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Recognised as one of the pioneers of Indian Modern Art, K.G. Subramanyan, fondly known as ‘Mani da’, was instrumental in creating a post-independence identity for India through his art. Influenced strongly by Indian folk and traditional artforms, but also by western ideas such as Cubism, his work won international acclaim due to its universal appeal. His exceptional contributions to society throughout a career spanning over six decades, won him India’s highest civilian awards, including the Padma Shri in 1975, Padma Bhushan in 2006 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2012, with his name being etched in history as one of India’s finest artists.
Reverse painting on Acrylic, Gouache and Oils by K.G. Subramanyan
A Student and Teacher for Life
Born in 1924 in Palakkad, Kerala, Kalpati Ganapati Subramanyan (K.G. Subramanyan) pursued his bachelor’s degree in Economics from Presidency College in erstwhile Madras. Heavily influenced by the ideas of Gandhi and Tagore, led to his involvement in the Quit India Movement, and subsequent imprisonment in Allipuram Prison in Bellary. Due to this, he was forbidden from entering government colleges under the British rule.
This mishap proved to be a blessing in disguise, as he changed course and decided to pursue his interest in art by joining Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan. K.G. Subramanyan studied there from 1944-1948 under the tutelage of acclaimed artists such as Benode Behari Mukherji, Nandalal Bose, and Ramkinkar Baij, after which he became a lecturer at the prestigious Faculty of Fine Arts in M.S. University, Baroda in 1951. In 1956, he received a British Council Research Fellowship and briefly studied at the Slade School of Art at the University of London, before returning to Baroda. He also completed a short stint as a Rockefeller Fellow in New York in 1966. After spending several years teaching in Baroda, K.G. Subramanyan headed back to Santiniketan as head of the painting department in 1980. He worked there till his retirement in 1989, when he was made Professor Emeritus of Viswa Bharati University, Santiniketan.
Midnight Blues Series (2003) by K.G. Subramanyan
Mani da was a hugely inspirational figure, popular not only with his students, but also among other teachers, with people often seeking his advice on how to approach their work at a conceptual level. While he was revered by those around him, K.G. Subramanyan himself was irreverent, with a witty sense of humour.
Of Influences and Interpretations
Greatly influenced by folk traditions from Kerala and all of India, Bengal art practices such as Kalighat painting and Pattachitra, and even Indian court paintings, K.G. Subramanyan believed that folk art had a kind of mobility that other structured, sophisticated art forms lacked. He researched various Indian folk arts and crafts at length, and spoke about them often to his students, urging contemporary art practitioners to understand local craft techniques, and reinterpret them in their own vocabulary.
K.G. Subramanyan in his element
In his own paintings, Mani da would often depict Indian mythology and contemporary culture, drawing from all kinds of Indian and foreign references, such as African masks, Picasso’s cubism, Tanjore paintings, bazaar scenes and what not. He constantly tried to break boundaries between global cultures and geographical confines.
He would juxtapose icons from Indian mythology against human beings or animals, to represent complex reflections of conflict. For instance, there would be a monkey against a Hanuman or a modern-day girl against Durga, as if to show each as the reflection of the other. He strongly believed in the inherent powers and divinities present in each being, and through his art, he depicted the need for human beings to be constantly aware of the conflict between good and evil that resides within us.
Mythologies by K.G. Subramanyan
K.G. Subramanyan was a master at creating playful, witty and erotically charged pictorial fictions, and would often use metaphors to express his idea of culture and the world at large. For him, a culture in which the gods found the need to reincarnate themselves in order to save humans was hardly perfect, and these imperfections left enough room for him to experiment with his icons.
Courting the Shadows (2001), Oil on Canvas by K.G. Subramanyan
A master draughtsman, anatomy was Mani da’s strong point. Even when he distorted figures, which he did often, he did not violate the rules of construction. His art also featured a strong decorative element, but its purpose was not mere embellishment; instead, it created a layer of irony, blurring the lines between the real and the unreal.
Ethiopian Nativity (1987) by K.G. Subramanyan
The Versatility of a Thinking Artist
Seeing art and craft as part of the same continuum, K.G. Subramanyan experimented far and wide with different mediums, and at different scales, over the course of his long and illustrious career. Drawing and watercolours on paper, painting on canvas, printing serigraphs, reverse painting on glass in acrylic, sculpting in stone, creating terracotta murals, designing toys and textiles, illustrating children’s books and writing extensively on art – he did it all.
The Wardrobe Mirror (2002), Reverse Painting by K.G. Subramanyan
And this love for experimentation lasted till the very end of his days. A defining example of his ability to adapt to mediums, is evident in his decision to paint the façade of Kala Bhavan’s painting department building. He created a stunning black and white mural covering the entire building, which he repainted at the age of 86, when the colours began to fade away!
Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan. Source: K.S. Radhakrishnan
Inspired by this experiment, he ended up creating one of his greatest works ever in 2013, at the age of 88, titled ‘War of the Relics’ – a gigantic 16 panel, black and white acrylic on canvas, measuring 36 feet by 9 feet! The artwork is based on the ideology that all cultures have devised signs, symbols, and rituals to demonstrate the underlying unity of mankind, but how, over time, these devices have been uprooted from their original meaning, and adapted into biased ideologies. According to K.G. Subramanyan, these hollow relics of the past had created distance instead of unity, bringing the world to war. Featuring horsemen from the Crusades to battle tanks in Afghanistan, the larger than life masterpiece depicts how the politics of power is born in the lap of terror.
War of the Relics (2013) by K.G. Subramanyan
Another iconic work by K.G. Subramanyan, ‘Anatomy Lesson’, created in 2008, displayed his skill in working with terracotta, and sounded a warning over the fallouts arising from disharmony and violence. Moulded in terracotta reliefs, he depicted ripped human beings with fragmented limbs, their heads conversing with each other about trials and suffering. Ever the brilliant writer, he wrote about this work of art - “You do not have to go to anatomy rooms to see dismembered bodies. You can see them on the street.”.
Anatomy Lesson (2008) by K.G. Subramanyan
K.G. Subramanyan’s influence on Indian art is unparalleled and unforgettable. Across his impressive body of work, spanning different mediums, he paid close attention to the thread that connects creativity, labour, consumption, and aesthetic delight. A few years after his retirement in 1989 from Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan, Mani da moved back to Baroda (Vadodara) to live with his daughter, having lost his wife, more than a decade ago. He breathed his last on June 29, 2016, leaving a void that can never be filled.
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