Bombay Showcase

Weaver of fables

Comfortably ensconced in a corner at Mumbai’s Sakshi Gallery, Colaba, is a reverse painting on acrylic — that of a female deity set against an ochre background. At first glance, the figure bears a striking resemblance to the goddess-Bodhisattva, Tara: serene visage and dense, long locks in place, a lotus in her left hand. On viewing it more carefully, one realises it, in fact, features on the cover of Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess (Zubaan Books, 2016), a compilation of the eponymous eighth-century Tamil mystic poet’s hymns translated by poets Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Ravi Shankar.

The painting is part of Remembering K.G. Subramanyan, an exhibition which opened at the gallery on October 13 and celebrates the late modernist’s most recent body of work, created at the ripe old age of 91, just before he passed away in June this year. Exhibited in Mumbai for the first time in collaboration with The Seagull Foundation for the Arts, the show is centred upon 36 works — a mix of reverse paintings on acrylic and black-and-white gouaches. The strokes are brisk and fluid, almost kinetic in nature; a steady grasp on the brush is least indicative of any faltering, despite Subramanyan’s advancing age.

Creative dismemberment

“Andal sings to us today of rapturous harmonies at once cherished yet unexplored. K.G.’s [as Subramanyan is still fondly known] reverse acrylic gifts us an Andal with clouds for hair, hands budded into lotus and parrot, who meets our eyes with a gaze, direct yet mysterious. His Andal throbs with youthfulness as she peers through veils of time to step into ours. Shorn of artifice, K.G.’s Andal is vulnerable, intense and earthy, not enclosed by a temple’s stone wall but one who roams in the heart’s cave, calling down the stars — as our Andals do, too,” says Chabria.

The permission to use the painting as the cover image was granted by Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books, Kolkata, who has been publishing Subramanyan’s books since 1983 — over 40 of them till date. It was designed by graphic designer Sunandini Banerjee.

“K.G. was largely fascinated by the medium of glass and took a liking to its luminosity and fragility. He later began using malleable Mylar sheets for his reverse paintings. These opaque sheets are akin to the drafting film used by architects,” explains Geetha Mehra, gallerist, Sakshi Gallery. The technique requires a well-charted vision. “One has to get going immediately. The process is irreversible, and one doesn’t know how the work might turn out, so the painting is done laterally,” she says.

A certain sense of irreverence of authority was intrinsic to Subramanyan. This is manifest through his cynical and disparaging stance in a number of his works, especially those of gods and goddesses, or his fascination with the salabhanjika, or the figure of a sculpture of a woman standing beneath a tree. “K.G. was very forthright in his views; he would always call a spade a spade. He took pot-shots at everybody, penned letters without mincing his words— no one was spared,” reminisces Mehra.

His work stems from both the real and the imagined, with most of his paintings as allegories of life. For instance, one of his reverse acrylic works incorporates the figure of goddess Durga, a symbol of strength, glory and supremacy, with that of a monkey hanging unfettered at the window across, perhaps wanting to engage in a form of shadow-boxing with the deity. “It almost appears as if the primate has entered the altar to create havoc and mayhem,” says Mehra. “Also, in tribal culture, certain human attributes are personified into the local deities; there was a certain naivety involved where these attributes were impressed upon the deities, and then modified to suit the tribals’ purposes,” she further says.

While this collection of works is consonant with Subramanyan’s mercurial approach, it reflects a significant departure from the visual iconography of his terracotta mural created at Lucknow’s Rabindralaya, based on Rabindranath Tagore’s play King of the Dark Chamber, or his set of reliefs in ceramic and cast cement, based on Gandhian doctrines, made in 1969.

A prized corpus

Kishore coincidentally discovered both book publishing and art at the same time. “His [Subramanyan’s] presence in our publishing life goes back to when we first began publishing. Professor R. Siva Kumar [art historian and Subramanyan’s close aide] sent us a request to consider publishing a set of his essays back in the 1980s, and we said yes. That is when I first met Subramanyan at Santiniketan. The book that came out of it is called The Living Tradition,” he says. “This, then, led to seeing each other’s work — Subramanyan as an artist and us as publishers — creating a relationship that allowed us to curate and present his work.”

