The sense of anticipation at getting K.G. Subramanyan at the other end of the line from Santiniketan was short-lived. “This sort of thing irritates me,” said the doyen of Indian art—who turned 85 in February —when requested to “say something” about his latest set of artworks on display. As he explained, he had made them for people to see and would rather hear what they thought of his works.
The occasion for the call was his ongoing show in Kolkata, The Magic of Making: Recent Artworks by K.G. Subramanyan, which has been hosted jointly by three galleries—Aakriti, Akar Prakar and Seagull.
Bridging styles: (from top) An untitled terracotta work (courtesy Seagull Centre); Birth of a Black Boy, gouache on paper; and an untitled work of gouache on paper (Aakriti Art Gallery).
It was, he said, “a follow-up of sorts” to the successful show organized in February by his long-time publisher, Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books, in Santiniketan to mark the 85th birthday of the painter, sculptor, muralist, art historian, teacher and writer.
Subramanyan has had a long and close association with Santiniketan. After his release from prison in the mid-1940s—he had been arrested in 1942 for taking part in the Quit India movement—his parents sent him there, giving him the opportunity to study under masters such as Nandalal Bose, Binode Behari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij. He went back to his alma mater in 1980 as professor and taught there till 1989, when he was appointed professor emeritus. As an artist, Subramanyan is acknowledged for having successfully blended Indian folk art traditions with modernism as well as for exploring and experimenting with indigenous crafts such as weaving and toymaking—bridging, in the process, the gap between “the artist and the artisan”.
The bridging of diverse styles and skills is much in evidence in The Magic of Making, which features works on paper, reverse painting on acrylic sheet, canvases and terracotta reliefs, all made over this year and the last. Subramanyan has returned to terracotta after three decades and it happened purely by chance—someone gave the artist a truckload of clay (mati), so he decided to use it. “I use all kinds of mediums,” says Subramanyan. “Since there was clay here, I made terracotta works.”
They consist of tiles, 10x10 inch each, with a relief of human faces, hands, feet and torso—some clothed in Indian garb such as dhoti and salwar -kurta—etched in a style that looks like a blend of modernism imported from Europe and traditional local art. A face in profile reminds you of Picasso; another looks like a Bhil mask and a newspaper caricature rolled into one. Nine tiles arranged together into a square, a collage of dismembered body parts, comprise one work.
The works on paper, drawings done in gouache, are playful and “light”, seemingly spontaneous, brightly-coloured renditions of men, women, plants and animals drawn in a few strokes, the diverse influences blended imperceptibly and then transcended to create an original style. Some of the works have traditional mythological imagery though overtly religious themes are absent.
Kishore recalls how once, when asked how long it took him to make a painting, Subramanyan had snapped his fingers in response, saying that’s how long it should take. As if the painting—a result of many years of assimilation of the environment around the artist—“appeared” fully formed in his mind, and then merely had to be transferred on to canvas.
The exuberance displayed in his works is clearly linked to his prolific output—in all, there are about 140 works on display in the three galleries. Asked if financial considerations dictated his output, Subramanyan replied he wasn’t involved with the monetary side of things. And broke into Hindi for emphasis—“Dal roti ka paisa hai (I have enough to eat)”. To him, the show is only about displaying his artworks and seeing what people think of them.
The Magic of Making is showing at the Aakriti Art Gallery, Akar Prakar and The Seagull Arts and Media Resource Centre in Kolkata till 18 July