KG Subramanyan at 100 - Hindustan Times
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KG Subramanyan at 100

ByShireen Quadri
Jun 18, 2024 12:08 PM IST

Curated by Nancy Adajania, ‘One Hundred Years and Counting: Re-Scripting KG Subramanyan’ at Emami Art in Kolkata shows the master in a new light

When culture theorist Nancy Adajania was invited to curate One Hundred Years and Counting: Re-Scripting KG Subramanyan organised by Emami Art, Kolkata, she chose to design “a theatre of provocations, which critically annotates certain political and aesthetic aspects of his practice through arguments, debates and stories.” Instead of making it a chronological show representing the various phases and genres constituting Subramanyan’s practice, which had been done during the artist’s lifetime, she wanted to create a “Jukti Takko Aar Gappo kind of bewitchment”. The reference is to Ritwik Ghatak’s 1974 film about a disillusioned artist who sets out on a quest to find the spirit and future of Bengal. The show, organised in collaboration with Seagull and Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University, Baroda, at the Kolkata Centre for Creativity (KCC), is on view until June 21. It brings together over 200 works by the Indian modernist, including his early paintings from the 1950s, reverse paintings on acrylic, gouaches, marker pen works on paper, and postcard size drawings.

Artist KG Subramanyan (1924-2016) (HT Photo)
Artist KG Subramanyan (1924-2016) (HT Photo)

Figure Against Tapestry; gouache on handmade paper – KG Subramanyan (KCC/Emami Art)
Figure Against Tapestry; gouache on handmade paper – KG Subramanyan (KCC/Emami Art)

The retrospective-scale critical survey of works by Subramanyan (1924-2016) is a fitting tribute to his genius. “If we want to keep an artist’s legacy alive for the next hundred years, we need to communicate its relevance to the political urgencies of our times. With that thought in mind, I invited the viewer into an immersive space covered with silhouettes based on his illustrations for his children’s books,” says Adajania. The drawings from Subramanyan’s children’s book, Robby (1972) gesture towards the need for an inclusive, pluralistic way of living. “One of the thematics of this show deals with Subramanyan’s constant political philosophising, whether it is through a supposedly minor genre like children’s books or his large-scale murals in public spaces. I also trace in his work a constant current of dialogue with MK Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore,” the curator says.

Besides being an artist who studied at Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan, and the Slade School of Art, London, Subramanyan was also a writer, thinker, and pedagogue. “In the early 1960s, along with Sankho Chaudhuri, Subramanyan started the Fine Arts Fair at MS University Baroda. This was meant to be a space where art students could experiment freely with different mediums, scales and formats in collaboration with each other and with craftspersons,” says Adajania who adds that the show has borrowed from MS University some of the beautiful toys that Subramanyan and his assistant, the master craftsman Gyarsilal Verma had made during the fairs. Adajania says that the fairs were important sites of pedagogical experiments that offered the potential to radically alter an artist’s trajectory. “It is another matter that the craftspersons did not always have the opportunities — due to their lack of social and cultural capital — to become artists in their own right. Verma was given immense love and respect by Subramanyan and yet he could only ever assist artists to make their dreams come true. This, too, is debated in the show,” says Adajania.

The show aims to dismantle stereotypical readings of Subramanyan’s work, dispel common misconceptions about him, and seeks to challenge and reshape them through critical reassessment within the broader cultural milieu of modernism in postcolonial India. “It avoids the pitfalls of a hagiography by reassessing Subramanyan’s practice from a feminist perspective, as well as critically contextualising the implications of a hyphenated arts-crafts relationship. Historically, the male artist’s gaze has often rendered the female body as an object of pleasure, as well as a source of deep anxiety. Subramanyan’s approach to the female protagonist partakes of this. And yet, we might also encounter, in his oeuvre, a painting like The Little Miracle (1998). On a cursory look, it may appear like one more sexual fantasy but, in fact, this is a tour de force — it is a tender portrayal of a lesbian couple making love,” says Adajania.

