Willing Departing of the Benevolent Patriarch of Indian Art : K G Subramanyan (1924-2016)

Feature : Willing Departing of the Benevolent Patriarch of Indian Art: K.G.Subramanyan 919245-2016) / Johny ML

A true Gandhian, K G Subramanyan stood for truth. His life was a prolonged satyagraha. His death too was one, says JohnyML.

Artist K G Subramanyan

Artist K G Subramanyan

KG Subramanyan was the last Gandhian standing in the Indian art scene. Though a politically incorrect qualification for the pioneering modernist and a willing post-modernist too, ‘Gandhism,’ the philosophy of Gandhiji was the leading force in the creative life of KGS. I do not say ‘in life and in the creative life’ because KGS led only one life which was creative. He had found his ‘Gurus’ in Nandlal Bose, Benod Behari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij. KGS liked the erudition of Nandlal Bose, daring of Benod Behari Mukherjee and the rebelliousness of Ramkinkar Baij. Being a rebel himself who had participated in the anti-British struggle in the Madras Province as a student at the Presidency College there, it was not surprising, when KGS went to Santiniketan to study art, the perennial search for the living image of an ideal artist ended up with his first confrontation with Ramkinkar Baij. A free spirit burning with an all consuming creative fire, eking out pleasures from the mundane was Baij, an unparalleled embodiment of a creative being. KGS did not look for another ideal as he was already in the midst of living and dead geniuses, a sort of company that provided him with enough divine prodding to be an artist, a teacher, a thinker, an administrator and above all a visionary.

My intention is not to tie KGS under the yoke of Gandhism and make him plough posthumously the fields that Gandhiji had left unexplored. Gandhiji was not seriously interested in art but in his formulation of ‘Gram Swaraj’, the autonomous villages which would eventually disprove a centralized governing system, Gandhiji had envisioned a complete village based on mutual dependency and trust, in which art and crafts, though not emphatically underlined by him, were an integral part. KGS’ political activism definitely had not addressed artistic autonomy of the villages as his primary concern was non-violent resistance against the British. But the teachings of Gandhiji and also the learning that KGS had done in those days remained strongly etched in his mind which provided him with guidelines and benchmarks to design and device educational improvements and handicrafts regenerations in the post-Independent India. KGS was not only an artist but also an avid administrator with a vision towards integral changes. Exclusionary practices of art and craft based in urban centres and worked on exploitative methods were critiqued by KGS and he insisted that indigenous systems of art making should be integrated with the modern education and India could achieve its modernism only by inclusionary practices where artisans were not degraded when assessed along with the modern artists.

Work by KG Subramanyan

Work by KG Subramanyan

It is difficult to compartmentalize the contributions of KGS, as we generally do when artists of his repute pass away. KGS did not work in compartments; whatever he did was a part of the other, whether it was paintings, murals, writings or teaching. He collated his practical experiments with his theoretical formulations. His writings as exemplified in the collections like ‘Moving Focus’, ‘Creative Circuit’, ‘Living Tradition’ and ‘Magic of Making’ are a sort of soliloquies where KGS addresses himself rather than a larger audience. This self talking did not occur as a result of self doubts; rather KGS liked to be in the mode of a thinker always and the constant mental processes gave birth to the longer verbalizations. His essays, lectures and books are well researched. But these are not done the way an academic would do the research. KGS made his forays into the fields that caught his imagination by force and conducted both practical and theoretical experiments until he reached some sort of creative solutions. Primarily, KGS was not approaching art or art history as a problem. Instead, he approached them as fields of vision and fields of richness and pleasure, which are liable to be explored and never exploited. So it was a solitary academic and creative practice and most of the times he felt the need to externalize his thoughts. This came out in the form of an auto-speech, as if he was addressing classrooms where the students were his own multiplied selves. As a teacher he wouldn’t have lasted if he was not addressing himself constantly and was not able to find rare gems in art and art history occasionally.

Those people who knew KGS closely say that he was a great communicator. I too had a few occasions to interact with KGS and my experience was not different from those of the others. The exalted erudite spirit was infectious and the simplicity of his personality was humbling. What I felt more unsettling was the kind of a mischievous smile that remained always on his lips and the slight wink observed carefully through his thick glasses. One always thought whether he was sarcastic or serious. For KGS sarcasm was a sort of seriousness and it got its reflection in most of his paintings. Even if he had his own influences from the western modernism and also he challenged them with the Santiniketan school of thought, neither did give him his abode that he had been seeking until he found one for himself, firmly built with a heightened sense of satire about the worldly ongoings around him and ornamented them with ample amount of suggestive eroticism. From a stereotypical Gandhian personality one would not have expected such irreverent and bold expressions but KGS was never stereotypical. He knew his Gandhiji well; the Gandhiji whom he knew and many of us know, was quirky and had a strange sense of sexuality. KGS, in his sagacious appearance too maintained an active mind which was young and impatient and whenever he put his brush on canvas this quirky mind flowed out through the brushes enriching the images with the life force which otherwise is known as Eros.

