Born in Kerala in 1924 and educated at the Presidency College, Madras, and at Satiniketan in the 1940s K.G. Subramanyan is an artist whose perspectives on art and life carry resonances of an early engagement with the nationalist movement in which Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore loomed large.
As a teacher and perceptive thinker closely associated with the art collages at Baroda and Santiniketan, and as a designer-consultant associated with the Handloom Board and the World Craft Council, he has had a seminal influence on the art and design practice of the last 50 years.
Equally exemplary and versatile are his achievements as an artist. Subramanyan’s versatility comes partly from the diverse materials he works with as a painter, muralist, printmaker, sculptor and designer; and partly from the flexibility and layered richness of his visual language. The latter allows him to move from one level of communication or expression to another with great ease and without compromising on his individuality.
The ease with which he does this today — be it an illuminated book or a mural that wraps a whole building — is the outcome of long years of inquiry into the syntactic structures of representational conventions and is truly phenomenal.
An artist known for making materials and processes speak, he is also acknowledged today as an artist with an incisive insight into the human world, with its winning sensuality and unsettling complexity. Subramanyan does this by using the many registers of language to slide from high seriousness to irony, celebration to subversion, descriptive rendering to lyrical evocation, fact to metaphor, and from the real to surreal with the ingenuity of a consummate craftsman and the alertness of a nimble thinker.
Occasionally he squints at the world grimly but more often he smiles at it with amused pleasure. He is a thoughtful viewer for whom the future is not all doom and the past is not entirely barren. And the world is not a place where he merely lives in but he wants to build.
The assuredness, the energy, the engagement and the innovative playfulness of these works from the last two years affirm that at 90, Subramanyan is wisely informed and reflexive but not closed to seeing the world anew and thinking afresh. This makes this doyen of Indian art one of its most vigorous and vibrant practitioners as well.
K G Subramanyan spoke to the Weekend Review in an exclusive conversation. Excerpts:
In a lot of modern art, especially in India, artists are almost out of touch with the historical arts of their own country. Of course, we cannot expect a changeless continuity, but Indian art could still provide us with metaphors — it need not be entirely inaccessible.
Strangely enough, a lot of our modern artists have a divided choice. To keep up with the world at large. And, at the same time, to preserve their cultural identity. This has kept them tied to the externals, meaning, to methods of statement or styles and their rapprochements.
They have not gone deep into the traditional lore or their imagery; they have left it to the traditional artists. Even those who chose to represent them in their individual styles. Ravi Varma, for example, chose the realistic style made popular by European professionals.
Abanindranath Tagore plumped for a narrative style based partly on the practices of the late Mughal ateliers, partly on Far Eastern anecdotal painting. Rabindranath Tagore doodled and experimented with various art forms before finally settling for an individualistic expressionist manner.
Even Jamini Roy, who made a conscious effort to forge a link with traditional practices, was more involved with the stylistic minutiare of Kalighat patas than with cultivating a familiarity with their visual language that holds together sensuousness and irony in delectable ways.
The artists who trained in the government art schools were more concerned with object representation and their variables; they shied off multifocal narratives. Their responses to the traditional arts of India (and this includes certain responses by Rabindranath and Abanindranath) were influenced by the responses of some Western scholars of that time. This is understandable, for we all are subject to some of the attitudes of our times.
But, in the literary sphere, Rabindranath and Abanindranath made amends; they were deeply sensitive to traditional lore and their inner meanings and they were soundly informed of traditional literary practices. I wonder how many have used or reconstructed traditional themes and forms in the way these two have in their writing.
And both realised, at one stage, the pressing need to persuade the artists and writers of their day to familiarise themselves with the various creative levels in each field, to broaden their response spectra and to enrich their means of expression. I presume we are inheritors of this attitude, through Nandalal Bose and his illustrious followers. Part of our new attitudes have emerged from our rediscovery of our old root streams.
While we see this clearly in your art, we see little of it in the rest of modern Indian art. The revivalist went back to traditional art but in the hope of reviving or creating continuity with the past. But you don’t want to revive old art — you only want to use it to add breadth to your statement. Has this happened spontaneously or was it planned?
Each tradition has areas that grew in response to the needs and aspirations of a society, its ideas and sensibilities. Each tradition comes to have an inner code of discipline or grammar which prevents radical extensions. But it also has certain take-off points that accommodate innovation and thus allow a new vision and dimension to its expression. And that is the point where we each read our basic facts differently and invent new devices to represent them. Some of the images that the Meena women of Rajasthan paint on their walls surprise you with their innovations.
The simplicity of their means allows them a freedom that a more structured method of practice would have denied. But there are always means to loosen a structure and find there a foothold for innovation. All growing traditions have this resilience. I am by nature a fabulist. I transform images, change their character, make them float, fly, perform, tell a visual story. To that extent my pictures are playful and spontaneous. I do occasionally build round a well-known theme, and give it new implications.
So there are a lot of things in our literature and our art which can lend themselves to new imagination and new expression?
There certainly are. Benodebehari Mukherjee had many interesting things to say in this regard. He often used to point out that the living tree of tradition had many sensitive points from which new offshoots could grow. He also used to point to the breadth of our traditional lore.
