I would like to think of K.G. Subramanyan watching us with his benign smile and the calm he exercised without exertion while much of the world is eager for attention. Born in 1924, he left us on June 29, 2016. Mani Da, as he was fondly known in the arts community, was associated with the fine arts institutions of both Baroda and Santiniketan and attracted a great following. Artists and friends, students and teachers, all describe him in similar ways—“bold yet soft”, “bullet-harsh yet compassionate”—and they all agree that he was an extraordinary mix. It leaves us with a longing to find out how he shaped his life, for few lives are led with such diligence, art unafraid of intelligence, a profession meeting its demands and also finding its free expression. Though a chain-smoker in his younger days, he was absolutely fit. At the age of 90 in 2014, he was touring with Seagull Books all over India with his daughter Uma accompanying him, and his show at the Lalit Kala Akademi in Chennai had new works. I met him at Dakshina Chitra, where his book The Tale of the Talking Face , based on the Emergency during Indira Gandhi’s time, was on display: in the allegorical tale, a princess gets heady with her powers and takes control of the country. Subramanyan used irony in a gentle and incisive manner, never mincing his words. Neither did he compromise in his art. He took us to a place where the inexhaustible power of life could not be questioned: frailties and conflicts, love and destruction, hypocrisy and truths, all had their place. He did not toe the line gingerly. He manifested a world, and in that space, he moved between the real and the imaginary. If you cannot tell the truth with your art, then there is no point doing it, noted Salman Rushdie. Subramanyan told indelible truths and he was prolific. Like the proverbial lily that never toils, he celebrated life, channelling every craft towards multiple expressions, which he termed his “polymorphic vision” of the world.
Stepping into the chamber of his art, our senses are assaulted by the heady mix of vibrant colours and shapes that shift and morph. One can analyse and theorise where those shapes came from: the Durga that appeared so often; masked or hybrid creatures with many heads—from childhood memories in Kerala, where he was born in Kuthuparamba, or, perhaps, a prescience of his immediate worlds. The energy of these theatrical personas possesses us with a peculiar presence from the spaces they inhabit. One need not fully understand; we are allowed into the artist’s world to have that experience. Kalpathi Ganapathi Subramanyan did not follow the way of most modern painters and his contemporaries of the Progressive Arts Movement who looked to the West for their syntax. He questioned and reasoned; in Santiniketan, where he went in 1944, he recalled Nandalal Bose as “more suspicious of articulate people”. It was Bose who taught him that “By putting too many details, character gets lost.” Subramanyan listened, absorbed and then carved his own path, setting aside the obvious precedent. In his vision, “The difference comes from the primary experience, chalk and pen.” This was his unique path to modernism for India, to dig up her history and to examine her art and craft through word and practice, mastering every craft truly by first-hand experience, working with his hands to perfect the material and process them, putting aside that past which was now part of him. He would then make the thing that was his very own expression, unfettered from all cravings and explanations, by generating a clear context to the local culture and dynamic. Sashidharan Nair, professor at M.S. University of Baroda Fine Arts, notes that a very important turning point of contemporary arts practice was Subramanyan’s terracotta relief works of the Bengal famine. “He worked with hand and mind together,” says Nair. “And he was not a romantic.” Subramanyan was instrumental in shaping the Fine Arts Department at M.S. University, Baroda. Unusually, he appointed a craftsman to teach a course and also started a mural section. He took students to live with Nathdwara artisans to learn and document their process.
Resplendent in a dhoti and jacket, carrying his cane lightly, he had about him an air of command as if he did will his world. Quite easily in a crowd, he stood above, a genius of his time and other times to come. One hesitated to approach him lest his wryness turned to superciliousness. They don’t make them like that anymore—the world murmurs. For, extraordinary forces shaped his extraordinary persona. He was a polymath, born out of the freedom movement, his blood cells racing with the vigour and voices of Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru in the 1940s. The restlessness in Subramanyan to better the world was born at a dynamic time when India was struggling for Independence. A student of Presidency College in Madras, he was jailed for participation in the Quit India Movement. In his early years, E.B. Havell and Ananda Coomaraswamy influenced his philosophy. Recalling one Coomaraswamy lecture at Lalit Kala, he said in our conversation: “I felt—Do we need to have a new art forum for various art practices in this country?” So, to Santiniketan he went in 1944 and it was here he first met his wife, Sushila, who had come to work with the Kasturba Trust as a social worker. They were further acquainted at his teacher Benode Behari’s home and eventually married in 1950.
The independent thinking of stalwarts such as Nandalal Bose, Ramkinkar Baij and Benode Behari Mukherjee shaped his beliefs; not to be a follower of ideas but a propeller of a new order. That platform had to be, of course, modern India’s own. The India of millions. The India that lived between cities and villages in disparity. The India that was petulant she was not Western enough, even as she grappled to overthrow the colonial feet stamping over her soil. And yes, the India of icons, where Durga could be an elegant household deity or a fierce avenger with multiple arms riding a lion to slay the demon. All this was his India. The energy of her chaos and excitement grips his paintings in vivid greens and reds, large swathes of turmeric yellow, bold blacks; other times, orgasmic celebrations of multiple hues, never apologetic, always sure and free. Then, when a thought ends, he draws a line, sometimes invisible, between this thought and that thought and we can see the phantasmagorical creatures in the canvas conversing across lines, as in “Fish Icon” or multiple heads talking, as in “Speaking Tree”, both made recently in 2013.
