The elusive politics of art: An exhibition of the late KG Subramanyan’s works
An exhibition of the late KG Subramanyan’s works shows how the great modernist responded to what was happening around him through his art.
If there is one philosophical burden that Art has always had trouble with, it is the nature of the politics it is supposed to carry. Aristotle’s suggestion that “all men are political animals” has for centuries burdened artists with the handicap of neither being able to adequately consider nor reject politics in their work. Likewise, for most of his life, one of India’s chief modernists, KG Subramanyan remained largely restricted to exploring forms and expressions at a comfortable distance from any political ideology. But an exhibition, more than a year on after his death, presented by the re-opened Art Heritage Gallery, asks us to reconsider that assumption.
The title of the exhibition ‘Seeking a Poetry of the Real: The Political Works of KG Subramanyan’ goes some way to suggest the idea, but not in its entirety. “It is true that none of his works were overtly political. Neither was he a vocally political person in real life,” says Amal Allana, curator of the exhibition. “But he was engaged throughout and his response to whatever was happening around him manifested in his work. There has always been focus on his technique and the modernist tropes he was trying to explore. But never his politics. He simply sought to transform the real, sometimes by using the mythic Durga or other tropes.”
Subramanyan’s response to the 1969 communal riots in Gujarat that he witnessed first-hand resulted in a fabulist children’s illustrated book titled When God First Made the Animals He Made Them All Alike. Similarly, The Tale of the Talking Face (1989),exhibited here, was an aggregated response to the political turmoil that began with the Emergency of 1975.
Subramanyan was born in 1924 in Kerala, and became an active participant of the Indian independence movement. He got involved in arts after studying at Kala Bhavan in Shantiniketan in 1944, after which he made Baroda his home. But his relationship with Shantineketan and his Gandhian values never withered.
His motive in drawing and writing for children, Allana says, was drawn from noticing the loss of these values. “He was, we must not forget, a nationalist, and part of the founding generation of the country; a generation that built institutions. That experience of having seen the country turn over into something that wasn’t envisioned must have made him feel that he needed to speak to the next generation,” she says.
Though Allana, who runs Art Heritage, could have curated from her collection alone, she has loaned in works from The Seagull Foundation for the Arts (also Subramanyan’s publishers), the Kiran Nadar Museum and the Alkazi Collection, to give muscle to the idea.
Subramanyan’s work was seen as rooted and earthly. He is perhaps the one Indian artist who almost became an artisan while remaining an artist, meaning his work belonged as much to the street as to the gallery.
As a person, he wasn’t very different. “Oh he was very rooted, very humble. Just worked and worked. He painted till the day he died, almost 80-90 years of work. But he never cared if anything would sell. My family had a lifelong association with him. So when we decided to reopen the gallery after renovation, I couldn’t think of anyone but KG to open with,” says Allana. There are 50-odd works on display. A set of three paintings, crucial to the concept here and reproduced digitally, could not be presented in the original because they are part of collections abroad, which only exemplifies how difficult it is becoming to assimilate the masters under one roof as time goes by.
Subramanyan’s writings are decidedly more political than his artwork. Though there is violence and mythic recreation in his art that points to the degradation of man, the ambivalence of the way his subjects come together can make Subramanyan’s ideas hard to grasp.
“But putting up some of his writings has had a wonderful response. A lady whose father was a peer with KG and started the Art History course at Baroda told me that because one could now read what he was writing alongside what he was making, her perception of his work has changed,” Allana says. The politics that one feels throughout the exhibition does not have so much to do with the politics of nations and religions, as much as with its causes and consequences.
Subramanyan, through this re-jigged window into his work, feels refreshingly potent, and as ominously prescient as the opening lines of his poem Anatomy Lesson: “You do not have to go/To anatomy rooms/To see dismembered bodies/You can see them on the street.”
WHAT: Seeking a Poetry of the Real: The Political Works of KG Subramanyan
WHEN: 11 am - 7 pm, till December 30.
WHERE: Art Heritage Gallery, Triveni Kala Sangam, Tansen Marg, Mandi House.
NEAREST METRO STATION: Mandi House.