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Known to his students as Mani da or Mani sir and KG in the art circuit, artist, art writer of exceptional wisdom and master teacher Kalpati Ganapati Subramanyan was born in 1924 in a traditional Tamil agrahar of Kalpati in the Palghat district of Kerala, a centre for Carnatic music. On a recent visit to Kalpati, he could not locate his house but spotted the well-preserved chariot he played around in during his childhood. The eighth child of revenue inspector Ganapati Aiyar and mother Alamelu, he was educated at home on account of his poor health. A voracious reader, by the time he was in his intermediate year in Aloysius college in Mangalore, he had already consumed Marx and Gandhi, Vivekanand and Tagore.
Seeing his inclination towards art, his elder brother Narayanaswamy wrote to Nandalal Bose in Santiniketan requesting his admission to the institute. By then, Subramanyan, who had joined the nationalist movement and had even been jailed for six months for storming the government secretariat, had grown wary of politics. KG felt that admission in Kalabhavana in Santiniketan was a desired gift. In the four years he spent there, he imbibed the practice of working with a lighter hand and open mind from Nandababu; he learned to ingest something of the burning energy from Ramkinkar; but it was with Benodebehari Mukherjee that he developed a close personal bond. He remembered with a sense of gratitude that Benodebabu left the two horsemen of Ranjit Singh that KG had drawn on the northern wall, unaltered, in a project where Benodebabu had been invited to create a mural on the walls of Hindi Bhavan.
While he joined in the rehabilitation of refugees after the Partition of Punjab in 1949, this was also when he made toys and posters to earn a living. A full page advertisement of the newly established MS University brought him to Baroda in 1951. When I arrived there as a student in 1955, he was younger than the rest of his colleagues but he was the most popular. Many would recall how he taught structural design by drawing diagrams on cement floors with chalk or charcoal.
During Tagore’s centenary year, Bhogilal Gandhi asked me to write on the paintings of Tagore but I requested that Subramanyan write it. So his essay “Paintings of Rabindranath” first appeared in Gujarati, translated jointly by Anirudhdha Brahmbhatt and I. He was to later remind me how that article made him a writer.
And what a writer he had become! Among his many seminal discourses on art, the first volume Moving Focus became a landmark. He continued to write, even bringing out a series of books for children, but he pursued painting alongside. At the Weavers Service Centre that he joined in 1961, his improvisatory instincts opened a new chapter in the textile history of India. At the New York World Fair in 1965 he had made a massive textile relief hanging by using hemp fibres twined with left over pieces of cloth, literally rags, that many remember as an extraordinary work. When the Black Partridge Art Gallery in Delhi invited him for a group show during the Emergency, he sent a hand crafted hemp peacock, a limp national bird. During these “textile” years, it can be assumed that his active engagement in the craft practices deepened his conviction in the fundamental interrelationship between art and craft. The opportunity for a larger mural project arrived in 1963 when he made a terracotta mural for the Rabindralaya in Lucknow, based on characters from Rabindranath Tagore’s The King of the Dark Chamber’ or Arup Ratan . In 1969, when architect Charles Correa invited him for the Gandhi Darshan project in Delhi, he drew upon Gandhian ideas to design a series of reliefs and free standing structures in cast cement and ceramic. It prepared him for another major endeavour — a unique ensemble of terracotta reliefs, followed by massive reliefs in cast cement, where he used the motif of a seed for the facade of the research and development wing of Jyoti Limited in 1974. The interplay of square grid in varied formations continued to recur in the subsequent series of paintings. Cutting across boundaries, the animated images slipped, jumped or flew from square to square, up and down, playing hide and seek. Gradually reverse glass paintings were replaced by acrylic sheets.
In this prolific output, there is an ambitious endeavour to grasp and encompass the entire gamut of lived life. On one side there is the household ensemble, on the other, political shenanigans and games of truths and lies. As though this enormous output was not enough, in 1990 he embarked upon a massive mural on the outer walls of a building he used during his stay in Santiniketan. Sporting a straw hat to avoid the midday sun, he climbed a bamboo scaffolding for weeks, to change the very body of the building — now peacocks perched on windows, birds flew, monkeys jumped and palms grew on what were blank walls. We all dearly hold on to the hand-drawings he sent to friends as greetings. They are part of our memories.
Excerpts from an essay by Gulammohammed Sheikh published in the catalogue ‘War of the Relics and Recent Works on Paper’ 2015, by KG Subramanyan, at Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata, 2015. Courtesy: Seagull Books.