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Artist Raghava KK: 'You develop new skills when you're down'

By John D. Sutter, CNN
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Artist: Nothing is perfect
  • Artist Raghava KK talks with CNN about failure and inspiration
  • He is known for provocative political cartoons and larger-than-life paintings
  • Raghava says much of his inspiration comes from working with kids
  • He teaches them to beware of inhibition and not to believe in perfection

(CNN) -- Painter and cartoonist Raghava KK has known a number of successes and failures. He cherishes the failures most.

"The minute I feel comfortable, I begin to itch, and I try to throw myself in the midst of anarchy," he said in a recent interview. "The only times you learn is when you feel small and vulnerable, because you're forced to do something different. You develop new skills when you're down, and you learn."

Raghava was one of the lesser-known and less-academic speakers at the TED Conference last month in Long Beach, California. The brainy event, sponsored by a nonprofit group dedicated to "ideas worth spreading," is known for drawing Harvard professors, mathematicians and well-known scientists.

Despite his lack of name recognition and Ivy League credentials -- or maybe because of -- Raghava's energy and spunk captured the TED audience's attention as perhaps no other speaker did. He did nothing more than tell his story, which he said is one of extreme highs and lows. It is a tale of several lives wrapped into one.

Born in India, Raghava started drawing when he was young. That abruptly stopped when a school nun caught him drawing nudes. But that didn't stop him for long.

He drew a favorable portrait of the school principal and gave it to him as a gift. From then on, he was able to draw cariactures of the staff without punishment, he said.

"It got me a lot of popularity, and I didn't know I was capable of such popularity," he said. "And it was addictive."

Watch Raghava's talk at the TED Conference (Warning: Contains explicit content)

In love with the rush and sense of purpose cartooning gave him, Raghava soon became a media star in India. But that all came crashing down when he drew a cartoon about 9/11 terrorist attacks that showed Osama bin Laden taking a bite out of an apple, as the New York City skyline burned in the background.

He was banished from cartooning organizations, he said in his TED talk, and had his financial lifeline cut. So he decided to reboot, traveling the world and eventually coming back to art with a greater sense of responsibility for his craft and its profound ability to affect peoples' lives.

Now living in Brooklyn, New York, Raghava says he has found some of his most rewarding work in teaching young children to draw.

He makes them repeat drawings over and over, until their inhibitions fade away, he said.

"I teach them to enjoy the process and not try and create anything perfect," he said. "I don't even believe in perfect."