Viewing KG Subramanyan’s work — poems, letters, toys, illustrations, masks, paintings — is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Each work offers insight into different facets of the artist. A polymath and a towering figure in modern Indian art, Subramanyan’s work transcended mediums. He refused to be categorised as an abstractionist or a figurative painter, while also eschewing the perceived boundaries between art and craft, folk and modern.
“My works have sought to move between the real and the imaginary. True, what we call real is itself an image of a kind. My main interest was once in the passage of the objective to the abstract,” he once said in an interview. In the essay, ‘Modern Indian Art: A Brief Overview’, art historian, R. Siva Kumar states that this position that Subramanyan spelled out lucidly was one that many Indian artists in the 1970s-80s found valid – about the need to give up the idea of monolithic Western modernism and not be guided by a single formalist ideology, but by different cultural determinants, history and art traditions.
Subramanyan was always politically very aware. However, he chose to respond to the darkness associated with the socio political milieu of his times with wit and humour. Take, for instance, The Tale of the Talking Face, a satire published in 1989 by Seagull, which is described as a “stinging parable of democracy gone wrong by narrating and illustrating the story of a princess whose autocratic rule brought nothing but suffering to her people, despite her ambition of progress for the country.” He started work on the series in 1975 during the Emergency. Black-and-white featureless faces, engaged in the theatre of the absurd, characterised the power struggles. “…they all rushed to the throne, knocking each other down. But the throne was too small for any of them,” he wrote. The accompanying visuals showed some people getting their bottoms measured for a new throne, while others could be seen contemplating the size of the seat.
This astute observation of the human condition, and the interactions between the human and the natural world, continued to inform Subramanyan’s work till he passed away in 2016 at the age of 92. This could be seen in the Anatomy Lesson (2008), terracotta relief works, which showed fragmented limbs, highlighting everyday violence and the depravity of the human mind. The way he brought out pathos, anger, grief in the relief work, showed Subramanyan’s skill at making his images perform. “[It] puts one in the company of the vivid storyteller, the pied piper, the puppeteer-magician who playfully tricked his images into performative gestures, animating them with the stroke of his brush,” wrote Roobina Karode in the curatorial note for the 2016 exhibition, Anatomy Lessons: Artist. Pedagogue. Poet. Scholar. His murals too carried this ethos forward, with Subramanyan being of the firm belief that they should draw on the environment within which they are located and should prompt the viewer to think.
However, he never thought of veering solely towards activism in life. In a seminal 2014-interview to R Siva Kumar, which was published in the catalogue of his show, New Works, he said, “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.”
The roots of this thought-provoking visual language lie in Subramanyan’s childhood. He was born to a Tamil Brahmin family, based in Kuthuparamba, Kerala, in 1924. “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,” wrote Suneet Chopra in a 2003-piece in Frontline. As a young student, he joined the Quit India movement, and was later arrested and imprisoned for picketing the Government Secretariat. That led to a ban on Subramanyan, preventing him from joining government colleges.
This proved to be a watershed moment for the artist, nudging him to join the Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan in 1944. There, he was inspired by Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij. Though he viewed and appreciated the practices of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, Subramanyan’s visual vocabulary remained uniquely his. “Take his drawing of a frog. It reflects the influence of Chinese and Japanese calligraphic art. 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,” writes Chopra. “But what is interesting is that while he draws on a myriad of traditions he does so without borrowing their content. The influences are merely borrowed words, but the language is his.”
While one sees Subramanyan as a thinker, writer, creator, it will be incomplete to talk about his practice without mentioning his role as a teacher. His influence lives on in the works of his students such as Jyoti Bhatt, Bhupen Khakhar, Rekha Rodwittiya, and more. In fact, Bhatt’s interest in documenting the folk and tribal material culture of rural India was triggered by K.G. Subramanyan’s desire to inculcate in his students a contextual study of the crafts in order to extend their vocabulary. In 1951, he became a lecturer at the Faculty of Fine Arts at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. In 1980, he returned to Santiniketan, this time as a professor of painting, and in 1989 he was named the Professor Emeritus of Visa Bharati. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1975, Padma Bhushan in 2006, and Padma Vibhushan in 2012 by the Government of India.