To Mani Da, With Love!

Chapter 1 : The Teacher

Some people live for others to believe in themselves. KG Subramanyan or Mani Da, as he was fondly called was one such being. There was never a single high point to his career; his entire career was his prime. One saw him work till he passed away this Wednesday, 29th of June, in the city of Baroda aged 92. He was an artist who lived for today and worked like it was his everyday. He referred to himself as the “muddle headed man”, but he was an economist educated at Presidency College, Madras; a freedom fighter imprisoned during the Independence struggle; an aide of Mahatma Gandhi, who wore only khadi till the day he died. His health had been failing but he never said so to any of those young budding artists that wanted him to grace their exhibitions. He would smile, walk slowly and most importantly encourage. He did this almost every week. Teacher to many who are the who’s who of Contemporary Indian Art, Mani Da always had something to say. Before Atul Dodiya had even had his first solo show, in the late 1980s, Mani da took a rickshaw to visit his studio and give him observations on his work. “You cannot imagine the impact of that on an artist who hasn’t even started out,” says Dodiya. Known for his sharp wit, erudite language and his gently chastising temper that was always edged with good humour, Mani Da was both loved and feared with love. KG Subramanyan’s influences ranged from Tagore and Hokusai to Chinese practicality and poetry. He played like a curious child, putting together elements like joyful experiments – weaving, toy-making, fabric, glass and gouache, doodles, calligraphy and forms of painting itself using ink, ballpoint, crayon, pen and brush and more recently, enamel.

K.G. Subramanyan, born in 1924, spent his early formative years in the lush green landscapes of Northern Kerala. His memories of childhood and later developments that contributed to his self-perception, in a changing world of Indian sub-continent, are translated by Mani Da into apt metaphors and enlightening anecdotes, revealing an unique mind deeply perceptive, warmly social and famously incisive. He trained under Nandalal Bose at Santiniketan and concentrated largely on drawing, but with time moved away from the structure the school was known for. Drawing from nature, he yet rarely drew nature. Binode Bihari Mukherjee, another Modernist on the Indian scene, was perhaps the greatest influence on young Mani Da. The brilliant muralist Binode Bihari, whose exemplary visual narratives on the walls of Hindi Bhavan, have given entirely new dimension to the tradition of Indian vernacular poetry and the history of Bhakti Bhava with its democratic sensibility. Manida studied at the Slade School of Art and was a Rockefeller Fellow in 1966. Manida wrote not only essays and ruminations but also books on art as well as for children, writing out the stories and illustrating them himself in works such as When God First Made the Animals and The Tale of the Talking Face. Baroda as a city perhaps had an enduring fascination for Mani Da. He was back in this small University City teaching again in the Fine Arts Faculty. He was painting with students from 1961 to 1980. He, along with others in the Faculty, promoted cross cultural, multicultural perspective. They made occasions to include crafts into the mainstream art teaching and practice.

His students meant the world to him as they went on each here to form and define what Indian Contemporary Art was to mean to the world. But he had taught them humility, a virtue that echoed Mani Da’s own persona. Towards his twilight, he said he painted out of the need to express himself, in line and colour; to keep his mind connected with the life that he sees around him. He leaves us with a mammoth legacy personified in his massive body of works and writings that spanned decades, mediums and transcended boundaries of language. But to most, Mani Da will continue to live through the lessons he taught the many who trained under him – to express freely and to live so too!


Cover Image Graphic : Hasmukh Makwana

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