Figure and Faces; gouache on handmade paper – KG Subramanyan (KCC/Emami Art)
Figure and Faces; gouache on handmade paper – KG Subramanyan (KCC/Emami Art)

The curator has taken great pains to highlight the contradictions and ambivalences in Subramanyan’s art, which will help enrich our understanding of the legendary artist. “I have shown, alongside Subramanyan’s polychrome reverse paintings depicting female protagonists, archival material related to Mrinalini Mukherjee and N Pushpamala, both women artists who were deeply influenced by his work. And, in the case of Mukherjee, even mentored by him. In these ways, I am complicating our perception of the artist’s views on female agency and sexuality,” she says.

According to Richa Agarwal, CEO Emami Art, Subramanyan, who was widely revered for his profound erudition and wit, created a powerful language which is highly eclectic. The show, she says, aims to present the master in a new light, establishing new relationships and opening up new avenues of discourse and debates. “Although he hailed from Kerala and spent most of his teaching life in western India, Subramanyan was Bengal’s own artist. The practices and ideas of Santiniketan were always with him.

Though a scholar, Subramanyan connected with ordinary people. “I’ve heard so much about his engaging lectures, unique teaching style, and how his art was deeply intertwined with life and society. His legacy is timeless because of the conversations he sparked and the insightful social and cultural commentaries he made. He wasn’t just a modernist artist; his vision allows us to constantly reinterpret his work, challenging us to rethink and break away from outdated ideas. Whether it’s through his clever and witty illustrations, mysterious reverse paintings, quirky toys, busy canvases, or playful postcards, Subramanyan’s work will always remain relevant,” says Agarwal.

Maquette for the mural War of the Relics; paper cutout and gouache on paper – KG Subramanyan (KCC/Emami Art)
Maquette for the mural War of the Relics; paper cutout and gouache on paper – KG Subramanyan (KCC/Emami Art)

Ushmita Sahu, Director and Head Curator at Emami Art, recollects her conversations with Subramanyan. “We affectionately called him Manida. Our spontaneous tête-à-têtes were delightful, and I cherish the memory of time spent with him,” she says, underlining that she is particularly fond of Subramanyan’s vibrant toys. “Thanks to my dear friend and artist and educator Indrapramit Roy, these toys have been beautifully showcased in the exhibition. The animals’ expressive gestures, the clever engineering behind them, and the use of recycled materials captivate everyone who sees them. Manida didn’t create these toys just for children. Watching him around Kala Bhavana and observing his interactions with my son as he grew up, I realised his dedication to a comprehensive curriculum that neither patronised children nor was overly simplistic,” adds Sahu. She underlines that Subramanyan’s works for children — including books, stories, illustrations, toys, and puppets — were crafted with care to educate, inspire, and foster empathy, a deep understanding of the contemporary world, history and politics. “I have always admired Manida’s effortless way with words. His approach to engaging with children was thoughtful and meaningful, ensuring their educational experiences were rich and profound. This exhibition not only honours his artistic brilliance but also highlights his contributions to art education and his visionary methods for engaging young minds,” she says.

Polyptich; watercolour and oil on mylar sheet – KG Subramanyan (KCC/Emami Art)
Polyptich; watercolour and oil on mylar sheet – KG Subramanyan (KCC/Emami Art)

The show invites viewers to engage with Subramanyan’s extensive body of work through an alternative and critical lens. “The works on display are unified by a reassessment of what the curator terms as ‘unexpected adjacencies’ and socio-political contexts. Subramanyan, celebrated for his erudition and deep rapport with people, offers commentary on his contemporary world that remains strikingly relevant today. His playful yet scholarly approach continues to address pressing issues with unique intellectual rigour,” says Sahu, adding that it’s essential to reinterpret, rethink, and critically examine the artist’s works beyond superficial appreciation. “Our gallery’s mission is to encourage the audience to develop a deeper understanding of art. This approach, I hope, aligns with the master modernist’s vision of art, life, and praxis,” she signs off.

Shireen Quadri is the editor of The Punch Magazine Anthology of New Writing: Select Short Stories by Women Writers.

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