Indian art criticism? What is your role in it?

We do not have art criticism; we have only art appreciation in India. Indians are very good people. They do not want to hurt each other. So the so-called Indian art critics try to deal with art and artists in the mostly pleasing way possible. Whatever is written in the name of art criticism is a mixture of personal appreciation mixed with certain art historical facts. There are art critics who take the protection of certain ideologies and deal with works of art. There are two dominant streams in this; one Dalit Art Criticism and Two, Feminist Art Criticism. While the former is anti-Brahminical in theory, prefers to be Brahminical in practical aspects and the latter is applied to any commercially successful woman artist in India. For over two decades I have been looking at the works of art critically, pitching my critique directly on the context, ideology, style, influence, skill levels of the artist, purpose and their sometimes, flimsy philosophical claims. I have severely attacked insignificant works of art trying to stand on some monumental pedestal made of ideologies and try to pass off as spectacular works. I do not know what my role is in Indian art criticism for it is to be judged by time. If my writings are irrelevant for the coming decades, they will be discarded. But I am hopeful that whatever is written will be retrieved at some point of time. I write for that time of retrieval.

In this era of trade and commerce-based art, do you think art has a cultural role to play? If it does, how so?

Art always has a cultural role to play because human beings create it. A creative human being could live on money because he/she like any other human being needs a lot of money to live a good life. But an artist who is deprived of appreciation – negative or positive, appreciative or critical – withers away naturally. That is the saddest thing. Today, artists flourish on money but they are poverty stricken because of the lack of appreciation. That is what market does to a human being. Artists, living in different places and still doing art irrespective of their market success show that they have a role to play in the cultural make up of this or any country.

Who is your favorite Indian art historian? Whose thoughts and works have influenced you the most – in the past and / or present?
I do not have any favorite art critic in this country. I go through the writings of most of the art critics and I appreciate their works depending on the context. If at all I have an influence in my style of criticism, I would say it is late Prof.M.Krishnan Nair, who used to write literary criticism in his famous column in Kalakaumudi and Samakaalika Malayalam Varika. His column was called ‘Sahithya Vaarafalam’, which meant ‘Literary Horoscope’. He was one good critic who dared to call a spade, a spade. My critical foundations are strengthened mostly by Malayalam writers such as Kuttikrishna Marar, N.Krishnapillai, M.K.Sanu, Sukumar Azhikode, V.Rajakrishnan, K.P. Appan and so on.

What is your opinion on contemporary south Indian art / artists?

In fact I do not like the North-South divide. We do not call the Mumbai artists as Western artists and Kolkata artists as Eastern artists (though we call artists beyond Kolkata as North Eastern artists). I am an Indian Art Critic and all are Indian artists. This idea of South is created by the arrogance and ignorance of the North Indians. Any kind of social divide comes from ignorance about the other. However, as you have asked, I would say, South Indian artists are just fine and they are doing great.

In the contemporary context, is there a distinction between South Indian art with that of North India, similar to those of Sangam period art / architecture / folk / literature / music etc.,?

Art and culture are always in a constant evolution. They accept, absorb, re-articulate, reject, rethink and re-structure ideas and forms constantly. Art and culture are the results of rooted life styles. Hence, South had its distinctive styles and North had it too. With the efforts of homogenization of taste by the dominant market such happy distinctions have been affected and helped to create gloomy spectacles in the name of art and culture.

Very few artists from South India have been recognized at National/International level. Most of those who have received recognition had lived outside their hometown. Why do you think this is happening? Is there a bias or hegemony working?

I would use an African proverb here to answer this: Until the lion has his own story teller, the hunter will have always be the best part of the story.

What is your opinion on the south Indian Sangam age collective art / literary movement? Do you observe any influences of that in contemporary south Indian art? Do you think there is a need for a collective in contemporary context?

Any idea of reviving the past for the sake of energizing the present will end up in mechanical revivalism. After the initial momentum it will lose its steam and end up as an establishment. Sangam period was different and the contemporary times are different. While we could gather philosophical and organizational ideas from ancient times, creating artists collectives based on that may not work in the contemporary times as we are living in a time where artists are more oriented towards personal achievements than collective movements.

What are your thoughts on contemporary South Indian art movement? What is your observation on Cholamandel artists’ village and its founder KCS Panicker’s contribution in building a collective for artists? How do you view his efforts to link this to national mainstream art movement? Do you think he has received the National / International attention he deserves?
I do not think there are any contemporary art movements in India. Art is an individual pursuit today and it would remain so. Cholamandal was a very daring move by K.C.S. Panicker. However, as I have mentioned earlier that has become an establishment. Panicker is not celebrated nationally the way he should have been by now. But I am sure that such artists are going to be brought back into the public memory; that is the dynamics of history.

