The quintessential Indian artist

Published : May 09, 2003 00:00 IST

An exhibition of K.G. Subramanyan's works in Delhi reflects the variety of his art and the many influences it has gone through.

THE fourth retrospective exhibition consisting of over 350 works - including paintings, sculptures, reliefs, drawings, graphics and illustrations - of K.G. Subramanyan, which was on at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi until March 16, was timely. His three other retrospectives, in Bhopal, Kolkata and Delhi, were organised after he was awarded the Kalidas Samman in 1981. Twenty years have passed since then and a proper re-reading of his work had been long overdue. And this has been accomplished well by R. Siva Kumar, who had earlier curated an equally good exhibition of the Santiniketan artists at the NGMA. He is definitely one of the better curators in the country today.

Subramanyan is any curator's dream, if only for the number of influences that are evident in his work. Born in 1924 in a Tamil Brahmin family in Kerala, his earliest experiences must have brought home to him the enormous difference in the concerns and lifestyles of Brahmins in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, even though both these States were part of the Madras Presidency during British rule. Later, as a young man, in Mahe (a French colony at the time) he must have seen equally clearly the differences that characterised the cultural and administrative institutions of even industrialised European states.

At the same time, there were unifying forces geared to a universal agenda for mankind, which stirred up the whole world as a result of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and Vladimir Lenin's call to the people of the East to overthrow the colonial yoke. This also stirred up a spate of national liberation movements and socialist yearnings in many countries. In fact, the Communist parties of India and China had their beginnings in 1920.

At the time of K.G. Subramanyan's birth and childhood, the whole of India was going through the upheaval of the non-cooperation movement. The colonial structure and its local mainstay, the feudal system, had come to be discredited. In India, anti-caste and anti-monarchy struggles, temple entry movements, alternative education centres, crafts production and industry took a leap forward under the banner of anti-imperialism and Indian independence.

The South, especially Kerala, with its leaders like A.K. Gopalan and E.M.S. Namboodiripad spanning both the Congress and the Communist movements, with their capacity to rally the widest possible forces behind an agenda to break all barriers in the way of all-round development, inspired this young man. No sensitive human being could have avoided seeing the enormous potential of an independent secular India on the path of progress that encompassed the economic, political, social and cultural spheres.

Subramanyan, like all artists of our time who have achieved the heights of expression, experienced these processes fully. Active from an early age in the politics of the national movement, it was no accident that he took to the study of Economics at the Presidency College in Chennai. Not unnaturally, he became involved in the socialist strand of the national movement and led his college to the Quit India struggle of 1942. In 1943, he was arrested while picketing the Government Secretariat and sentenced to six months' imprisonment. He joined the Kala Bhavan at Viswa Bharati in Santiniketan in 1944.

Indeed, his introduction to art as a full-time practitioner was effected by the Gandhian leader, Gopal Reddy, who had himself been a student at Santiniketan. The choice was not accidental, for the guiding light of that institution, Rabindranath Tagore, had not only returned his knighthood to the British after the Jalianwala Bagh massacre of 1919, but also steadfastly refused British funds to run his institution. At the same time, he allowed his students full exposure to various trends in global art, including Chinese, Japanese and different schools of European and American art.

Here, he seems to have found that creative vision to unify different strands. When the colonial system divided education into specialisations, creating instruments of the Raj with narrow academic interests and ambitions, Santiniketan remained far ahead with a multidisciplinary approach. Characteristically, right from the start of his study at Santiniketan, he gravitated towards a son of the soil like Ram Kinkar Baij on the one hand and Benode Bihari Mukherjee, with his Bhadralok background, on the other. It seems to have been the same with the countries he chose to study in. His first visit abroad was to Britain, which stood between the radical French tradition of Pablo Picasso and Georges Bracque, and U.S. formalism. In 1950, after a stint in Punjab, he married Gandhian social worker Susheela Jasra and moved to Vadodara, once more linking two peaks of Indian contemporary art - Santiniketan of the national movement and Vadodara of independent India.

Subramanyan appears to have acquired a vision for an independent India that promoted the ancient skills and crafts inherent in the broad masses of an ancient civilisation, which had not been destroyed entirely by industry and mass production. Like many other Indian contemporary artists, he was also attracted by the ideals of socialism and the reality of a syncretic culture drawn from many different sources and preserved by Mahatma Gandhi's programme of saving the livelihoods of traditional producers while going ahead with Indian industrial production.

HOWEVER, upon seeing this exhibition, one notices that he was not averse to learning from those around him like Nandalal Bose, Ram Kinkar Baij and Benode Bihari Mukherjee. But his art was not limited to these. One can also see the influence of Picasso, Henri Matisse and the formalists in his works of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The influences, however, were fully digested and removed from his art, like food any living organism eats and digests.

For example, his still-life paints, and a number of his other works, like `Mother and Child' and `Woman with a Lamp', reflect elements of cubism; but they represent a path very different from "the climb up the cubist ladder" of European art. They reflect a far richer source that draws both from the West and the East. Take his drawing of a frog. It reflects the influence of Chinese and Japanese calligraphic art. His untitled work of a female ringmaster with a menagerie of circus animals in the NGMA collection reminds one of a Basohli miniature of a devi in battle. Another work, oil on metal sheet, of a man trying to impress a stony-eyed woman clearly reflects the humour and style of the tribal expression of scroll artists. His wooden toy-buffalo reflects the composite imagery of our traditional gods and goddesses, while his terracotta `Fishes and Fossils' again harks back to ritual objects. But what is interesting is that while he draws on a myriad of traditions he does so without borrowing their content. His devis and demons are interchangeable. The buffalo, inauspicious as the mount of Yama, the god of death, becomes an endearing toy. Delectable fish and their bones share the same space. The influences are merely borrowed words, but the language is his.

The language too is not unfamiliar to us. He carries the content of Santiniketan's language with him still, as is evident from the work `Baul Family', of 1990. And throughout his life, his concern with simple daily activities, ordinary people, domestic animals and everyday things again reminds one of the real spirit of Santiniketan that gave birth to a modern Indian art linked to the soil and the workers and peasants, living close to it and off it. That is why even when he does take up the subject of the lives of celebrities and the privileged classes, a touch of black humour always creeps in. Indeed, his return to Santiniketan in 1980 as Professor of Painting, where he is still Professor Emeritus, was to be expected.

From this perspective his art is radical in content, open in its approach to style and aesthetic ideas, meeting the proponents of style and craftsmen as equal and reflecting a high standard of artistic skills of different kinds. Cowed down neither by the figurative and non-figurative debate, nor loyalty to a school, which would restrain his originality, he is the quintessential Indian contemporary artist.

Indeed, while the exhibition reflected his variety faithfully, his radicalism remained subdued. I would have liked to see his `Shatranj ke Khilari' (Chess Players) series included in this. It would have reflected not only his commitment to the national movement (for the theme of the series comes from Prem Chand's story set on the outskirts of Lucknow during the First War of Independence in 1857) but also to Satyajit Ray's film of the same name linking art and cinema, as also the role of men who divide people into categories and play political games using them as pawns. This indictment of the regime of communal and casteist politics in vogue today was a much-needed element the curator overlooked. But then every exhibition has its limitations and every curator his bias.

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