K G Subramanyan – ‘The King and the little man’ of Modern Indian Art

Perhaps the only quicksilver artist of modern India, whowas never afraid of experimenting with any medium, material or style, K G Subramanyan’s inspiring existence has remoulded many lives for good. He was not an artist confined to his studio, rather he interacted with his students and tapped their unexplored potential to be an artist with unique style. Heoften presented his views on various political, economic and social issues without inhibition, which can be deciphered in many of his artworks. He was a man who donned many hats as an artist, poet, writer, textile designer and mentor, yet he never failed to play anyrole with precision. Being born in an era of Gandhi, his art echoes the struggles of common men and women both in pre-and post-independent India. Many of his early works serve as a historic imagery for the generation whorelishfreedom inindependent India today.

Unlike several celebrated artists, choosing art as a profession was not always K G Subramanyan’s calling. Although, he had a great interest in drawing as a boy, it was only confined to his artbooks as a diversion. Back in his boyhood days, being an artist wasn’t really a lucrative professional choice either. He was a regular Tamil Brahmin boy born in Palakkad, Kerala in 1924 and was imbibing culture in the form of music, temple visits, traditional houses around, folklore, family and much more. He later moved to Mahe, Kerala which was a French colony and there he was influenced by French culture. He oftenkept himself busy reading through the books on Tagore and other thinkers in local library,which introduced him to several art forms like Japanese woodcuts, African art etc. Unlike British India narrative, at Mahe he was able to get abreast with Francophone and Lusophone contemporaneity and philosophies. All this wealth of knowledge was making the young K G Subramanyan equipped for his ‘accidental’ career as an artist. In early 1940s he left to Madras to study Economics in Presidency College. During this time, he was already well versed with the writings of Gandhi, Marx and Tagore and often contemplated over the inclined interest of so called modern artists towards European art rather than existing Indian society. While this often disheartened him, he soon understood the complex connection between the art and its maker and the significance of every art form in our cosmopolitan society after reading a book by the renowned art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy.

Being a Gandhian, he served a six-months imprisonment in Allipuram Camp prison, Bellary for being a part ofa demonstration outside his college, preceding Quit India movement. This led him being banned from resuming his education in Madras for three years. Mystically, it was during this time that his artwork caught attention of one of the pioneers of Modern Indian Art, Nandalal Bose in Shantiniketan who invited young K G Subramanyan to appear for an interview.Soon, hestarted studying various art techniques in Kala Bhavanunder the tutelage of legendary artists RamkinkerBaij, Nandalal Bose and Benode Bihari Mukherjee. He was exposed to water colours and calligraphy here. The environment in Shantiniketan allowed him free speech and creative thinking which helater applied to his mentoring years in M S University, Baroda. He also received a British Council Fellowship to study Printmaking in Slade School of Art, London under the guidance of famous English artist Ben Nicholson. In 1958 when he became the deputy director of Handloom Board in Mumbai, he shattered the tiered glass wall between the artists and craftsmen by using the traditional techniques of crafts in his modernist artworks. Heeven tried his hands-on toy making, pottery and weaving. This helped re-establish the honour of Indian craftsmen and bring innovation in the field of crafts as well.

An artist like K G Subramanyan is born once in many generations and his work is the epitome of Indian art and history. As an artist he was intrepid with an unfailing desire to innovate and think out of the box. Give him a rock and he could turn it into a life-like sculpture. He knew how to breathe life into the medium and material he used, be it acrylic, crayon, pencil, ball point pen, marker, water colours, oils, plastic, terracotta, lithography, etching, textiles or even reverse painting on glass and acrylic; he used them all, effortlessly. His 9 feet X 36 feet black and white mural with 16 panels, titled ‘war of relics’ is a monumental art work in terms of its sheer magnitude and creativity. The artist explains his landmark work, “To some truth is single; to some others many. And they all devise special signs and symbols, rituals and relics to demonstrate its basic unity. But with the passage of time, these fail to fulfil this function. They become opaque and private. Instead of leading the human being to a vision of the total truth underlying even the differences they do the opposite, distancing person from person and bringing in silly confrontations. These bring to life the beastly features in human behaviour; baring one’s tools of assault, filling one’s eyes with suspicion, one’s mind with hate and distrust. So, the relics and other devices that were meant to inspire and unite, divide and cause dissension.”The evolution of his artwork has been very itinerant which provides the same buoyancy as fifty years ago. A lot of his artwork symbolises Hindu Gods and Goddesses like Durga and Hanuman as ordinary beings, giving them heroic yet a common man’s stature in the eyes of a beholder.  A monkey sitting on the tree gaping at the violence on the street or a woman dragging a bull, it all draws athin line between the hero and the ordinary, somewhere indicating that attitude makes everything exotic or dull. He was a storyteller artist as his art always narrated a story, he had also penned several wonderful fables for children. Being an art historian, he had written extensively on the history of Indian art and its evolution. He was bestowed with Padma Vibhushan by Indian Government for his contribution towards Indian art.

As a modest teacher he believed he had nothing much to teach his students except to clear some clouds. But for many of his students who are now illustrious artists of the world like Laxma Goud, Jagdish Chintala, Thota Vaikuntam etc., acknowledge that their success is indebted to the path shown by their devoted mentor ‘Mani da’. His message to the budding artists is to see things with pleasure and discern everything, but he also cautions the younger generation to know their potential and aim accordingly, as too much failure at an endeavour can destroy the self-esteem. Being an influencer and a role model, he often believed and preached that” whether you write or paint… what is the use of all this exchange if it does not make the world a little better than what it is.” He left a legacy that will keep enlightening and inspiring the generations to come. Just like his book title “King and the little man’, he was invincible in terms of his talent as an artisan like a ruler, yet he was unostentatious and was a people’s person, an ordinary being in character.