What are your thoughts on KCS Panicker’s paintings – his style and approach? Was Panicker foreseeing the need for South Indian artists to unite to make a mark in the National / International arena?

K.C.S. Panicker was a modernist therefore a great experimentalist. He received his influences from various sources, both occidental and oriental and tried to see how those could be brought into a same form and stylistic structure in order to create something very indigenous as that was the driving force behind him. He was trying to create an alternative to the ‘international’ of that time. Some historians called it ‘Neo-Tantricism’. In my view the phrase ‘Neo-Tantricism’ looks at only the formal aspect of what Panicker had done. It does not look at the philosophical views of the artist. His disciples were equally responsible for fixing the ‘Tantric’ tag to his works. Panicker was not creating any national movement consciously. He was responding to the need of the time, creating a market for the works of art. He wanted the artists to survive by selling their crafts and getting money to do their ‘art’. He was a well-meaning person though we could argue today that he caused the schism between art and craft aspects among the artists.

You are a pioneering blogger. You write about versatile subjects. What is your intention behind this? Do you have a particular reader in mind when you write? What do you want to achieve out of this –educate, provoke, influence, change or…? And, most importantly, how do you manage your time and resources?

Blog was a new medium when I started it in 2008. As my writing was not ‘up to the mark’ as per the standards of sophisticated art criticism at that time, despite the fact that I had created my own benchmark of editing style by running two pioneering online art magazines in India by then, I thought of writing my ideas in a blog. In no time, I got a good number of readers. First and last I am writer hence I do not have any reader in my mind. I do not write to entertain or provoke anybody. For me writing is self-expression. I am an extremely disciplined person both in writing and in all the other aspects of my life.

Who is your favorite blogger? Whose works do you regularly read/follow?

I do not follow any other blog therefore I do not have a favorite blogger. If there is something relevant in some blog and if someone sends me a link, I read it. That’s all.

What is your opinion on contemporary art patronage and gallerists? How much free expression do you really think the contemporary art patronage allows?

Patronage and art expressions are not directly linked here in India. In fact in the modern and contemporary times, the patrons do not have any hold in the making of art. But they do have it in the way they spend their money on art. Hence, if they keep buying certain kind of art, the artists try to modulate their works of art as per the taste of the patrons. This happens because we have very few patrons who really buy art. Art today is an investment and galleries are stockbrokers. Do not expect anything more or less from them.

What do you feel about the self-aware “eccentric” artists of today? How do you think the theme of self-awareness has influenced art practices and practitioners?

Self aware eccentric artist is a myth. Nobody is either aware or eccentric in the art scene today. Some are self aware and some others are eccentric. But when it comes to money they are just normal people. A ‘self aware eccentric’ artist is a western imported image. The modern museums needed a narrative around the artists and they created eccentric artists as the heroes in these art historical narratives; we just imitate that. Each person in this world is unique and seen against this each person’s actions would look ‘eccentric’. Self-aware artists are pure philosophical beings. I think we can see them now only in the history of Oriental art.

How does political and religious affiliation influence and shape art and art practice? How has your political affiliation and spiritual quest shaped / affected your outlook?

Artists who want to operate within a structured market are simply opportunists and they do not have any interest in politics or religion or philosophy. Those artists who are interested in these things do not come to limelight in a given time; they are always the future artists. Rabindranath Tagore was simply a Bengali artist till a few decades back. His stature as an artist has grown with time. It should happen to all good artists and only those artists would be remembered. The more I understand politics and spiritualism the more I come to know that the majority of the contemporary artists are just shallow human beings and their art, just mediums of survival.

You had said that you were greatly influenced by the thoughts and philosophy of Sri Narayana Guru, the renaissance figure who had rejected casteism, promoted new values of freedom, education, concept of god and social equality. Identity politics is now taking a regressive trend. In this context, as a culture critic, how do you see the way with which the contemporary society is iconizing him?

All the great saints, social reformers, philosophers and thinkers have been used, misused and abused in different stages in history. Sree Narayana Guru talked about the human beings in general and he has been made into the God/spiritual leader of a particular community. I am not interested in the Ezhava Guru but I am interested in the World Philosopher Guru in Narayana Guru. In fact I like all those so called ‘poor’ sculptures of Guru in the streets, junctions and squares, seen or worshipped by thousands of people in a day than the so called aesthetical critique of the misuse of Guru by some so called political artist.

Now-a-days a lot of artists and creative people are getting attracted to Ashrams and New-Age Gurus. Sri Ramana was a pro-nationalist and supported Gandhi. Sri Narayana Guru was in favor of imperial rule that supported his caste reform movement. Today, both their ashrams and their followers are supporting nationalism, and both the thinkers are being constantly projected as divine. Is the political transformation linked to the attribution of divinity? Are you in favour of this shift in politics? Or do you think that the issues on caste raised by Sri Narayana Guru are no longer relevant?

