If there is one artist who was at the centre of the modernist movement in India, especially during the post-Independence era, it was, without a doubt. K.G. Subramanyan. He was a multi-faceted artist — painter, muralist, sculptor, printmaker, illustrator and writer, always at ease when dealing with a variety of materials and mediums. He used water colours, gouache, oil, acrylic and enamel on paper, canvas, board and iron sheets — all with masterly finesse. He passed away at the age of 92, earlier this month, much to the dismay of the cultural community in many parts of the world.
“He sort of celebrated each day of his life,” says curator and close friend R. Siva Kumar. “He didn’t close his eyes on pain and suffering and he never let himself succumb to it. He considered life very beautiful and was always looking for brighter things in life. With art we can celebrate life, and he truly imbibed this fact. In his paintings one can primarily see the celebration of life and nature.”
In a recent documentary made by Goutam Ghose, and supported by the Indira Gandhi National Centre of the Arts (IGNCA), Subramanyan shares his affinity for life: “Every morning when I wake up and I see light breaking through the windows, I generally get up with a certain kind of exhilaration that there is a world like this where sunlight is so beautiful, so invigorating, the flowers are so brilliant. I may be aging but my appetite is not. My appetite for making something out of the world or looking at the world itself is not any weaker. As you grow old, you may age but there are certain powers within you that are ageless which continue to burn.”
He goes on to share an example from his early childhood when he used to visit temples with his family: “My family was devout in a certain sense. I used to visit temples with my family but I didn’t like the sight of them. Although there were beautiful sculptures, I didn’t like the beggars and filth all around. I rejected this kind of thing,” he says.
He carved his own definition of beauty in his art. On learning about aesthetic ideas as he grew up, he perpetually found his niche. “The idea has grown up within me all along and that’s what we call culture,” Subramanyan says in the film, “to want as against the world we live in as contradictions. We can have the world; we live in with elements of beauty, commonality of interest. It is an important thing for an artist to not to subject himself to what he sees but what he makes out of it.”
Mani Da, as he was fondly called by those who were close to him, studied Economics at Presidency College in Chennai. He soon dropped out of college and actively participated in the Quit India Movement after which it became impossible for him to return to a college led by the government. But that was not the end of his education. In 1944 his brother enrolled him at Santiniketan. There he was trained under the tutelage of Nandalal Bose, Binod Behari Mukherjee and Ram Kinkar Baij. He was especially close to Binod Behari Mukherjee.
In 1944 his brother enrolled him at Shantiniketan, where Subramanyan was trained under the tutelage of Nandalal Bose, Binod Behari Mukherjee and Ram Kinkar Baij.
Subramanyan was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 2012. A true Gandhian by nature, he lived a simple life.
He became a lecturer at the Faculty of Fine Arts in M.S. University in Baroda in 1951 and from 1980 to 1989 he taught at Kala Bhavan, Visva Bharati University at Santiniketan, his alma mater.
His move to Santiniketan for studies was the turning point of his life. Getting acquainted with new artists helped him develop fresh sensibilities that had a great impact on his own art. It opened new channels of growth and understanding of life in his mind. About all this he says in Ghose’s film, “A person’s growth to some extent is conditioned by the environment he stays in. It is also conditioned by the kind of the fight he has with the environment he is in. So there are things you accept and things you reject and this has happened everywhere with me.”
Subramanyan’s art was not limited to a particular style or form. He endeavoured to elucidate a lot of things about life through his art. He was interested in different idioms of art and not just in a particular style. His terracota reliefs, reverse paintings on glass, murals and drawings speak volume for his artistic prowess.
As R. Siva Kumar says, “Subramanyan took a medium as ancient as art and brought it back to life. Everything he touched brought a fresh energy into it.”
Anubhav R. Nath, director of Gallery Ojas uses a metaphor of a “banyan tree” for the departed artist. He says, “Like a banyan tree his glory reached everywhere. The different roles he played during his lifetime aptly suited him. He was like the father figure of Indian arts and culture and he was a true artist.”
His demise has left a huge gap in the art world. But we still have the works he left behind — and that is the only way an artist can achieve immortality.