K.G. SUBRAMANYAN challenges you to think. As an artist, scholar and ideologue, he edges you out of comfort zones to upend established notions, as he has through his artistic oeuvre over six decades.
He veers away from west-centric postmodernism, radicalising Indian contemporary art through a rooted approach, his interpretations seething with an underlying wit and wisdom that are individualistically his.
How has 81-year-old Subramanyan's art practice often defined the cutting edge within the contemporary Indian idiom, ranging from murals to reverse paintings, from enamels to sculpture? What makes him so unafraid to learn, constantly journeying both physically and intellectually, more so since his first teaching stint at Baroda in 1951?
Why are his lectures, collected as "The Living Tradition" and "The Creative Circuit", revered by fellow artists and the uninitiated alike? Is he a seminal figure in the construct of Indian modernism? How did he mould his Santiniketan inheritance to dynamic practice, remaining conceptually rigorous, sidestepping an egocentric examination of his own achievements (except through imaginary dialogues with alter egos like the Japanese artist-monk Mu Chi)?
Kerala-born Subramanyan, who recently relocated back to Baroda from Santiniketan, where he was Professor Emeritus, tantalises us by straddling the personal and public domains with equal felicity.
He wears his honours with the lightness of being that becomes a true seeker. These include four major retrospectives of his multi-pronged artistic corpus, the Kalidas Samman in 1981, the Padma Shri and a D. Litt. from Rabindra Bharati.
What inspired the tentative creativity of this student of economics at the Presidency College in Madras, first recognised by artistic giant D.P. Roy Chowdhury, who guided him to Kala Bhavan in 1944, where he imbibed Tagorean idealism at the feet of the masters — Nandalal Bose, Binode Bihari Mukherjee, and Ramkinkar Baij?
It was in search of more pertinent questions that we met in Bangalore on November 5, 2005, just before Subramanyan inaugurated a pan-Indian exhibition that launched Gallery Sumukha's redefined space.
Over an 80-minute interview, he reveals the range of his peripatetic mind, peppering his responses with wry humour, often self-directed.
Excerpts from our interview:
PERHAPS not. The whole attitude of the people of my generation, I suppose, is to get to know of the world as it gets ahead, as much as possible. We grew up in an atmosphere of political and cultural change. We had to think twice before making our choices.
So, most of your life, you're a learner. Probably it's more about how you construe a situation or read other people's thinking, their words or expressions. For all our talk about traditions, the world is constantly changing.
Was yours a conscious decision to blur the artificial divide, to my mind, between the artist and the artisan?
From the beginning, I probably had a certain talent for making toys and other things. I was impressed (when I was a college student) by Anand K. Coomaraswamy's "Medieval Singhalese Art". That's when I started thinking about cumulative tradition, where various activities helped each other to rise into a hierarchical structure, where the upper layers draw resource from the lower layers, at the same time influencing the lower layers. I realised that was the strength of our tradition.
When the classical became too decadent, then the folk entered and revitalised it. When the folk sphere became too trashy, the classical came in. Today, as I was going through the Bangalore museum grounds, I found two hero stones influenced by classical art, as good as any of the pediments in Halebid, while two others were folkish. Similarly, if a contemporary sculptor gets in touch with a folk sculptor, he might learn something.
What took you to the handloom sector in 1958?
While teaching at Baroda, I constantly felt I needed to know more about the practice of handicraft.
Of course, I couldn't last long with a quasi-governmental agency. I resigned after two years, which were very educative.
Apart from seeing how craftsmen suffer, how they are treated, how their issues are not being faced squarely, I had a glimpse of how craft expertise develops, how it is transferred between individuals, how even in a family with people of different talents, a minimum degree of expertise grows. That's interesting.
What counsel did you offer the government while you were with the Handicrafts Board?
