KG SUBRAMAYAM: THE LEGEND AMONG ARTISTS
KG Subramanyan has straddled the art world for over six decades. If he is known as an important contemporary artist, he is equally well known for being an inspiring teacher. He may be a painter but he is equally felicitious with other media, clay, glass, bronze, even scraps of wood. He has not only held positions of eminence as a teacher in MS University Baroda and Vishwa Bharati, Santiniketan but has been a member of Crafts Council of India and the Handloom Board. More importantly he has written extensively on matter of aesthetics, and has the ability to look at issues critically. As if all these were not enough, he is a poet and a storyteller.
He is a colossus among contemporary Indian artists and a giant among teachers. KG Subramanyan is not just an artist (a sculptor, a painter, a muralist, a print maker, an illustrator) but also an aesthetician and a critical thinker who has the ability to look beyond the surface of things. He asks questions on not just matters of aesthetics but of contemporary political and social issues, of his own works as much those of others. He demolishes every theory of art, modern, traditional, contemporary, even chopping into fine pieces ideologies such as postmodernist Western or Progressive Indian art. Mani da (as he has been known for almost decades, hangover from his days at Santiniketan when the Bengalis couldn’t say his Tamilian name) however doesn’t expect to be treated like the giant that he is among artists. Its just that the towering man that he is, taking those long strides and embracing ideas, thoughts, people, engaging with the world around him, as he moves along, he is that colossus, the one sun around whom other planets have no choice but to hover.
Legends, have the ability to be rude and arrogant. And as journalists, sometimes we do expect that and go prepared with armours when we go to interview such larger than life people. However in Mani da’s case such caution is entirely unnecessary. Even before he has met us, when I call him asking if we could come to Baroda to meet him, he asks if we would like to have lunch with him. He does not even enquire who we were or why we want to meet him. He has met many journalists in the course of his life, but he is patient with every question we ask even if these are questions people ask time and again. Sometimes he does have the tendency to throw the question back at you without giving a direct answer but he does it in the good natured manner of a kind uncle. This kindness extends to asking us to drop in again, for some more questions or just for tea-time gupchup. “Yes, come along again the evening, we can have some good coffee,” he says with the joviality of a good south Indian host.
Mani da will be 85 this February, and whatever his energy even now, to not just paint but to be engaged with students, friends, journalists, he does get tired sometime. So having spent the whole morning talking and sharing a vegetarian meal with us and showing us his works, he feels the need to rest, and resume conversation after a gap of a few hours. But there is nothing of the fragility of the elderly in him of ill health and other things, though he confesses he does not like to travel that much because of his age. Uma his daughter who lives in Mumbai with her husband visits him every month in Baroda. “She doesn’t have children. So she keeps an eye on me,” he says good humoredly, adding that even when she’s in Mumbai, she calls him at least three times a day to see if he is alright. The concerns of a daughter.
When his wife Susheela Jasra, a Gandhian social worker whom he met in Santiniketan passed away a few years ago, Uma urged him to move to Mumbai, but he would have none of Mumbai’s chaos in his life. “The closest I can be to her is Baroda. Here I have friends, here there is an art community,” says Mani da whose neighbours are the artist couple Rini and Puroshottam Dhumal. Here in Baroda, or Vadodra, (people like him and us do not really care what they call these old cities anymore) he has a two-storeyed house: downstairs is the living area, and upstairs, spread across three rooms are his studio and workplace. How prolific he is can be guessed from the number of works, canvases, drawings, reverse paintings, terracotta works that are stacked and stored in these rooms, extending even to the verandah. If this is how his rooms are, one can only marvel at how stacked with ideas his mind must be!
“Three spacious rooms. An open verandah,
Facing the eastern sky. Where you could sit
And watch the world around and slowly draw
Your inner phantoms out from the dimly lit
Tunnels of mind. And ramble in-beween
Sounds with shapes, amorphous images,
Lost things, remembered things, fragmented scenes;
Events and objects scrawled on the musty pages
Of age-worn memory…….”
