Raghava KK

What's your 200-year plan?

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Transcribed by Joseph Geni
Reviewed by Morton Bast

About 75 years ago, my grandfather, a young man, walked into a tent that was converted into a movie theater like that, and he fell hopelessly in love with the woman he saw on the silver screen: none other than Mae West, the heartthrob of the '30s, and he could never forget her. In fact, when he had his daughter many years later, he wanted to name her after Mae West, but can you imagine an Indian child name Mae West? The Indian family said, no way!


So when my twin brother Kaesava was born, he decided to tinker with the spelling of Keshava's name. He said, if Mae West can be M-A-E, why can't Keshava be K-A-E? So he changed Kaesava's spelling. Now Kaesava had a baby boy called Rehan a couple of weeks ago. He decided to spell, or, rather, misspell Raehan with an A-E.


You know, my grandfather died many years ago when I was little, but his love for Mae West lives on as a misspelling in the DNA of his progeny. That for me is successful legacy. (Laughs)


You know, as for me, my wife and I have our own crazy legacy project. We actually sit every few years, argue, disagree, fight, and actually come up with our very own 200-year plan.


Our friends think we're mad. Our parents think we're cuckoo. Because, you know, we both come from families that really look up to humility and wisdom, but we both like to live larger than life. I believe in the concept of a Raja Yogi: Be a dude before you can become an ascetic. This is me being a rock star, even if it's in my own house. You know?


So when Netra and I sat down to make our first plan 10 years ago, we said we want the focus of this plan to go way beyond ourselves. What do we mean by beyond ourselves?


Well 200 years, we calculated, is at the end of our direct contact with the world. There's nobody I'll meet in my life will ever live beyond 200 years, so we thought that's a perfect place where we should situate our plan and let our imagination take flight.


You know, I never really believed in legacy. What am I going to leave behind? I'm an artist. Until I made a cartoon about 9/11. It caused so much trouble for me. I was so upset. You know, a cartoon that was meant to be a cartoon of the week ended up staying so much longer.


Now I'm in the business of creating art that will definitely even outlive me, and I think about what I want to leave behind through those paintings.


You know, the 9/11 cartoon upset me so much that I decided I'll never cartoon again. I said, I'm never going to make any honest public commentary again.


But of course I continued creating artwork that was honest and raw, because I forgot about how people reacted to my work.


You know, sometimes forgetting is so important to remain idealistic. Perhaps loss of memory is so crucial for our survival as human beings.


One of the most important things in my 200-year plan that Netra and I write is what to forget about ourselves. You know, we carry so much baggage, from our parents, from our society, from so many people — fears, insecurities — and our 200-year plan really lists all our childhood problems that we have to expire. We actually put an expiry date on all our childhood problems. The latest date I put was, I said, I am going to expire my fear of my leftist, feminist mother-in-law, and this today is the date! (Laughs) She's watching. (Laughter)


Anyway, you know, I really make decisions all the time about how I want to remember myself, and that's the most important kind of decisions I make. And this directly translates into my paintings. But like my friends, I can do that really well on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube. Name it, I'm on it. I've started outsourcing my memory to the digital world, you know? But that comes with a problem. It's so easy to think of technology as a metaphor for memory, but our brains are not perfect storage devices like technology. We only remember what we want to. At least I do. And I rather think of our brains as biased curators of our memory, you know? And if technology is not a metaphor for memory, what is it?


Netra and I use our technology as a tool in our 200-year plan to really curate our digital legacy.


That is a picture of my mother, and she recently got a Facebook account. You know where this is going. And I've been very supportive until this picture shows up on my Facebook page. (Laughter)


And I actually untagged myself first, then I picked up the phone. I said, "Mom, you will never put a picture of me in a bikini ever again." And she said, "Why? You look so cute, darling." I said, "You just don't understand."


Maybe we are among the first generation that really understands this digital curating of ourselves. Maybe we are the first to even actively record our lives.


