When an artist’s career spans several decades as the 90-year-old K.G. Subramanyan’s does, it is bound to have several phases of change, when his ideas, style, materials used and even media would have undergone gradual but radical transformations. These transformations, however, would be so unhurried and subtle that a bird’s eye view of his trajectory as an artist would give art-lovers an understanding of these distinct phases. Only a retrospective can give viewers a clear idea of these continuous changes and also of the many influences that this artist has been able to absorb without ever denying his past or compromising his individuality. Unlike many young contemporary artists of today, Subramanyan has successfully embraced world culture and is yet rooted in traditions.

His recently-concluded exhibition of paintings commemorating the 25th anniversary of Galerie 88, titled Mythologies, once again celebrates his voracious appetite for all influences foreign and indigenous. Picasso, Matisse, patachitras, bazaar prints, African masks and Tanjore paintings are all there now, and they make comebacks over and over again, every time in a new avatar. Many of the familiar faces, deities and mythologies and milieus make an appearance once again, and one has to examine each painting painstakingly to discern and examine what Subramanyan appropriates and what he discards.

Subramanyan has for this series used ramie paper, which has a greyish tone, and his bright palette -golden yellow, orange, green, sky blue - stands out against this drab backdrop. He has peopled his works with familiar deities, their vehicles, and mythical creatures but they come alive in the most unfamiliar and unorthodox situations and circumstances. Thus a multi-armed deity (could be a calendar) occupies as much wallspace (and even more) as the photographs of members of the family - a permanent fixture in every middle-class Indian household.

Grimalkin has her day as she and her companion make short work of the fish they have laid their paws on, Kalighat pat style. Photographs/portraits on the wall look elsewhere, as they should do. But in one painting, a man cannot take his eyes off the bottom of an odalisque lying on her stomach. In another painting, a woman, literally as light as the air, with flowers in her hands, hovers over a table groaning under the weight of a vase and huge fish.

As in much of our folk art, there is a strong decorative element in all of Subramanyan’s compositions but he does not use this for mere embellishment. They give an ironic edge to his works just in the same way that the deities and fantastic creatures do when they make an appearance in otherwise realistic situations, blurring the line between the real and the irreal. If we examine his career, Subramanayan is always breaking down boundaries that we conventionally erect between the folk and the hieratic, between global cultures and geographical confines. Speaking of the bahurupees, Subramanyan said: “...they strike heroic poses and break into loud dialogue and action, between these village boys and the mythical stereotypes a new reality is born. Mixing the normal with the hieratic, the worldly with the unworldly...”

He began as a modernist rejecting our past, and as art historian R. Siva Kumar writes in the catalogue essay, “saw traditions as dead legacies and stipulated purity of means for each art form on the basis of its medium and forbade all forms of contaminating overlaps between art forms”. The influence of Picasso and Matisse is quite clear in his early works.

As he matured as an artist, he did a volte-face and embraced whatever came his way. From then onwards, nothing was sacred, nothing was inviolate. He made toys with both wood and leather, which is rather unusual in our country. In a recent talk, Jogen Chowdhury, who observed Subramanyan from close quarters during the many years he spent in Santiniketan, said, “Manida”, as he is popularly known, had certain traits in common with Nandalal. The latter’s style was realistic in Calcutta but in Santiniketan it underwent a change. He incorporated elements from Japanese drawing, and when he made sketches of Santhals and animals, they were very organic.

Subramanyan too is a highly skilled draughtsman and anatomy is his strong point. So each part of a body would have the freedom of moving independently like a puppet, the talpatar sepai still sold in Santiniketan. So the drawings are both facile and have an inherent decorative element. Even when he distorts his drawings, they do not violate the rules of construction.

Published in The Telegraph, 2014
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