My main advice was: "Don't treat our handicrafts and handlooms so lightly. Here are over 30 million people producing functional goods related to a way of life. In their practice they are close to artists, so they are aesthetising the whole environment. If you destroy that way of life in the interests of commerce, you are destroying an essential cultural situation."
How did your mentors at Santiniketan shape you?
I can't spell that out. (Laughs). I can very gratefully acknowledge that many ideas I have matched with theirs. Nandalal, Binode Bihari and Ramkinkar excited our thinking in various ways, though I probably didn't agree with all of it. But I owe a lot to Nandalal.
He thought in terms of a corpus of activities that fed each other. Because of the interworking of the resources that he drew upon, each kind of art expression was respected. Each resource he drew upon had a language of its own. There was something to learn from each language before you thought of a language of your own. I still find that very valuable.
Did you pass on to your students some notions you had inherited from them?
You can only do what you do, and through that show there is a vision somewhere. That's what Nandalal and Binode Bihari did for me. Precept, not practice, was their main intent.
I had no plans. I never tried to teach. If you are too purposeful, you are going to kill yourself and your students. (Smiles, pausing) In fact, I was very nervous when I first began teaching at Baroda. My student contact hours were fairly limited. I'm told by various people that I was a successful teacher. I found that to be with young people, listening to their questions, is itself a great education. The enrichment came only when you thought about these questions.
What has Shantiniketan meant to you, as an artist and an individual?
I joined Kala Bhavan at Shantiniketan in 1944, when it had not become a university.
In that sense, it means a lot to me. In terms of an institution of learning, even though it was not in its heyday,
I could visualize it as a creative community where students and teachers interact, concerned about making something out of this context. After it became a university, the whole thing changed.
Was it like a continuing conversation, an ebb and flow of ideas, before?
In a way, yes. There were no definite categories of people taken in, no degrees given, only a diploma. This contact profited some people, not others. Most came to Santiniketan for a vocation, which is the way it should be.
Santiniketan today is only a vestige of what it was. Yet it has interesting facets. It's far away from the chaotic city of Kolkata. It's a small institution, with an academic community smaller than the population of an average college. And it has various disciplines. There's still a chance somebody can make something of that valuable vestige. But where is that somebody?
How does one sustain such an institution in the modern, competitive world? I have no answer to that. But probably there will always be the right solution when there is the right question.
Today, art is redefining itself through alternate means of expression. Where would you locate yourself within this framework?
There are various kinds of art expression, just as there are various kinds of verbal, oral or written expression. There is a contextual necessity for each. Of course, you can overdo the differences, then make big theories out of it. Just because a few people in the west have thought of a postmodern movement, we follow without fully understanding what they meant.
Some artists are working towards the transformation of material definitions. That can be witty, quite nice, but it doesn't override all the other arts. You might build a sari out of beer bottle caps, but it wouldn't supersede the sculptures of Halebid or Belur.
But then, I'm not against it at all. (Impishly) If you think of folk art as a valid medium, perhaps this is the art of the modern folk.
Your artistic expressions have often been considered cutting-edge, created in the modernist idiom, but questioning westernised fundamentals all along. How would you gauge your engagement with art practice?
I'm not a controversial person. People often ask me: "Why don't you respond to certain questions?" I'd like to answer with an old fable that crops up in the children's books.
A centipede was walking one sunny morning, with its hundred feet or more. An ant, with only six legs, looked at it with annoyance, then asked, "Which one of your legs do you put forward first when you walk?" When the centipede started thinking of this question, it couldn't move!
If you ask an artist questions about how things work within himself, this might happen. (Smiles) So, I refuse to answer that question.
I've gained wonderful insights from your lectures/ writings, yet I feel you've been very cautious in your interpretations. Are there current issues in art that trouble you?
There are no pat answers. I'm still groping. And probably everyone else sees. But that's not to say I won't take a stance if there is a real issue. As a sensible man, I wouldn't want to be too cocksure about these things.
I'd be very disappointed if you were ...
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(The Hindu Sunday Magazine, 2005)