When he had lost his eyesight, he had engaged a young lady to read to him from books and periodicals. But what he found most profitable and diverting were readings from the Mahabharata, which he thought gave us as extensive a picture of human life as only an epic can. Its hopes and fears, its conflicts and crises, their analyses and resolutions.
There was hardly any contemporary situation that it did not have a sampling of. Let alone the main narrative, which is of fratricidal strife and of which our modern world has so many distressing instances. And its final lesson, where the hard-won victory is bitter with the taste of defeat. Most developed cultures have stories of this kind that unmask the contradictions inherent in human life and indicate a way of resolving them, of facing them with dignity.
To focus our attention upon various contemporary problems, Rabindranath used the armature of old legends very effectively.
The modern Indian writers, especially in the regional languages, and the theatre practitioners, have used ancient legends and myths to a certain extent. But the painters have on the whole failed to use this material. Do you think this is because of the notions of modernism that they cultivated?
The visual artists have not been equally forthcoming. This could be because literary themes can be adjusted more readily to varied cultural proscenia while visual representations come with a marked period reference.
Nandalal did “Natir Puja” based on a Tagore play in Kirti Mandir, Baroda. He also did a dynamic Mahabharata piece. Ramachandran has used the story of Yayati. I have used the theme of the “King of the Dark Chamber” in Rabindralaya, Lucknow. But their function and relevance need to be explained as they are limited by their visual reference.
Literary texts or plays do not need such mediation or interference and can easily be given contemporary colour. In truth, all thematic art expression has to grow out of present practices or cultures. Even the performing arts, especially their traditional forms, which appear artificial as soon as the actions they represent vanish from use. This has affected the abhinaya areas of dance forms such as Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and Odissi.
Where the acts they portray are no more prevalent in village or town, like drawing water from a well, milking a cow, churning butter or carrying water pitchers on the head. Besides, the language of these dances are connected to a certain kind of physical structure and deportment. Drastic changes in these also affect their communicative efficacy and rhythm.
You have from time to time commented on contemporary events or social attitudes but seldom painted images that address them directly. Is this because you think that painting is not the right medium for commenting on such things or is this because you do not want to be didactic?
I am actually aware that a painting cannot do all that written text can. It can depict a scene but not analyse or comment with ease. Often the topical events depicted by artists — such as the conquest of space, a nuclear explosion, etc — end up looking rather trite. Like sorry attempts by artists to say that they are aware of the larger world; that they are not closed up in the company of their own selves. I am also rather bored by the blatant didacticism of many young artists who choose to comment on the pressures and banalities of present-day life, and their persistent irony while keeping their eyes firmly fixed on the market rates.
I think our response to events should come out of a deeply felt emotional reaction which ties up, in turn, with earlier experiences or reactions. Like Picasso’s “Guernica” that moves from his response to the brutality of the bullfight to his response to war. I could at one time move in some of my terracotta reliefs from my response to the devastation of a flood to my response to the brutalities of the war in Bangladesh which eventually led to its liberation.
Trying to underline the fact that the massacre of a group of human beings and their body count became marks of achievement for another group. But this can come about only when an outside event is perceived as an assault on one’s being. Superficial topicality and didacticism is something I choose to keep away from.
So you do not wish to be an activist artist?
There are many things happening in this world that force you to react against them and be an activist, to speak against them or take other measures depending upon your competence and ability. Just painting against them is a poor gesture. I do not however disapprove of those who do. My choice will be to be an artist activist — not an activist artist.
When one looks at your work over the years, one sees that you have been trying to achieve a kind of freedom.
I have always been. I do not want to be oppressed by the feeling that art is long, life is short. Life is certainly short — even a long life is not long enough for us to achieve what all we want. But the language of art should emerge naturally, with ease and spontaneity, out of our responses to our environment and out of our inner vision.
Each artist is tuned in a special way for this emergence and his initial effort must be to discover how he is so. Once he discovers it, he is bound to have a sense of freedom. The problem arises when you go against your grain and try to achieve things that strain your competence.
In the modern world, each artist is credited with a vision and genius of his own; his achievement norms are individual; he is outside the race track. Pablo Picasso and Douanier Rousseau are both artists of the same time — the former informed and versatile and individual, the latter naive and limited and individual. Both are influential pioneers of a kind.
R. Siva Kumar, professor of Art History at Visva Bharati in Santiniketan, is a noted art historian, curator and the author of more than 15 books.
In the UAE
Featuring the works of the 91-year-old artist, “Sketches, Scribbles, Drawings” by KG Subramanyan, will be on show in the UAE from April 9 – 18. The exhibition will be first hosted at India House, the official residence of the Ambassador of India to the UAE as part of Art at India House, the Indian Embassy’s initiative to promote the arts, from April 10-14. It will then move to Sultan Ali Al Owais Cultural Foundation in Dubai on April 15, and will be open until April 18.
Jointly presented by The Seagull Foundation for the Arts and Collage Communications, the show captures the rich variety of mediums and styles
of the artist and will include a series of exquisite gouaches created exclusively for this exhibition alongwith the artist’s early sketches from the 1960s, his black-and-white drawings from the 1980s, as well as nature and figure studies and sketches through the 1990s.