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In Letter and Spirit

Two exhibitions in Delhi celebrate the life and legacy of artist-pedagogue KG Subramanyan, who passed away last month.

Written by Vandana Kalra | Published: July 28, 2016 12:08 am
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While he pursued myriad mediums, with each of them KG Subramanyan sought to depict an idiom of life — a celebration, a remorse, an outrage or a providence. One of his most iconic works, Anatomy Lesson (2008), sounded a warning over the fallouts of disharmony and violence. Moulded in terracotta reliefs, the human figures are ripped apart. The heads converse with each other, perhaps about their tribulations. They also narrate the words of their creator, who penned as earnestly as he painted. “You do not have to go to anatomy rooms to see dismembered bodies. You can see them on the street,” he wrote.

The pioneer of modern Indian art passed away in Baroda at the age of 92 on June 29, but his words remain pertinent. Occupying a wall at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in Saket, alongside the terracotta sculptural relief, the verse reflects the foresight of the veteran artist. “In response to the precarious world Subramanyan witnessed in his later years, ‘anatomy lessons’ highlights human atrocities through the use of dismemberment in the terracotta frieze. Fragmented limbs and severed bodies frozen in fatal gestures lie torn in the street, visible not too far from the window of one’s home” says curator Roobina Karode. She, therefore, has the piece at the centre of the exhibition dedicated to the artist-pedagogue.

Planned as a tribute after his death, the display might not be a comprehensive representation of his extensive engagements, but is more than a gander. Primarily curated from the KNMA collection, some works are borrowed from the Alkazi collection and Design Atelier. It’s with the same ease with which he painted watercolours that he crafted murals and designed toys. He borrows from disparate traditions, bridging the gap between art and craft. If the watercolour Seated Figure (1952) showcases his structural inclinations, Delhi Street (1953) depicts city life, the longing between lovers, and Mother and Child (1953), one of his first experiments in oil, dwells on maternal love. His surroundings, possibly, lead him to become more cynical in the later years when the lives of his figures become more entwined, as seen in the oil Courting the Shadows (2011).

Lined neatly on shelves are some of Subramanyan’s writings. The letters enclosed in the glass box underneath are more personal. Peering eyes are interested in reading his vision for the Crafts Council of India, in a letter he wrote to Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay in 1970. It is with sheer modesty that he introduces himself as an artist “of some kind of a reputation in the field of modern Indian art”, in a letter to then Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu in 1977, urging him to take action to maintain Ramkinkar Baij’s cement sculpture “Santhal Family” standing at the grounds of Kala Bhavana.

As Subramanyan notes of his own work in the poem Monsoon Thoughts — all his life, he remained a wanderer, looking for a speaking image and searching for a coloured word.

The exhibition is on till September 30

Master Strokes

At Aakriti Art Gallery, tucked in the narrow lanes of Lado Sarai in Delhi, its director Vikram Bachhawat is struggling to find an appropriate place for an untitled KG Subramanyan reverse painting on acrylic. He notes how the 24 x 30 inch 2015 work is representative of the various concerns of the veteran artist. “It tilts away from the viewer, its central spine receding towards the top as it courses across evenly spaced parallels. The horizontal black lines establish a kind of non-spatial field. There is illusionistic flatness, as a white grid in the lower right quadrant struggles to counter act,” notes the gallerist. He recalls that only three months ago, the Baroda-based artist and he were deliberating over the artwork that will comprise the exhibition “Sketches, Scribbles, Drawings and Recent Works”. To open in Delhi on July 30, it is now up to him to finalise the display of what has become a posthumous exhibition of the modernist artist’s work. “He is an icon, a father figure for most people in the art fraternity. This show is a tribute to him; it is one of the largest shows of Manida that we will probably see after his death. Most of the works come from the artist’s collection. Now, a trust for his work is also being planned,” says Bachhawat.

The folk idiom and leitmotifs that represented the meeting of the modern and indigenous, describe each of the over 300 works — paintings on acrylic sheets, gouache and ink drawings, spanning from the 1950s to 2015. Among the earliest are the early 1950s sketches, drawings and small-format paintings of the recent graduate from Santiniketan who trained under the tutelage of the Bengal masters, imbibing Gandhian principles from Nandalal Bose, the furious energy of Ramkinker Baij and finding a lifelong mentor in Benodebehari Mukherjee.
“Several young artists in Santiniketan are inspired by him,” says Bachhawat, “His art moved from realism to more folk elements.”

The figure of the fierce goddesses was as dear to Subramanyan as horned goats, mythical beasts, fantastical foliage and iconographic Indian sculptures. The interplay between the lines is apparent, whether it is the fluid ink strokes with monkeys prancing or a chair waiting for an occupant, or reverse paintings on acrylic where Subramanyan paints a narrative on the sheet in bright hues with parakeets perched on shoulders and Ganesha standing tall in pink, juxtaposed with a flower vase. There is complexity in the simplicity. The works move between the real and the imaginary, just as Subramanyan had wanted them to, like he had stated in an interview to historian R Sivakumar. Speaking about his recent works, he had added, “Now the crossroads I am interested in are more complicated. The images are more than visual. They have a complex identity, diverse cultural associations and background lore.”

The exhibition is on from July 30 to August 27

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