Published in Kala Darshan complete magazine of Indian arts and culture volume 2 no 2 April-June 1989, pp. 9-12.
When separation in the several art media is the current rule, the assorted works of K.G Subramanyan may well appear as quixotism. But, one wonders, if in this case it is really so. The arts of another day were almost a seamless whole, as much as the society to which they belonged was unified in a kind of cultural harmony. With increasing fragmentation things have tended to fly apart in all possible ways. The contemporary arts share in this condition. The various senses specialize and the individual himself claims authority over forbidden preserves of experience.
The state of affairs was perhaps necessary given the dominance of analytical or scientific thought. But now, at long last, the rather too excessively analytical man faces a stupefying desiccation, the drying up of his rasa. Having acquired robust, analytic intellect based characteristics, we nevertheless lately have begun to sense that despite the many material blessings the world is not a sense-making whole, and that our mental or spiritual faculties are not in concert. And pray why? For instance, if when the sense of sight functions in disjunction from the ear, aesthetic efforts certainly remain but are not at high voltage. A complete absorption in experience comes about only with the artist’s, as the viewer’s senses in full harness. This has been true in the context of great theatre, ballet, and the folk arts. With that teacher and artist K.G. Subramanyan, we are perhaps heading towards a fresh synthesis of experience.
What Subramanyan is attempting is not something entirely out of the way, only the revitalizing of tradition. But the pitfalls for the contemporary unifier in the line are very many. He may become maudlin, sentimental, too effusive and disregard the subtlety behind the spirit of the traditional arts. Admitting that danger, of the literal rendering of the folk and the urban traditions, Subramanyan has solid social or aesthetic reasons for attempting the terracotta reliefs and murals.
This is the kind of resurrection and fusion of genres.
The symbols that he often draws on are never forced the occasional human figures that peep out here or there among his compositions are entirely suggestive and evocative. The instinct which drives the artist to wed the purity of high with the earthiness of common life are just. The kind of fusion, in actual feel, is rhythmic and vibrant. Similarly, the way paint is handled by him in his glass paintings make them seem to float, spiral and whirl, like one kind of music, the a-symphonic. In other words, Subramanyan simulates not the movements of pure sound, the sound heard by the inner ear but the one of the human comedy, and that is what visual sound, can too be, to the intently listening ear. The kind of ears almost foreign to modern art. The new age artist does not always hear. The painters and sculptors of another day heard very many meanings or sounds with less trouble. They were perhaps attuned to the wider associations behind passing or sectional experience. We do not possess or have lost their sensibility, their world rapport. All that remains are abstract fragments or denatured scraps or news from fuller states of being. It is for this that Subramanyan’s overall endeavors may be thought to be greater future pertinacity that some far more immediately attractive ones of several of the artists of the passing moment.
Subramanyan does not introduce critical concepts in discussing his work, remaining relaxed and human; and yet, one senses, that behind his painter’s sensitive eye is a vast sifted experience. His association with the artistic ethos of our culture is not common. At any rate we experience reality-our own brand - in several of his terracotas and paintings. These give rise to rhythms that stir our indigenous sensibility, wakening us to unusual states of pleasure, pleasure which is cognitive as much as sensuous. In his more successful later compositions Subramanyan has brought off a fresh mutation in the plastic medium.
The artist’s subtle indirection in speech, despite all the words of his speech. It has no cruelty-shot, pin-pointable denotions, only nuances as can be sensed by those who are not overtly on the defensive. Evidently such harmony, or ease, in the artist’s speech has come of mastering the exhausting complexity of social or phenomenal experience. Behind his last work lies even more empiric as well as theoretic labour. A great deal of selectivity in images has been achieved. He has pruned out designs which are deadened with the passage of time or circumstance. The too obvious, often western cliché has been cut out. And what remains, now, is good silver. Both the simplicity, as well as vitality of the regional forms have been attained, such being the natural unself- conscious bent of this subcontinent.
And of course, these sundry affects are true but only in terms of paint or clay. Considering that the painter is a master also of the art of the world we are the more surprised that in practice he only emphasizes the wordless experience behind the cacophony of the doctrines of this later day.
Subramanyan, as person, is whole. And this comes out very forcefully from his published volumes, like The Moving Focus and The Living Tradition. To have a fuller understanding of the artist, a discussion of these is a must.
Now quite unlike most works of recent scholarships which seem to become rapidly dated in a few years, even the earlier essays of K.G. Subramanyan are as fresh and as timely as when they were written. Emanating from the Shantiniketan tradition, his best essays finally graduate to the moment which is never past, to that present that never withers away. In short, this is the living tradition. Subramanyan’s essays present to the Indian mind a completely rounded exposition of the human development, especially as it concerns art, an exposition as relevant and pertinent to the Indian public as to any other which revers the cultural values and wisdom of a refined ethos.
K.G Subramanyan is one of those who, like Coomaraswamy with ancient art earlier, has opened the eyes of the students of modern art to the language of symbolism, to the relation between art and life, and most of all, to the grounding principles which are reflected in the Indian tradition. Its religious teachings and demography. The appearance of The Living Tradition (Seagull, Calcutta) was a notable event in that it makes us approach our present art history afresh through the intermediary of the literary or other text, or fact and the created artefacts.
