She ostensibly wished well for her people but her autocratic rule brought nothing but suffering. Through the story of a princess in a faraway land sketched in his celebrated 1989 illustrated fable, The Tale of the Talking Face, KG Subramanyan was commenting on governorship and politics closer home. The allegorical satire was meant to warn of and question absolute power, where nothing and no one in authority is answerable. While he began working on the publication when India was under emergency rule in 1975, it was published only in 1989.
The panels in black and white illustrated by him now occupy centre spread in a solo dedicated to the artist at Delhi’s Art Heritage Gallery. Coming little more than a year after his demise in June 2016, the show “Seeking a Poetry of the Real” brings together his key political works, that are also some of his most significant works 1969 onwards. The period before this, his close associate R Siva Kumar describes, was a “period of extended self-preparation”. In the exhibition catalogue, he writes, “During the first two decades of his career he appears to have had little interest in the social and political world around him — at least when we look at it both in relation to his later art, and to his activities in the decade between 1938 and 1948.”
The artist from Kuthuparamba represented the broad spectrum of modernist art practices in India, traversing from his alma mater Santiniketan to MS University, where the artist-pedagogue spent decades training the future generations of artists. Like most of his contemporaries, “he hoped to see India make a new beginning as a free nation,” notes Siva Kumar.
Having participated in the freedom struggle, the Gandhian was disillusioned with what he saw. The 1981 watercolour Coffee and Slogans has busy coffee houses occupied by vociferous reformers trying to find a solution to the crisis that plague the world. And in the two works Mahishasura Mardini I, (1989) and Mahishasura Mardini (1989) he paints Durga as Mahishasuramardini, armed and fighting evil. “Subramanyan’s images show his viewers that there is a choice: on the one hand, the icon can be a vehicle for an explicitly exclusionary religious politics; on the other, its public presence, as part of the Indian artistic tradition, can be compatible with secular ethics,” noted author Karin Zitzewitz in The Art of Secularism – The Cultural Politics of Modernist Art in Contemporary India, 2014.
In another set of works, he seems to be dealing with the complexities of what he saw through compositions that are vibrant and playful but in reality depict the grimness of the present day and the impossibility of finding humour in it. Fairy Tales of Oxford and Other Paintings, mostly created in 1987, when Subramanyan was a Christensen Fellow at St Catherine, is about ironies, hypocrisies and stark distinctions. The bodies are dismembered and torsos ripped in one of Subramanyan’s most celebrated works: Anatomy Lesson. The exhibition brings together both the canvas and its version in a terracotta relief.
Each of the above works is haunting — forcing viewers to introspect and analyse the realities of today and the ever deepening crisis of democracy. Till his last, Subramanyan warned of the futility of violence. The 36-feet-wide War of Relics that draws on myths and contemporary culture, has the attacker and the victim, the perpetrator and the suffer, each finding place in the perpetual power play intrinsic to politics.
There are no words that would describe artist KG Subramanyan’s works better than his own description of himself as an ‘artist-activist’. “This meant that the requirements of art circumscribed the kinds of statements he made,” notes Siva Kumar.
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