Pride of place

K.G. Subramanyan, a pioneer of modern Indian art, exhibits his works for the first time in Kerala.

Published - August 28, 2014 06:14 pm IST

Artist K. G. Subramanyan's painting exhibition 'New Works' is on at Durbar Hall Art Gallery in Kochi. Photo:H.Vibhu.

Artist K. G. Subramanyan's painting exhibition 'New Works' is on at Durbar Hall Art Gallery in Kochi. Photo:H.Vibhu.

It is ironical, as much as it is a moment of pride, that Kerala-born and internationally acclaimed artist K.G. Subramanyan (KGS) is holding his first show, ‘New Works’ at the age of 90, in the State at Durbar Hall Art Centre in Kochi. Is it the clichéd return of the native? One of the patriarchs of Indian modern art, KGS is beyond boundaries, as art is, but he sums his long absence polemically. “Kerala does not support its artists. It is not fair to itself; it drives its people away but that’s what is said of every mother. If I have another life I will be in Kerala.”

Born in 1924 in Kuthuparamba in Kannur, KGS joined the freedom movement in 1944, the year he left Kerala. He was imprisoned and released after three years. While studying Economics in Madras, his drawings fell into the hands of Devi Prasad Rai Chowdhury, the first principal of Madras School of Art, who told him categorically that he was in the wrong place and should be in an art school. “K.C.S. Panicker was a young teacher at Madras Art School but I was all the time interested in going to Santiniketan,” he says, drawn as he was to the new and fresh methods of education that the institution propounded.

Learning under and along with luminaries such as Nandalal Bose and Ramkinkar Baij, KGS drew from an education that encouraged free thinking. “Santiniketan stood for an education process through which a child becomes a man and how he comes into close relationship with environment. Even today nobody has the kind of perspective that Rabindranath Tagore had at that time,” says KGS.

The Santiniketan of his times was a different place where the student-teacher community formed a creative whole. “We were all searching,” he recalls. In fact, he attributes his identity to the search. “It is the quest that made us what we are. Both in literary and visual expression there is a set language but that is not good enough. Today if someone is going to write Malayalam poetry he cannot write like a Kumaran asan or a Vallathol. He has to find a new language.”

Of his own language that has a mixed vocabulary, he remains dissatisfied. “I am still searching,” he says. KGS’s idiom ranges from one end of the art-craft palette to the other encapsulating in it web painting, toy-making, weaving, terracotta pottery, story telling, writing, myth reinterpretations and such. Interesting usage of mixed media into lines, shapes, characters, play of colours, textures offer an alive and interactive canvas. Mythology or rather its reinterpretations, often irreverent, often erotic, form an important leitmotif in his works.

As faculty-speaker in Baroda, New York and Oxford, for the past 30 years, his many students are established artists in their own right. As a “sort of parent” to them he says that the current art scene in India is a challenge to all coming-of-age artists. “They need to keep themselves unpolluted from market forces.” And yet he says that a well-informed, refined market can give a fillip to art in the right direction. “Chinese calligrapher Su Dungpo advised his artist-son to never seek patronage from the rulers; ‘better open a tea shop and make a living’. So while good patronage can boost art, bad patronage can bury it and no patronage can drive artists away,” says KGS.

During this meandering art journey where he touched almost all its facets with felicity, a yearning to try digital art and animation remains. He morphed from a student to a teacher, scholar and now art patriarch becoming the much loved and venerated Mani da. Visibly pleased to be where he comes from he says, “the Kochi Muzuris Biennale will lift the cultural scene of Kerala, it is a good beginning and one of my works will be on show.”

New works of art

KGS’ show ‘New Works’, curated by R. Siva Kumar, is being organised by Kerala Lalithakala Akademi and Navin Kishore of Seagull Foundation for the Arts. The works, which comprise drawings with ink on handmade paper (11x14 inches), have single narratives of animals, people and tales. The paintings, many of which are gouache on oils and reverse painting on acrylic sheet, are contemporary retellings of myths and mythology. Many are the artist’s versions of folk art and narratives, moving “between the real and the imaginary.” His lines, a play with doodle, clearly celebrate freedom the medium offers. The works, all done in 2013-14, are bright, energetic engaging stories.

‘New Works’ is on at Durbar Hall Art Centre till September 8.

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