Modern artist, scholar, textile revivalist: The legacy of KG Subramanyan - Hindustan Times
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Modern artist, scholar, textile revivalist: The legacy of KG Subramanyan

Hindustan Times | By, Mumbai
Oct 13, 2016 05:34 PM IST

Catch a glimpse of the fantastical, folklore-inspired paintings by the late modern artist, KG Subramanyan

Catch a glimpse of the fantastical, folklore-inspired paintings by the late modern artist, KG Subramanyan

Untitled works by KG Subramanyan, reverse painting on acrylic sheet (2015)(Photo courtesy: Sakshi Gallery)
Untitled works by KG Subramanyan, reverse painting on acrylic sheet (2015)(Photo courtesy: Sakshi Gallery)

Half-human mythical beasts, dense foliage reminiscent of a lush village, and animated expressions denoting glee, concern, anger — the late artist KG Subramanyan’s (died aged 92, in June this year) works narrated a story inspired by Indian folklore. The artist left the images untitled, letting the viewer decode the symbolism behind them. In a 2014 interview to a website, he is quoted saying that explaining an image would “destroy the mystery of its birth”.

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A versatile artist, Subramanyan (endearingly called Mani Da) was involved in the many streams of art, be it pottery and sculpture, making murals and toys, or writing children’s books. A recipient of awards such as the Padma Vibhushan (2012) and Padma Bhushan (2006), he also helped document the textile heritage of the country as deputy director (design) of the All India Handloom Board.

Untitled works by KG Subramanyan, reverse painting on acrylic sheet (2015) (Photo courtesy: Sakshi Gallery)
Untitled works by KG Subramanyan, reverse painting on acrylic sheet (2015) (Photo courtesy: Sakshi Gallery)

While his contemporaries formed the Progressive Artists’ Group to develop a new approach to art (different from the Western art forms taught in college), Subramanyan went his own way. Influenced by the freedom struggle and being a follower of the Gandhian philosophy, he chose to focus on Indian folklore and myth. A new exhibition celebrates his legacy.

Titled Remembering KG Subramanyan, the exhibition at Sakshi Gallery, Colaba, features artworks made during the last few years of his life (2014-15). On display are 15 large canvases in reverse painting format on acrylic (a sheet of glass is painted and reversed to view the final image), and 40 sketches. It is organised in association with Seagull Foundation for the Arts, Kolkata, and features images from their collection.

Untitled, KG Subramanyan, black and white gouache on handmade paper (2015) (Photo courtesy: Sakshi Gallery)
Untitled, KG Subramanyan, black and white gouache on handmade paper (2015) (Photo courtesy: Sakshi Gallery)

Sakshi Gallery’s director Geetha Mehra’s association with Subramanyan goes back to the mid-’80s. Over the years, she has exhibited his artworks and also commissioned work to him. “No material was too low for him. He worked with waste paper and did collage art just as well as large murals,” recalls Mehra.

Subramanyan’s art reflects the diverse influences he encountered through his life. Born in Kerala, the landscapes of the state often found way in his paintings. While he was studying economics at Presidency College, Chennai, he was an active participant in the freedom movement. Not wanting to study in a government college, he joined Kala Bhavan at Santiniketan, West Bengal, instead, where he was trained by artists like Nandalal Bose and Ramkinkar Baij. Subramanyan would go on to hone the art of making murals here; at times even painting structures on the premises.

Untitled, KG Subramanyan, black and white gouache on handmade paper (2015) (Photo courtesy: Sakshi Gallery)
Untitled, KG Subramanyan, black and white gouache on handmade paper (2015) (Photo courtesy: Sakshi Gallery)

Also an art scholar, Subramanyan taught and later became a dean of the faculty of fine arts, at MS University, Baroda, and also headed the painting department at Kala Bhavan. “Mani Da was generous with his time and knowledge. Students would come with their portfolio for guidance and he would patiently advise them,” Mehra says.

While Subramanyan made murals at the Kala Bhavan campus, Mehra coaxed him to make something for audiences who never visited Santiniketan. It led to War of the Relics (2013), an 8ft x 40ft mural in black and white that draws upon motifs from myth and contemporary culture. It depicts a visual timeline of violence, from the medieval crusades to the US’ War on Terror. While it won’t be part of this exhibition, it will be exhibited at Documenta 14 exhibition in Athens next year.

A thoughtful gesture associated with Subramanyan were his hand-drawn Diwali/New Year greetings for friends and family. “I have cherished all the greetings that I have received from him. This year, on Diwali, I will send out a special prayer for him,” says Mehra.

KG Subramanyan in his studio at the faculty of fine arts, Baroda (Photo courtesy: Jyoti Bhatt)
KG Subramanyan in his studio at the faculty of fine arts, Baroda (Photo courtesy: Jyoti Bhatt)

Remembering KG Subramanyan is on display till November 5, 11am to 6pm
At Sakshi Gallery, Colaba
Call: 6610 3424

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Soma is an Assistant Editor for the weekend supplement HT 48 Hours. She writes on lifestyle, art and culture.

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