K B Goel Archives

Subramanyan, a teacher of artists, who invented a personal narrative in miniature format.

K.G. Subramanyan, whose works in miniature format (done on primed paper in gouache) are displayed at the Centre for Contemporary Art, is a teacher of artists; a status no painter can claim since the death of Nandalal Bose.

After Bose, only Subramanyan assumed the role of teacher and savant whose influence on the art scene of the seventies and eighties is comparable to that of Bose’s during the thirties and early forties. It will be adequate to draw a parallel in terms of the symbolic equation between these two teacher-savants.

Today Subramanyan has become the true symbol of the postmodern condition, the symbolic equation between the role of a savant and the uncertainties that engulf him as a painter. In the context of Nineties, this is seen in constant translation of the truth embodied in the symbol. And the theory of the symbol implies as much: as a constant translation the symbol, read as a representation of the unconscious, implicates a static model, for there is a constant drive towards identification of the sources of the unconscious with the symbol. This is the kind or identification Dora had to go through during analysis by Freud and suffered much because identification with the analyst obstructed her emotional progress.

Perhaps Subramanyan did not suffer the way Dora suffered, because he had a similar relationship with Nandalal Bose, his teacher at Shantiniketan. He was saved because his identification was not total and hence he could cut out the process of infinite substitutions by replacing the need for the subconscious symbol by another idea. He split the symbol from within and became free from the schema’s powerful set of conventions.

Modernism undermined his links with the symbolic order as represented by Shantiniketan; that view of modernism which was very much about the unintelligibility of experience as it was actually felt to occur. He embraced the implied insecurity of modernism; a more recent response to this insecurity has been christened ‘postmodernism’ because modernism failed in its attempts at devising a total aesthetic erasure of the symbolic. The postmodern exists in the real time of experience, which is open-ended and basically incomplete; it believes in the manifest intelligibility of surfaces.

Subramanyan admits as much: “As you grow old, the world grows over you, becoming more precious. Its open face is its own mystery. You need not seek it within.” For, according to him, the fact of it being a mystery is the fable. Which is to say that claims of originality are as much a fiction as the origin of this earth- originality conceived as an absolute beginning the moment before which nothing happened?

“The common is not so common. It is a simple enough vision, but it reconciles the near and the far. You cannot catch it with a standard sleight of hand.” says Subramanyan. So he is given to inventing devices. This long background is necessary in order to understand the devised technique of this great devisor. The works displayed provide an eloquent insight into the grammar of post-modernism, for, according to the artist, who identifies modernism with “that push towards purism that sense of creative exclusiveness or starting on a clean slate... the great wave of modernism is over.” The slate was never as clean as modernism claims it was. For, as Subramanyan says, “What you do is never so novel except at the time of doing”, because at the end of the process one meets only anxiety, the fear that what one has done might have been done already by others.

The sources of the anxiety are this; it is the same self that one falls back upon, the same sources of creativity. What is different are the moments of transition, the temporal reorganization of the past experience. A self that has identified itself with the present looks at the past as a work of memory. The present is always a source of anxiety, the awareness of being in a condition of instability, the past, a source of stability.

The stability-instability syndrome has its fable-like weave in the mid-life crisis, of which the ideal representation is Samuel Beckett’s career. A way out of the crisis situation for him was to resort to autobiographical writing. The reading of the past became, in the new mode, a method for achieving stability in the present. Reading and writing became a correlated activity, a form of dialogue between two versions of the authorial self. Like Beckett, for whom reading meant considering or explaining something obscure or mysterious, Subramanyan looked at the works constituting his tradition. He re-appropriated them through interpretation into his work. For him, art is seen as a form of dialogue between two authorial selves. With the overarching mental faculty of imagination mediating between them, re-appropriation of the old master and assimilation of him into his work are now not two activities but an interdependent one. We call this inter-dialogue the mediation between an earlier and a later self; and the four works, all of them called Homage to Mansur are the product of this inter-dialogue.

The inter-dialogue with an old master gives to these paintings a historical dimension. The results are pleasantly eccentric, but they open up a new episteme in the Foucaldian sense of the term. Subramanyan is attracted to Mansur, the Persian painter who came to India at the invitation of Emperor Jehangir.

“I want to bring together the icon and the real thing,” says Subramanyan drawing attention to two references. Mansur is denotative of the painter who came to Jehangir’s court; his work is identified with naturalistic painting which he first introduced in India. The iconic reference is about the denotative form of naturalism. This is the subject of Subramanyan’s paintings on the Mansur theme.

The Mansur paintings are acts of erasure and yet the historical iconological reference remains. For, the functional essence of an icon is that it should be interpretable on the basis of recognitional abilities alone.

Acrobat, another painting by him, illustrates this well; we could recognise Picasso and the acrobats in the picture. The historical reference is obvious; Picasso painted several pictures on the theme of acrobats and circus clowns before he arrived at Cubism.

Similarly he presents three versions of the short story, ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi.’ While in the Mansur paintings the central focus is erasure of naturalism, in Shatranj Ke Khiladi the focus is on the degree of cultural relativity and decadence one associates with the game. The decadence weaves itself into images with a life of their own but the mode of narration used is to make the miniaturist context explicit-the mode of metonymy sets up an interaction between part and whole.

What appears composed in one self-interior is decomposed or re-composed in another.

The strategy is to delay the progress of metonymy by a long detour; the quest becomes a labyrinth, for it is about somethingwhich does not exist in the referential outside world. The narration seeks to invalidate any insight into a personal past, for the quest is for a subject-oriented intention which is the source of personal presence. It focuses attention on the act of painting and the picture disappears behind its non-referential signifiers. This is because for Subramanyan there is no finished picture that would imply both the end of the project and the last word that can be said about it.

The work thus remains in process, unfinished, tentative. It refuses to realise its full meaning because with every correction, the final erasure draws nearer. The surrealists had a similar project; they sought to destroy the distinction between art and reality and they thought they had succeeded in their mission. As a final gesture they turned the process of destruction against surrealism itself. Subramanyan, I am sure has no such surrealistic ambitions but his art comes close to a neo-surrealistic aspect of post-modernism.

Published in the Economic Times.
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