(From the Purvapalli Sonnets 3, KG Subramanyan, published in The Magic of Making)
“I like to finish a work as easily and as quickly as possible. The ‘preparedness’ itself may take a few days and nights, but when I begin a canvas I like to be done with it quickly. Sometimes something like a mural may take longer, but you already have the basic concept in your mind. If you are a skilled artist, a painting should not take you any longer than it would a child,” he explains about his creative process. Adding that each artist has his own method of working, as for instance Cezanne who would take months to do just a shirt collar. “But then the image is changing,” he says. “For me the painting has to come immediately, even if sometimes one is unsure of some element in a painting. Just as you might grope for a right word in writing.” His getting prepared to paint include doodling, and he has any number of such notebooks with what might be called his initial thoughts. “Doodling around, you discover things. Leonardo believed that while doodling you can discover the personality of things, of the clouds, the sky.” “I scribble a lot– on paper and canvas,” he says casually though it might be understatement to say Mani da’s works are mere doodles, straddling as he does so many styles and artistic sensibilities: from contemporary Indian art, modern western art, Japanese and even Chinese art, not to say Indian folk art.
“Call me a craftsman if you want to,” he says defiantly speaking about the various media he works with: clay, wood, stone and paper. He has even made toys for children during the mela held every year at the Baroda Art School. “The artist has to connect with the larger world outside,” he says remarking it would be sad to see the connect between the artist and the craftsmen disappear especially because of a sense of superiority in the artist. Sometimes even a craftsman can be an artist (if he has a vision) while an artist who gets obsessed with the technique is no better than a craftsperson. “It’s the innovation, the vision that distinguishes a craftsperson from the artist,” he says. Mani da, incidentally was consultant to the Handloom Board in the 60s and was the president of the Crafts Council of India among many other teaching positions he has held at Baroda University and at Santiniketan.
It is the inner urge which makes you want to paint or write according to him. “Without that inner urge, nothing much is going to happen.” He however does not want to change the world through his painting or work of art. One is indeed anguished by things that go on in the world, such as the recent terrorist attacks. While certain images from such political situations may creep into the works (he is thinking about a series called “Anatomy Lessons” which are provoked by the recent attacks) he says vehemently, “we are not just artists. We are also individuals, citizens of this country. And we can do something as human beings too.” That’s the thing about Mani da: when you ask ask him a question, there are no pat and practiced answers. Everything has to be ruminated upon, even if these ideas he has pondered upon many times earlier.
The contemplative mode comes partly from his natural inquisitiveness.(Natural to all artists and scientists he writes in one of his many essays). Even if he has accepted an idea he does not mind taking it out of his bag of thoughts to give it one more reflection. When you ask him something, even something as innocuous as what is favourite food, when he is ill, he will stretch himself to his full height, and ponder over it before giving an answer.( It incidentally is rasam and chutta appalam! ). So many times the answers are wry and witty and you don’t know if he’s being serious. As when I ask him, over our own rice and kadhi at his dining table, if a little suffering is good for the artist, he retorts, “Why only the artist? A little suffering is good for everyone. But not too much. If you keep weeping all the time, nothing much is going to be achieved at all.”
Does he consider himself a philosopher? and he says I am not a philosopher in the sense who you think they are. Is he spiritual, no not in the sense you understand the word, he says prevaricating. “I am not ritualistic or anything like that. I think the religious places, especially the Hindu places of worship could be better maintained. If I go to a temple at all, it is to look at the sculptures,” he confides.
He defies every category that you might want to slot him in. Just as I am settling into thinking, so here is an artist I see that his house over laden with books and papers making me think, so then is he a professor who also paints and writes? As he leads us up the staircase to his studios upstairs, what I find overwhelming are not just the veritable feast of paintings but an equally eclectic collection of books in the rooms. Andre Gide, Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, apart from a host of writers in Hindi and Bengali. The whole of Abanindranath Tagore’s works in Bengali. And works of that great scholar in Hindi,
Hazariprasad Dwivedi. Abanindranath wrote a lot on art, but the problem is he wrote everything in Bengali, he says having himself undertaken to translate some of his writings but giving up the task somewhere along.
