In this last week, two outstanding sons of Kerala passed on. Yet it is only in their passing that key values in their practice appear, like a mirrored, shadow gesture of similarities. In the politicized, yet effervescent cultural scene of India in the 1980s, Kavalam Narayana Panicker, who passed away on June 26 was an exception. Along with BV Karanth and Ratan Thiyam, KN Panicker formed a triumvirate of avant garde theatre directors, who thrived on interpreting the classical within the contemporary. Nearly a hundred years ago about 13 plays by the 2nd century Sanskrit writer, Bhasa, were discovered, changing forever Kerala’s dramaturgical history. Recasting Bhasa’s ancient theatre texts like Madhyamavyayog, Dootavakyam and Bhagavatajukyam. Panicker addressed questions of identity and location. He confidently asserted the aesthetics of the Malabar region, rejecting the use of proscenium theatre and raised, in his theatre, an ethical dimension to issues of power and family duty. In this narrative of the 20th century as a period of transition from the classical to the contemporary KG Subramanyan, who passed away on June 29, occupies a special place.
A towering figure, Subramanyan walked alongside his forebears of Santiniketan-Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherji and Ramkinker Baij-and then outstripped them by the sheer determined stamina of his practice. From the 1960s for the next five decades, KGS produced a formidable body of work, exhibited through regular intervals at Alkazi’s Art Heritage, before moving into a broader market practice. Born in Kerala in 1924 and jailed for six months for student politics, Subramanyan was spotted by KCS Panicker and then encouraged by DP Roychowdhury. It was at Santiniketan and his tutelage under the three masters that allowed him to come into his own. Although Subramanyan assisted Benode Behari Mukherji in his epic mural, Lives of Saints at Santiniketan, his painting was to soon develop an individual style and character that absorbed the spirit of Tagore’s vision with an intellectual and artistic cosmopolitanism that subsumed local colour. In fact in his later work, the carry away from Santiniketan appears to be small town influence - of ennui and the scrutiny and voyeurism of the neighbourhood, the slow pace of an unfolding summer and the collision of desire and incidental domestic detail.
On this template of the seemingly innocuous, Subramanyan was to posit almost like a loose, unintentional conversation, one of the sharpest artistic responses to our time. The other artist of his generation, Maqbool Fida Husain, who responded with alacrity to events as they occurred usually settled on history as notation that bore gestures of the heroic, the tragic and on occasion, the ludicrous. Subramanyan’s engagement with the contemporary moment has been much more visceral and politically charged. In works like The City is not for Burning (1993), Chhinnamasta (1991) and Best Bakery, the incendiary communal situation of Bombay-Gujarat is suggested, in which play seems to slip easily into a brutal, gratuitous violence.
Over nearly five decades, Subramanyan developed a flat edgy style that seemed part Kirchner, part generic folk, part a drawing style that balanced volume with a highly graphic line. It is an accommodating style and it has served him well, partly to subvert and subsume the great Indian tradition with its myths, and smaller ‘little traditions’ to which he addressed so much of his art. Goddesses full of a righteous sexual charge appear like girls at play; the buffalo demon slinks about like a neighbourhood stray. Indeed the vigour with which he addressed the Weaver’s Centre enterprise, toy making and terracotta as a scalable medium, reveals a committed engagement to the cottage industries and domestic arts. Even after he moved to Baroda and spent his life working and living there, Subramanyan cast his work in Purvapalli, his locality in Santiniketan, which served him as a microcosm of the world. It is a world in which he worked with what he described as “Pollock’s splatter, Sam Francis’s drools, the fields of Olitski, Mondrian’s boogie-woogie with squares and rectangles…” Equally it is a world cast in the mysteries of childhood memory, where the everyday can mark the unseen, a world of conformities and contrasts and strange ambivalences. In this mix, he concludes, “I never thought of modernism as a value or manner, only as a new cultural situation. It superseded nothing as some people thought. So I consider its doctrinal stances and postulates limited.”(1991)
Subramanyan belonged to that stream of artists - others being Abanindranath Tagore and Jagdish Swaminathan - who were adept at writing on their own art through a heightened discourse on intentions and methods. In his case, the incipient conflicts within Indian modernism seem to be swiftly swept aside by his many energetic forays into the dimensions of his practice - drawings, paintings on glass and canvas, murals and relief sculptures and his writing. Writing on his tutelage under Nandalal, Benode Bihari and Ramkinker and their work processes, Subramanyan wrote “My working process follows these models to a greater or lesser extent. I analyse what I see and break them into building blocks, then recompose them.” Speaking on his practice and this element of fracture his painting Krishen Khanna says “he developed a language, the basis of which was geometry that was unique to him.” Indeed the loose grids that he created in his painting and sculpture, serve Subramanyan as windows to look into, an editing device that allows for the multiplicity of narrative, much as in a Mughal miniature of the Akbari period, placing the viewer in the position of a voyeur, facing swiftly opening doors and windows. In his busy intensely peopled world, the view that he offers is not a narrative but a series of encounters, scarcely aware of their own significance.
The extent of Subramanyan’s legacy is difficult to gauge because of its sheer energetic spread. He stood outside the modernist group formations that lent many of his peers’ then collective identity. Rather his constituencies were the institutions that that he led, Santiniketan and Baroda, and his influential writing that will continue to mystify, inform and charm successive generations.