Kishore almost possesses the ability to combine strategy with intuition. Sketches Scribbles Drawings, an ongoing travelling exhibition, first took shape as a book comprising five decades of Subramanyan’s drawings that Seagull Books published in 1999. “Around two years ago, I found these with him and offered to exhibit them all over the country. What is interesting is that the so-called non-metro India is also the focus of our travelling exhibition.”

The works have been shown in Patna, Bhopal, Lucknow and Bhubaneswar, and will be exhibited in Guwahati next month.

“There are hungry viewers in these places who don’t get to see enough art,” says Kishore.

A wearer of many hats

Born in Palghat (Palakkad) in Kerala in 1924, Subramanyan’s scholarship and worldview was unparalleled when compared to most of the other artists of his era. His oeuvre extends much beyond painting: he was a sculptor, muralist, art writer, toy maker, textile designer, illustrator and pedagogue. He eschewed parochialism and was always open to interacting with students.

“At Santiniketan, even after his retirement as a professor, K.G. would sit in the canteen during the tea break to chat with the students and enjoy an odd smoke too,” says Mehra. He was a staunch supporter of khadi, and devoured reading on the subjects of politics and art, taking special interest in going through papers for various seminars. Benode Behari Mukherjee, Ramkinkar Baij and Nandalal Bose were great influences on him during his days as a young student at Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan.

“In Santiniketan, he had his own studio. This was handed over to the University and is now a residency space for students. There is a repository of material they can access, and it is a place for dialogue, debate and discussion,” says Mehra.

“He was usually addressed as ‘Mani-da’ at Santiniketan, a form of honour and respect in Bengali, while for the students in Baroda, he was ‘Mani Sir’,” she adds.

The Padma Vibhushan recipient inscribed his paintings with a simple ‘Mani’ in Tamil.

Modes of cultural expression

In the early 1960s, a number of weavers’ centres were established all over India. The advent of Nehruvian Modernism led to the revival of handicrafts and homegrown technology. Subramanyan joined the Weavers’ Service Centre in 1961 and was deeply involved in working with several artists and designers preoccupied with the then-active textile art and mural movements. He acted as one of the sheet anchors in establishing the relationship between design, fine art and crafts. “Several designs created by KG were woven onto fabric as motifs; the movements went about empowering the weavers in the country,” shares Mehra.

Theatrical tableaux

Subramanyan’s reverse paintings are imaginably an embodiment of a proscenium with several personae — some expressively cantankerous, where several happenings unfold. The element of the ‘disruptive’, of performance, of theatricality, captures the zeitgeist of his ensemble of animate and inanimate objects. Most of his work unfolds in the ‘interior’, with vases and urns as metaphors for relics, reliquaries or bell-jars. While the vocabularies of the still life objects appear straight out of Matisse’s studio, Subramanyan’s preternaturally deft hand shapes the bold contours of his characters’ expressive facial features.

Subramanyan had an unerring feel for buoyant, intense colours; cerulean blue, cinnabar red and festal pink and amber largely dominated his palette. His work with murals, textile patterns, designing toys for children, as well as the influence of the Kalighat pat painting tradition while at Santiniketan, all echo in his abundant choice of vivid colours. However, a husky black or an unbleached white reveal their forms in equal measure in a painting, often unencumbered by the surrounding chroma.

A menagerie of animals, some morphed as hybrid or mythical beasts, find place in Subramnayan’s black-and-white gouache works. One can perhaps attribute this fascination to K.G.’s study of the landscape, of birds and animals — a tradition of Nandalal Bose’s teaching integral to Santiniketan — to nature study, and his captivation with the avian form. Mapping this idiom, we come across deer, goats, elephants, cows and horses across daubs and gashes of a presumably pastoral, untameable landscape. The motley figures of roosters and crows, like a ‘conference of birds’, are playfully anomalous and characterise a sense of nonchalance.

While the exhibition is not an all-embracing exemplification of the veteran artist’s multifarious opus, it fittingly sums up the skeins of fantasy, fable and folklore that he wove together, and the world that his characters inhabited. “I’ve had a steady and enriching association with K.G., right since the mid-1980s. We would meet almost 10-12 times in a year. Displaying this body of work also seems like a kind of closure to the wonderful human being that he was,” concludes Mehra.

The author is a Mumbai-based freelance writer

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Printable version | Jun 13, 2021 3:25:35 AM |

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