Few, except who know him intimately, are aware of his felicity with languages. He has speaking knowledge of his mother tongue Malayalam, but can speak, read and write, Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi and having grown up in Mahe during his childhood had at one time a working knowledge of French. He writes in English of course. And just as you think this teacher is from Baroda having inspired a whole generation of artists from that school, out comes his Bengali heritage, of that institution called Santiniketan of which he is a worthy son. He straddles both these art movements, if you think about it. If he is a product of Santiniketan and the Bengal School he also has been the guiding force of the post Independent movements in Baroda.
Can art really be taught? you ask this teacher. And he says art schools do not mean much. He pauses before remarking contemplatively, “You fire a rocket for instance, and how do you know where it will fly and fall?” He says a good teacher says more by his silence, as he often times did in Baroda! Abanindranath he says, felt art could not be taught. Like caterpillars which go on eating leaves until they recede into a cocoon to remerge again students absorb all they want from a institution to hibernate and come up with their own language. Sadly, he says students nowadays are replicating the known image without fully finding their voice.
Nandalal Bose on the other hand had other ideas about art teaching: he felt the discipline of art was like the potter getting his wheel steady before he made the pot; the art institutions steady and fine tune the technique. And what did he himself learn from Santiniketan? I ask. “It gave me a perspective,” comes the reply. Perspective on art, you query, to only hear him say, “No, on life and living itself!” “The institution showed me what the question really was,” he remarks.
KG Subramanyam was born in 1924 in Koothurpuram in Thelasarry in what is now Kerala. Since he lost his father at a young age, he went to Mahe where his brother almost 30 years older than him was teaching in a school. He moved back to India where during the height of the Quit India Movement he was in Presidency College doing economics. Being fired by nationalism sweeping through the country he picketed the Secretariat for which he was given a six month jail sentence, in 1943. Until then, Mani da who was more interested in economics and literature never thought he could take up art study seriously. More to keep him out of trouble, his other brother who was in Madras then thought Santiniketan would suit his rebellious temperament and began to correspond with Nandalal Bose, who suggested he come to Kala Bhavan which he did in 1944. Even before that he was doodling and scribbling as he says in his hostel rooms, when someone who worked at the Art College in Madras showed his sketches to Panicker who in turn showed them to Devi Prasad Roy Chowdhury who invited him to join the art school (in Madras) which he did not of course wanting to dabble in the idealism of politics .
“In jail I realized that while I liked some people in the politics of the times, I didn’t like others. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life with such fellows,” he says critically. He never went back into politics after his student days in Madras, moving to Santiniketan where his mentors were the likes of Ramkinkar Baij and Benode Bihari Mukherjee. Santiniketan, he remembers was a loose creative community then, where one went in search of finding a vocation rather than a degree. Classes were informal meetings he says, remembering he met Ramkinkar Baij more at the tea shop than in the classroom! “People thought the institution would not last, set up on a poet’s whim as it were,” he muses. If teachers salaries were no more than Rs 250 a month, he remembers his fee including canteen and dhobi charges were no more than Rs 25!
There are other stories as well. Of how he met the Punjabi Susheela who worked for the Kasturba Memorial and was then training under Nandalal Bose in Santiniketan. Of how they later got married, and he worked in refugee camps in Punjab post Independence, and much later moved to Baroda where he taught for years and went back to Santiniketan as professor of painting in the 80s.
He will turn 85 years in February this year. Already Naveen Kishore of Seagull Publications (who is like a son to him) is planning a three day music festival in his honour in Santiniketan when his friends and family will be with him. Will there be a retrospective of his works, I ask naively. “I’ve already had three retrospectives. My first retrospective in 1958. You know I have lived very long,” he whispers in an undertone.
Outside his cottage-like home in Baroda, there is a Kadamb tree. As we are leaving I see some of the Kadamb flowers that have fallen by the road, and I am fascinated as I had never seen the Kadamb flower before. Maybe it was a metaphor for an artist whose likes I had never seen before. Artist, thinker and philosopher. A man who is aware of a world around him. But more importantly is willing to engage with you just as his mentors at Santiniketan must have.
Incidentally, why is the Kadamb so puzzling? If it’s a flower why does it look like a fruit?
First published in Housescalls. Photos: Kamal Sahai