In this volume as in the earlier The Moving Focus the author goes minutely into the sources of our knowledge of Indian art. Not historical texts, of which there are not very many in India, but, as said, literary text, plasticarts,architecture, epigraphy, and so on are the author’s point of departure. But without the knowledge of Sanskrit most of the foregoing is foreign territory. And, it is here, Subramanyan’s extraordinary intuitive grasp of tradition and change which enables him to get to the heart of the matter and to decode and interpret meanings which are like Greek to most of us, the rootless Indians. A highly symbolical culture that of India could be understood in its essentials no other way.
Subramanyan’s inner personality is a necessary rebuke to no few of the other Indian artists and critics of the day. But it is not Subramanyan’s wide learning alone which is astonishing, but his acuteness in interpreting facts and ideas of a wide variety. More than a few of us, the so-called schooled, are completely ignorant of who or how we were, but this lack-a lack in, awareness and knowledge - is not a more harmless, lack of information. It also leads to an ignorance or confusion in artistic or social values. The lacuna affects the arts of painting, sculpture, writing, as well the life of man as social creature.
The usefulness of a work like The Living Tradition is, then not for the bookish scholar alone but also for the working artist and generally lettered person but one without grounding in the soil. If there be such rootlessness, how is one supposed to make wise discrimination and considered judgement in the cultural context of a world in dangerous flux? That mind and behavior are intimately related, is commonplace. In other words, to understand the behavior of the Indian man of the day, and which has its history in the imaginative vision, the thought and the symbols of the past, need close reflection. The author-artist helps us in doing so splendidly.
At any rate, what is clear is, that, rural India, poor in many ways, culturally boasts long, fertile stretches of creation in the realm of spirit. The spirit has signed itself indelibly in material objects. This India has created history, even though it did not bother to write it. Now Subramanyan has tried to fill gaps in such understanding by interpretations, not heavy scholarship. He gives us imaginative rather than imaginary, glimpses of the cultural and social life our artisans and craftsmen through the intermediary of our arts. His initial job has been the checking, the rechecking of the cross-reference - from one field to another; life to art, architecture to sculpture to literary material, and much else besides.
The usual thousands of scholar’s facts and references do not stud the pages of Subramanyan’s slender volumes. But never mind this austerity - for the facts are chosen ones, and are linked into discrete realities. His efforts at cultural meaning succeed fully. The Living Tradition is like a mosaic of individual facts, disparate texts of reproductions but which all, collectively, build into a vivid picture of an art or culture that only was, but one still slumbering somewhere in the minds and souls of the present, rather self - forgetful peoples. Subramanyan’s methods of building concepts will be found odd only by those who want sweeping generalisations or pat, immediate relevance to the contemporary period. There is no such thing in this book, but a plain, painstakingly, but deeply intelligent reflection on the pros and cons of whole spectrum of Indian life and art. Light, as to how the craftsmen artists go about their business, illuminating in itself, also bears on the ethics that informs the artistic world of our artisans. Here we learn not only of their but also their close relationship and dependence on poet, and seer; and indeed, it is this mutual relationship of one kind of artist with another, and of the dedication of all to the authentic that defines cultures and civilization.
Subramanyan, so fond of our cultural inheritance is, however, no idealizer, for many are the facts in the life and times of the present day India which he very frankly places before us and go to prove that man can be as much an asura as a deva. No glossing over that whatever.
The cultural processes, or the history of the arts is the inner history of a people. In the end, this is the reality that really matters. In essentials, the folk arts, painting, music, architecture of India embody the vision of rational order. This is a world of imagination, a concentrated one, and it is expressive of the cultures deeper self. The Subramanyan’s thought there appears no attempt to liberate the arts from history or from tradition, as with several other artists. With him growth leads to creative gradualism. No sudden breaks in tradition. With it we have not a startling inventiveness but a steady adherence of wholesome forms and contents.
The richness of K.G.’s reasoning can, therefore, hardly be overrated. One hopes, these few asides reflect something of the insight which he has developed over a life time and pondered over so lovingly. The careful but disarming scholarship displayed in the preparation of his book is itself remarkable, the apt illustrations and sketches, further enhance the value of the reflections.
In the end we must recapitulate that K.G.Subramanyan is one of the very few moderns who has defended the tradition and the common man. The discovery of this still working Indian tradition, in its artistic dimension, is incumbent on all who desire the Indian renaissance. Clearly, Subramanyan will remain a key art figure for long and whose ideas are likely to continue to illuminate the path of those who seek to enlarge the meaning of their own art, K.G. has made old truths re-available. His own art, K.G. as his essays, must particularly be welcomed by all those who are afraid of the spread of a vague modernism and the loose journalistic writing on art and culture. Only minds securely founded on methods and understandings can help a life which has become increasingly empty mere bald quantity value.
Published in Kala Darshan complete magazine of Indian arts and culture volume 2 no 2 April-June 1989, pp. 9-12.