Late last year, the translator Arunava Sinha brought me, as a gift, a book titled Rhymes of Recall. Published by Seagull in an elegant saddle-book format, it was a collection of K.G. Subramanyan’s poems, accompanied by monochrome golden images of his paintings. In one of these poems, ‘Wednesday Outing’, the river Ganga speaks: “Yet between the rocks and sea I laugh and live/ Rubbing the ribs of earth, holding the sky/ In the tiny mirrors of my glassy waves./ And in this passage I have many histories,/ That grow and multiply with the passing years.”
Ganga’s soliloquy eloquently sums up the author’s own life. Artist, teacher, storyteller, poet, cultural organiser, textile designer, theorist of art and culture, K.G. Subramanyan (1924-2016) touched the lives of innumerable students, viewers and readers. He ignited in them the same insatiable curiosity for the world’s unpredictable manifestations that had inspired his own journey. Many friends and colleagues have offered moving testimony to his achievements as a polymath. There was Subramanyan the painter: A maker of sly, playful, erotically charged pictorial fictions. There was Subramanyan the observer of society: In looking at the work of art, he caught the grammatical thrum of “work” both as noun and verb. He did not miss the crucial linkages that connect creativity, labour, economic consumption and aesthetic delight. And there was Subramanyan the teacher: The wry guru figure who taught by example, oblique commentary and cryptic clues, both at Santiniketan and in Baroda.
As against the narrowly professionalised artist who dominates the art world today — or, in a more contemporary avatar, the narrowly professionalised artist who cannibalises the expertise and findings of others, in the name of artistic research — KG truly and organically extended his subjectivity in a diversity of directions. Importantly, his multi-directional practice — which embraced media and materials as varied as the word, paper, gouache, terracotta, cement, and textile — was sustained by a deep, intense and engaged practice of reading.
In this, he was an heir to the Tagores, who refused to be constrained by pre-determined boundaries of artistic form and genre, and who both contributed to and drew sustenance from print modernity. In October 2006, I had the privilege of spending an afternoon with KG in Baroda. In the course of this conversation, he invoked “Aban patua”, as the artist and pedagogue Abanindranath Tagore sometimes referred to himself. “He taught me,” said KG, “to write an image, to picture a story.”
In this spirit, I would like to remember Subramanyan the reader: The explorer of philosophy and history, the connoisseur of poetry and the essay. The artist’s apprenticeship had begun well before he arrived in Santiniketan in 1944, fresh from the Allipuram Camp Prison, Bellary, where he had served a six-month term for picketing his college in Madras during the demonstrations that followed Mahatma Gandhi’s “Quit India” call. Banned for a three-year period from resuming his studies in Madras, the young student was summoned to Santiniketan by Nandalal Bose. He took with him a sensibility that had been shaped, in boyhood, by the journals he read at the public library in Mahé, the one-square-mile French territory to which his family had moved from Palakkad, a town at the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border.
“We read journals that would come both from British India and from France. The Modern Review, which carried writings by Tagore and other thinkers, came from Allahabad, and the glossy L’Illustration from Paris,” recalled K G. “It was in the pages of L’Illustration that I came into contact, for the first time, with Primitivism, African art, Japanese woodcuts.” Since the postcolonial Indian narrative is overwhelmingly shaped by the experience of the British Raj, the alternative modernities of Francophone and Lusophone India, of Mahé, Pondicherry, Goa and Daman, are never registered. In speaking with KG, I realised how Francophone India offered its denizens a different cultural trajectory. While his contemporaries in British India were still paddling in the pools of academic realism, KG was breasting the currents of Parisian modernism, grappling with the visual and conceptual revolutions of Cubism, Surrealism, and Dada in its various avatars.
He was also exposed to critical writing in Malayalam. “Early in the day, when people in India were not that interested in modern art, except perhaps in Bengal,” he told me, “Kesari Balakrishna Pillai wrote a series of studies on the masters of modern European art. He wrote about art history, archaeology and prehistoric art. People wanted to know a great deal in those days, and they wrote a great deal!” A turning point came when he was studying economics at Presidency College, Madras, in the early 1940s. Having already read the holistic accounts of Gandhi, Tagore and Marx, he felt distressed that the discipline, as he was taught it, did not account for society. And then he discovered Ananda Coomaraswamy’s 1908 classic Mediaeval Sinhalese Art. “It transformed my outlook,” recalled the artist. “From it, I learned to appreciate the complex connections between art and the maker of art, and to respect the coexistence of so many kinds of art practice that enriched each other.”
At Santiniketan, where he arrived shortly afterwards, he found that the Tagorean emphasis on self-disruptive experiment had been set aside. “People at Santiniketan had begun to think of tradition as a continuity of style,” chuckled KG. “I represented an aberrant strain!” This vigorous aberrancy, this willingness to depart from orthodoxy, will be KG’s most invaluable legacy to Indian art.