We always fall into a two-dimensional reading of social facts and phenomena. People, artists and common men alike have been going to such sages, ashrams and so on as a part of their private lives and private seeking of the meaning of life. We with our linear thinking see it as a part of the political shift which happened in our country. Many people see it as a rightward shift. I do not think that people started going to these ashrams since 2014 when the BJP came to power in the centre and the political narrative of this country changed. But what happened is that we got a new frame of reference. So when we see from that perspective, we could say that now creative people going to sages and ashrams as I do today, is because of their rightward tilt. Great sages including Sree Narayana Guru have never said anything irrelevant so they will never go out of parlance.

Nowadays, many artists refer photographs and many artworks are also derived or based on photographic images (photorealism / hyperrealism). This trend can be seen as far back as Ravi Varma – many of his paintings used photographs as references, including his famous painting of Parumela Thirumeni, which was based on a photo taken by Zachariah D’cruz (Travancore State Photographer). Earlier, visual art was mostly based on Literature, including the works of Raphael and Michelangelo. Like Literature, this new medium also has become a new referral point for artists. How do you see this co-existence? How has the rise of photography affected the languages of other art forms? How has it affected our own perception of art, and of world itself? Do you think the continuous growth of photographic reprinting has had aesthetic repercussions? In this automated digital era, with high-tech, one-click applications, everybody has become an artist. Anybody with an idea / concept can easily make a sculpture or a print. Does this trend pose a threat to art / art practice / artists?

Photography had once created a crisis in art. With the advent of it in the mid-19th century, it created a great confusion among the artists and all of them wondered how they could tame this medium. They tamed it by using photographs as their point of reference. The early lens and mirror-based devices were used to create the very similitude but photograph could pose a threat to the painting by the very replacing of it. But painting as a creative expression done directly by a human being without the aid of mechanical devices withstood the test of the time and even became successful in incorporating photography into it. But photography also grew simultaneously as an independent art form as the practitioners of it were less in number. In the post-modern times, photography itself embodied a crisis; a crisis in creating an image. There were movements in the US and Europe to create non-image or anti-image photography. Today, however, photography itself is in crisis with the proliferation of the mechanical device of camera in everyone’s hands. It has lost its supremacy as an exclusive image-making medium while the paintings remain a direct medium. With the artists discarding photographic references to certain extent from their paintings, here is a chance for the photography artists to regain the lost glory not only for themselves but also for their images. But today’s biggest struggle is that of a photography artist with so many others who take photographs at any given moment.

You have initiated and been part of many novel and pioneering projects, including India’s first online magazine, United Art Fair etc… But you have withdrawn or pushed out of a lot of them mid-way. What is the reason behind this?

I have often been the chosen one. I was instrumental in starting many new initiatives in India including the online art magazines, video art projects, artists driven art fair and so on. If I have gone out of them for whatever reason, it is for good. I do not think that anybody could ask me to go out. It is always my choice to move out of some art project. I live by certain personal and professional ethics. May be people do not want ethically inclined persons in their company. I recognize their suffocation and step out.

With your hard work and determination, you have established yourself as one of the most important contemporary culture critic. How has this journey been? What challenges did you face? This is a time when success is measured in monetary terms – how have you managed that facet of your career?

Many people say success comes out of hard work. I do not think that I have worked hard ever in my profession. Writing, art criticism, cultural writings, curatorial practices and so on come to me naturally as I am always prepared and never have fallen short of research. There was a time when I worked really hard to survive in Delhi but all that was ‘hard work’ in other professions like journalism, news broadcasting etc. My hard work was in those areas. Whatever I thought as challenges in those days, as in not getting enough opportunities, keeping me out of projects and so on, do not look like challenges now at all. Those were preparatory drills in fact. I am a person who has stopped worrying about money. I can live very modestly without losing my dignity.

You have been criticized for your multiple interests – cinema, poetry, art, AAP, Aksharananda… what is your core interest? I mean, are you a literature person, culture critic, art historian, guru, poet or a mumbo-jumbo of everything?

People want to define me. They want this definition because that would satisfy their curiosity. When they are not able to know me through a definition they become uneasy and turn hostile. Sometimes, when I read the words written against me in various platforms, I find it quite amusing as I think that all these people hold me responsible for the whole of Indian art scene. Off late, everyone seems to be worried about my Aksharananda self. I know only one core in my life; which is the core of my own self and the seat of truth. Whatever I do comes from that seat of truth. I do not want to define myself at all.

Mukhamukham (Face to Face)

A series of interviews with photographers/artists, art historians and culture critics published in English, Tamil and Malayalam. Interviews are taken by Photo Mail Team. This interview with Johny ML was taken by Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi. Photography © Abul Kalam Azad