Subramanyan’s are not conventional symbols representing the subtext of his compositions. He absorbed worlds in entirety like a sponge to incubate within him. His purpose was to create a distinctive language that would allow him to communicate multiple interpretations and make cross-connections. What he drew on paper, painted in watercolour, reverse painted on glass in acrylic, printed as serigraphs and lithographs, hammered out in clay or sculpted in stone—all expressions were drawn from his world. It was not a choice but a necessity to be this “polymorph” and move through every medium to master each, like a mother must attend to each child she bears, attending to its specific needs. It was necessary because then he would have truly experienced that process and he would not be aping another. His paintings show an exquisite balance of form and detail, grounded in his fine power of observation. Only what needs to be said and the rest edited out. “His work is fine-tuned, yet very intricate, a rare combination in one person,” says Anil Sinha, professor at the National Institute of Design (NID) from M.S. University. There is enormous delight and a great exuberance in every work Subramanyan made, with his belief that each day should be celebrated. In his drawings, every gesture is. Mani Da’s art had the power to make people move mountains, literally. When the bungalow of Nanubhai Amin Jyotiwala in Vadodara was being demolished, even without realising the fresco of the “Tree of Life” was Subramanyan’s, the ceramicist Jayanti L. Naik battled to save it, emptying out his savings account in Ahmedabad for funds. “I simply saw it as a great work of some artist and was compelled to rescue it from being destroyed.” It was 1992, and Naik, who was on a sabbatical from the NID, single-handedly hammered out the mural over 15 days and arranged to move it out with a crane, transporting it to the NID by train, where it still resides. “Sell the thing and make some money for yourself, for your studio and home!” said Mani Da to Naik when he found out, with his unfailing sarcasm. Yet, he was secretly proud of his old student. Naik was thrilled with any sketch he received each time he visited Subramanyan, who joked, “Nobody can understand that you got nothing from an eight foot by seven foot fresco. What then would you do with a pile of sketches?” Underlying these repartees was Subramanyan’s derision for the human obsession with materiality.
In his poem “On a Rainy Day”, from the book Rhymes of Recall published by Seagull Books, he writes:
A girl on the pavement mewls on her new mobile
The boy in the shop bawls out the market rates
Buy now, he shouts, tomorrow will be late
Buy what, I wonder
Like a lake with deep waters and a calm surface, one never saw in him any disturbance with eager desires or expectancy. Inside him, there was always room for more and his idealism grew towards freedom through art. There was an everlasting willingness to learn from many media and experiments but he never took the high ground. “I did not want it to sound like a preacher’s lesson from the pulpit,” he said about his first book, When God First Made the Animals, He Made them All Alike . It was this stance of combining the fanciful with the ironical that led him to choose the path of an eclectic. He loved writing verses and clever ditties and he could be candid and revealing with them. His truth was like delivering a sharp arrow on a soft white cushion. As in his enchanting book Robby , which begins with:
they named me
But Pa calls me Baba
Ma calls me Dumpling
Sis calls me Booby
And, after making many other comparisons, finally ends with:
Do you think it is funny
For one to be so many?
It was possible, Mani Da himself proved, like Robby, to be many things to many people: compassionate teacher, revolutionary modernist, superlative artist, radical thinker, crafts practitioner, ardent writer, provocative storyteller and incisive critic. In the introduction to his book Moving Focus , a collection of 15 essays from the early 1960s to the mid 1970s, Binode Behari Mukherjee showers praise:
A mature artist’s insight, a serious teacher’s circumspection and sound scholarship combine to make the writings of K.G.Subramanyan quite unique and distinctive. His views on the chords and discords inherent in the relationship between tradition and modernism are particularly notable; I have seldom encountered comparable clarity and thoughtfulness in any other contemporary artist or art critic.
One hesitated to approach him but when one did, he was the gentlest of intellectual giants, explaining patiently to adults or children, the same reasoning. He never differentiated between art and design, artist and craftsman, adult and child. Since the 1950s, he was the recipient of many awards, including the Padma Bhushan in 2006 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2012. From 1974 to 1976, he was the President of the Crafts Council of India.
Always engaged with design, he was on the Governing Council of the NID for several years. For 40 years, from 1950 to 1989, he shaped the Faculty of Arts at M.S University Baroda in a way that the space now lives and breathes through Mani Da. He lived his last years in Vadodara with his daughter Uma, his wife, Sushila having passed away a decade earlier. If you ask there, who can talk to me about Mani Da, the young artist and alumnus Sumit Roy says, “Everyone!” The need for intellectual discourse in art, bringing knowledge-building and reasoning into the process was what made the Baroda school distinctive. K.G. Subramanyan constantly examined what we were doing with art and what human beings intentionally wanted to portray since the early inception of cave art. As the context keeps changing, he examined how art changes, engaging new perspectives. He was deeply concerned with preserving India’s cultural heritage by critical thinking and practice and was widely influential purely by this determination to create awareness. In his words, “The world cannot be bettered by philosophy. Only by action and continued action.”
Sujatha Shankar Kumar is a Chennai-based writer on art and design. She is an NID alumnus and holds an MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.