It was unlike any other day in Kirtanraw Subramanian’s life.
He was 16 and his father had just been informed by his school that he needed to be transferred out.
“The other students were getting aggressive with him and he couldn’t take it,” recalls his father Subramanian Bandiloo during a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur.
“And the school thought he would do better at a special school,” adds the Kedah-born pharmacy assistant.
“When Kirtanraw was growing up, we realised that he was non-verbal. We sent him to the same Chinese school that my two older daughters attended. But that didn’t work out. We took up the suggestion to enroll him in a special school. But even that only lasted for two weeks,” says Subramanian.
Kirtanraw, who is on the autism spectrum, struggles with social skills and communication.
But at an early age, he developed an interest in art. Subramanian says his youngest son used to draw countless Power Rangers characters while watching the TV series. And when he was 15, Subramanian sent him to an art class in their hometown in Sungai Petani, Kedah.
“We were amazed at how well he took to art,” reveals Subramanian, 53.
So he decided to do something that he didn’t think he would when Kirtanraw couldn’t fit in at the special school.
“I bought for him some art materials and encouraged him to paint. And he loved it,” says the father.
Kirtanraw’s artistic career has been growing steadily since. However, there is loads of hard work ahead.
“I told him when Rajnikanth started out as an actor, no one wanted to watch him. But he kept at it and now he’s a superstar,” says Subramanian, referring to the well-known Indian actor.
“I told him he needs to be like that and keep doing it. And one day, he can take the brush and do anything he wants and people would want his work,” he adds.
Kirtanraw, as we find out, is a fan of Rajnikanth movies.
Now 25, Kirtanraw’s artworks, easily spotted for his “swirl” effects, have been exhibited at various community events, malls and art festivals from Penang to KL.
From regular appearances in group shows, and even drawing art in public spaces, such as the Aman Jaya Mall (2015) and Unilin Company (2018) in Sungai Petani, Kirtanraw’s confidence has grown tremendously.
Subramanian remembers the early days of his son’s career.
“He painted hundreds of works! I had to ferry them in my car, drive around Sungai Petani, and look for potential buyers,” he says.
Subramanian then realised this was not the way to sell the paintings and approached the Island Gallery in Penang a few year ago.
After much persuasion, the gallery agreed and Kirtanraw’s artworks were exhibited jointly with an exhibition by an NGO called Bureau Of Learning Disability (Bold) in Penang.
“All I want to do is help him and make him successful in life. However, because of his condition, he’s not good at many things. But he seems to find himself in art,” says Subramanian, admitting that handling Kirtanraw is not always easy.
Due to his condition, Kirtanraw has repetitive behaviour like saying “stay young forever”.
Subramanian, who holds a full-time job, tends to keep the weekends free to accompany his son. They were recently in KL for a few community space exhibits.
“Ultimately, he wants friends,” says the father poignantly.
“He doesn’t have any friends and that bothers him. All we can do is encourage and motivate him and tell him that once he succeeds as an artist, he will have many friends.”
Indeed, it’s constant family encouragement that has pushed Kirtanraw to where he is right now. With no formal training, Kirtanraw, together with his father, continues to push ahead.
From working on small canvases to wall mural commissions, Kirtanraw has a busy schedule these days.
Subramanian enthusiastically also shares how his zero knowledge about art has improved by leaps. He now knows how to frame a canvas, buy the right paint or even remedy an oil paint mistake.
Subramanian also keeps an eye on Kirtanraw’s social media. He mentions that one of Kirtanraw’s earlier paintings of a typhoon, using the swirl effect, garnered positive responses on social media.
“Someone even called him a little Vincent Van Gogh,” says a proud Subramanian.
These days, Kirtanraw’s artworks are informed by the signature swirl. That coupled with his usage of bright and vibrant colours transports viewers to a psychedelic dream world.
Kirtanraw takes nearly three weeks to complete a work, which now ranges oil paintings, acrylic and pyrographic art. He also spends time watching art-making videos on Youtube and picking up new techniques.
With his very own home-based gallery that his father set up for him in 2017, Kirtanraw has a conducive environment to express himself creatively.
“Being in the Kirtanraw Art Gallery makes him comfortable. It’s also a therapeutic time when he is busy in the studio, he just paints instinctively, enjoying the process,” says Subramanian.
However, living in a small town like Sungai Petani is not the best place to catapult Kirtanraw’s career. He and his family travel at least once every three months to Penang, KL and even Johor to exhibit his artworks.
“It can get challenging when we have to bear the cost of transport especially if the artworks are large,” says Subramanian.
In the end, Subramanian will travel the miles to get his son’s works to the masses. He cannot be happier where his son is right now.
“This is his passion. He says he wants to be a successful artist by 2030 and that’s what I’m going to help him achieve,” concludes Subramanian.