You know, whether you agree with, you know, legacy or not, we are actually leaving behind digital traces all the time. So Netra and I really wanted to use our 200-year plan to curate this digital legacy, and not only digital legacy but we believe in curating the legacy of my past and future.


How, you may ask?


Well, when I think of the future, I never see myself moving forward in time. I actually see time moving backward towards me. I can actually visualize my future approaching. I can dodge what I don't want and pull in what I want. It's like a video game obstacle course. And I've gotten better and better at doing this. Even when I make a painting, I actually imagine I'm behind the painting, it already exists, and someone's looking at it, and I see whether they're feeling it from their gut. Are they feeling it from their heart, or is it just a cerebral thing? And it really informs my painting. Even when I do an art show, I really think about, what should people walk away with?


I remember when I was 19, I did, I wanted to do my first art exhibition, and I wanted the whole world to know about it. I didn't know TED then, but what I did was I closed my eyes tight, and I started dreaming. I could imagine people coming in, dressed up, looking beautiful, my paintings with all the light, and in my visualization I actually saw a very famous actress launching my show, giving credibility to me. And I woke up from my visualization and I said, who was that? I couldn't tell if it was Shabana Azmi or Rekha, two very famous Indian actresses, like the Meryl Streeps of India.


As it turned out, next morning I wrote a letter to both of them, and Shabana Azmi replied, and came and launched my very first show 12 years ago. And what a bang it started my career with! You know, when we think of time in this way, we can curate not only the future but also the past. This is a picture of my family, and that is Netra, my wife. She's the co-creator of my 200-year plan.


Netra's a high school history teacher. I love Netra, but I hate history. I keep saying, "Nets, you live in the past while I'll create the future, and when I'm done, you can study about it." (Laughter)


She gave me an indulgent smile, and as punishment, she said, "Tomorrow I'm teaching a class on Indian history, and you are sitting in it, and I'm grading you."


I'm like, "Oh, God." I went.


I actually went and sat in on her class. She started by giving students primary source documents from India, Pakistan, from Britain, and I said, "Wow." Then she asked them to separate fact from bias. I said, "Wow," again. Then she said, "Choose your facts and biases and create an image of your own story of dignity."


History as an imaging tool? I was so inspired.


I went and created my own version of Indian history. I actually included stories from my grandmother. She used to work for the telephone exchange, and she used to actually overhear conversations between Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten. And she used to hear all kinds of things she shouldn't have heard. But, you know, I include things like that. This is my version of Indian history.


You know, if this is so, it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, the primary objective of our brains is to serve our dignity. Go tell Facebook to figure that out!


Netra and I don't write our 200-year plan for someone else to come and execute it in 150 years. Imagine receiving a parcel saying, from the past, okay now you're supposed to spend the rest of your life doing all of this. No. We actually write it only to set our attitudes right.


You know, I used to believe that education is the most important tool to leave a meaningful legacy. Education is great. It really teaches us who we are, and helps us contextualize ourselves in the world, but it's really my creativity that's taught me that I can be much more than what my education told me I am.


I'd like to make the argument that creativity is the most important tool we have. It lets us create who we are, and curate what is to come.


I like to think — Thank you.


I like to think of myself as a storyteller, where my past and my future are only stories, my stories, waiting to be told and retold. I hope all of you one day get a chance to share and write your own 200-year story.


Thank you so much.


Shukran! (Applause)

You might have a 5-year plan, but what about a 200-year plan? Artist Raghava KK has set his eyes on an ultra-long-term horizon; at TEDxSummit, he shows how it helps guide today's choices and tomorrow's goals — and encourages you to make your own 200-year plan too.

About the speaker
Raghava KK · Artist

Raghava KK's paintings and drawings use cartoonish shapes and colors to examine the body, society, our world.

Raghava KK's paintings and drawings use cartoonish shapes and colors to examine the body, society, our world.