Think of legendary artist, teacher, scholar and writer K.G. Subramanyan, and one thinks of Santiniketan or Baroda, where he has taught and lived for years. But during a recent interview, a new image emerged: that of a little six-year-old boy, playing under the theru (chariot) of a temple in a small heritage village in Kerala. “We used to stay very close to the temple in Kalpathi, and I used to play under its theru,” he recollects. “It was my first contact with art.”

He left Kerala soon after, but art in all its forms has remained a constant in his life. In town recently for the opening of his solo show at Focus Art Gallery, he revealed with a twinkle in his eye that his latest tryst with art has been “vandalising buildings”.

“I’ve been painting on entire buildings,” he explains. “Last winter, I worked on a mural in Santiniketan, on artist Nandalal Bose’s studio, and before that a black-and-white mural on another building.”

He’s been doing these murals for absolutely no cost. It’s simply because, he says, he wants art to be out there in the open spaces. “I want art to be used at various levels, to go out into the environment in various ways, and not just be in a studio,” he says.

Free art

Art being ‘used at various levels’ could well be described as Subramanyan’s motto; he is, after all, famous for having experimented not just with murals, but also with glass painting, weaving and even toy-making, at different stages of his career. “Half your art is the medium you choose,” he says.

The murals are also prompted by a desire to ‘free’ art, as it were. “Art is being bought by share-brokers and priced 10 times higher,” he says. “It’s becoming a commodity, not a communication tool.” He adds with a mischievous smile, “You can’t solve the problem, but you can find loopholes.”

Talking to Subramanyan, you get the sense of a formidable intellect, a razor sharp wit not dulled in the least with age. It’s easy to see why his lectures and essays on art are considered essential reading by students of art, but he’s quick to dismiss any claims of being a great teacher.

“I don’t know if I ever took teaching very seriously,” he says. “The thing is that in teaching others, you teach yourself. That’s why I’ve written so much as well. My books are almost conversations with myself.”

Subramanyan’s own higher education began right here in Chennai, when he studied Economics for two years at Presidency College (1942 to 43). “It’s a funny connection I have with Madras,” he says musingly. “I spent most of those two years as a student activist.”

He would eventually study art at Santiniketan, and the rest, as they say, is history. But first, he became actively involved with the freedom struggle. Or as he puts it in his ironical way, “Before going to Santiniketan, I went to jail.”

This current exhibition is his first in the city in a very long time — he doesn’t recall when the last one was. There are 36 works in all, done in various media in 2008, and their visual language and style is unique. Vibrant, densely packed, the canvases blend the modern and the traditional, the mythological, the absurd, the symbolic and the erotic. Most of the series is in strong earth tones of orange, brown and yellow, though bright pinks or blues explode occasionally. There is a remarkable energy and action in the works, as goddesses slay mythical monsters, and animals, birds and human beings populate an ironic, subversive world of the artist’s creation.

Subramanyan, who spent time in the U.K. and the U.S. as a scholar, is well-known for this ability to synthesise Western modernism with the Indian aesthetic. Learning across cultures is something the artist believes deeply in, calling himself the product of a “culturally global world”.

“The problem is that teachers today depend too much on what is taught in the West, and we don’t ask ourselves what our view is,” he says. “But we might have a view the West is very interested in.”

“In a world coming together, we must come to know each other, without submitting to each other,” he says. “That’s growth.”

(The exhibition is on until February 5)