Work by K G Subramanyan

Work by K G Subramanyan

A good talker does not mean that he is an extrovert. Like an iceberg, the talkativeness perhaps hides the unseen depths. KGS was one such artist. He went on scribbling, drawing and painting. Whenever he had the opportunity, like his masters he did murals. Like Picasso, KGS could see forms in anything and everything. He could make a series of crafted objects and toys with mundane objects and cheap materials, a tendency that he developed from the celebrated Nandan Melas in Santiniketan. Like a true carrier of the messages of Santiniketan, KGS was also instrumental in establishing a similar faculty fair in Baroda when he came to teach there after his Santiniketan stint. It was here in early 1960s that he got the opportunity to do his first mural at the Jyotee Industries Limited in Baroda. He went on to do several other murals in different parts of North India and also in his alma mater, Santiniketan, which were not far from certain petty controversies too. Parochialism, even if it is right under the nose of the image of Gurudev Tagore, is parochialism of the worst kind. KGS was criticized heavily when he did a mosaic mural on the walls of Master Moshai’s studio (Nandalal Bose’ studio). Unchallenged by criticisms KGS went on to finish the mural and today a visit would prove that his mural has only brought more glory to his guru, Nandlal Bose. KGS even at his advancing age was spirited enough to do and redo two versions of a Black and White mural in Santiniketan, which stands tall in the Kalabhavana complex inviting both the tourists’ and scholars’ eyes.

K G subramanyan at work on the Mural

K G subramanyan at work on the Mural

In his book ‘Enlightenment and Engagement: The Murals of K.G.Subramanyan’, the James Boswell of Santiniketan, Prof.R.Sivakumar, surveys the murals done by KGS and comes up with certain wonderful observations that would reveal the mind of the artist regarding conflict and solutions. While talking about the mural ‘From Conflict to Conviviality’, Sivakumar writes, ‘Following the title, the mural can be read optimistically from left to right as a movement from conflict to conviviality. But again, structured as it is like a triptych, it need not be read in a linear manner at all. Most triptychs and polyptychs offer more than one reading; they have always been a structural device to generate multiple readings, and often for paired presentations of contrasting alternatives. Subramanyan uses this triptych here as a compositional device to present a complex situation rather than to signal a single reading of the scene. So it can also be read from right to left to suggest that the world has moved tragically from conviviality to conflict, or, a little more hopefully, to suggest that the die is yet to be cast and it is for us to choose.” In these words, R.Sivakumar reveals the mind of KGS who as a true Gandhian is still waiting for us to make the right choice. He could show us the saga of struggle; we could read it in our own ways, from right to left or left to right. In the true sense of the word, Satyagraha, the demand for Truth, KGS does it in his canvases; he demands truth.

KGS maintained his demand for truth though out his life. When the government departments wrote to him for certain suggestions, without feeling the need to please anybody in the seats of authority KGS spoke his mind. Also whenever he was asked to go to Delhi to attend certain council meetings KGS wrote back to the government saying that he was currently busy with examination works in college so he could not come. Administrators moving between ministry and their own seats, with files clutched under their arms, and scratch the back of their heads when questions are put to them by the government secretaries, should learn a lot from the straightforwardness and courage displayed by KGS when it came to the dealings with government departments. In the case of his dealings with the galleries, however, KGS took a different stance. Here he found he was the authority of his works only when he was making them. The moment they were relieved from his brush, he longer felt the owner of his works. So he let other people to handle his works. Most of his important works are handled by Mr.Naveen Kishore of Seagull Foundation and Kishore has been instrumental in bringing out exquisite publications on KGS’ works including the books written and illustrated by the artist for the kids. KGS was a renaissance man ( I always call people who have done beyond their limits Renaissance people) and he remained so throughout his life. He was not afraid of kings and queens. He would have easily asked a king to move away from sunlight had he been obstructing it while KGS worked. KGS returned his residential apartment in Santiniketan a few years back to the authorities with a suggestion that the building should be converted into a Benode Behari Mukherjee Research Centre. Though it has been agreed by the authorities, KGS did not wait to see the good use of his home for posterity.

Mural by K G Subramanyan

Mural by K G Subramanyan

A few years back when KGS visited Kerala as a part of the documentary shoot on him by the noted film maker Shaji N Karun, KGS was walking and talking with the young artists in Kochi. Leading the pack was Rajan M.Krishnan who unfortunately jumped the timeline and went to the heavenly abodes before KGS. In a question put to him by Rajan, KGS said that the new internationalism or globalism is regionalism. KGS was a staunch believer in regional expressions. He was not speaking about the parochial pettiness of regions and provinces. He was speaking of the cultural ethos that gave identity to the regions. He thought expressing that very special ethos made the new internationalism. It was not a revelation that he got recently. KGS had been expressing the same in his books for a long time. It was from his close interactions with KGS’ writings and thinking that Sivakumar could formulate the idea of ‘regional modernism’ as one of his pet theories and propositions. KGS could redefine Indian modernism vis-a-vis the Indian traditions. But KGS did not use the Hindu route to define it. He rather threw his lot with the subaltern cultures. He did not refer to Ambedkar but KGS could see what both Gandhiji and Ambedkar could not see; the cultural expressions of the subaltern. But KGS was not limited by this either in his own works. With flattened striking colours and with a preference for two dimensionality KGS placed himself at par with the Pop artists of the world without cherishing that intention.

Social media is abuzz with the news of KGS’ demise. Had he seen it, he would have smiled the enigmatic smile and winked behind his thick glasses without letting anyone know what he was thinking about this. He also would have smiled at his own page in facebook run by someone, posting his own death news ‘himself’. As far as I am concerned KGS accepted his death willingly. After a fall at his home in Baroda, he had been bedridden for around a month. And as doctors advised him complete bed rest, he was not in a position to move and do his works. An artist who lived all his life working would have found it really difficult. Some personalities could invite death willingly. I believe that KGS did accept death willingly. And that’s quite a Gandhian decision too.


(all images are taken from the internet and are for illustrative purposes only)

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