To Mani Da, With Love! Chapter 3 : The Writer
The river Ganga speaks: “Yet between the rocks and sea I laugh and live/ Rubbing the ribs of earth, holding the sky/ In the tiny mirrors of my glassy waves./ And in this passage I have many histories,/ That grow and multiply with the passing years.”
‘Wednesday Outing’, K.G. Subramanyan
A multi talented personality Sir K.G. Subramanyan (1924-2016) is not only an Artist but also a mentor, teller of tales, rhymester, textile designer, philosopher of art and culture and various other things. He has in many ways enlightened the lives of countless aspiring artists, spectators and readers. Subramanyan was deeply interested in philosophy and history. He was Poetry enthusiast and enjoyed essays. This interest was inculcated in him at a very young age much before he came to Santiniketan in the year 1944. After serving a half year term for protesting in his college days in Madras while demonstrating against Britishers during Mahatma Gandhi’s “Quit India”, he was sentenced to a prison term at the Allipuram Camp Prison, Bellary. Nandalal Bose, who was to soon be his teacher, guide and mentor, invited him to Shantiniketan. Subramanyan’ susceptibility had been fashioned at a very early age. This had a lot to do with the time he spent at the common library in Mahé, the one-square-mile French region where his family had moved from Palakkad, a town located near the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. He spent a large amount of time amidst books and journals available there.
Subramanyan wrote at length on Indian Art and Art history and acknowledged his gratitude to Rabindranath Tagore in his book ‘Rabindranath Tagore and the Challenges of Today’. Subramanyan’s craft though rooted in Modernism was characterized by mirth, satire, wit and humour. A great example of the same is his Graphic Story Books When God First Made Animals; How Hanu Became Hanuman; Our Friends the Ogres and King and the Little Man. These works in many ways also resonate Subramanyan’s emphasis on Democracy and its tenets, especially the idea of Humanism. Subramanyan was often fondly referred to as a human encyclopedia by his students owing to his immense scholarship on post-independence Art history in India. Subramanyan almost always avoided conversations on his personal life – a rather strick silence was observed – until in 1992 when he penned: “I have not been to Malabar for the past 45 years. But that was where I was born.”
Subramanyan’s paintings narrate a story. Fairytales of Purvapalli’ borrows from the folk storytelling techniques wherein multiple stories take place in the same plane. ‘Odd Encounters’ contains multiple episodes of a narrative in a single frame, ‘Figures’ highlights a single melancholic episode of a hidden narrative. In the seminal ‘War of the Relics’ that was presented at the Kochi Muziris Biennale 2014, Subramanyan draws motifs from traditional lore and contemporary culture to portray the complexities of violence in contemporary times.
During an interview with art historian R Sivakumar, Subramaniyan said, “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 around a well-known theme, and give it new implications. The matsya avatar motif, for example, generates the vision of a fish goddess, symbolising elegance and grace or a conference of mermaids. It will be unproductive to explain each image as it will destroy the mystery of its birth.”
Subramanyan in many capacities was a keen observer of society – as an artist or a teacher or an activist or a theorist etc. “In looking at the work of art, he caught the grammatical thrum of “work” both as noun and verb. He did not miss the crucial linkages that connect creativity, labour, economic consumption and aesthetic delight.”
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