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The Legacy of Activist, Author, and Indian Modernist Artist K. G. Subramanyan

K. G. Subramanyan (photo courtesy Naveen Kishore)
K. G. Subramanyan (photo courtesy Atul Dalmia)

On June 29, K. G. Subramanyan, a deeply influential figure within the modern and contemporary Indian art world, passed away at the age of 92. A wave of tributes from students, artists, and writers across generations and geographies flooded social media news feeds. Rarely does the death of an art world figure prompt the telling of so many stories and anecdotes, and not only from those who were close to him, but also from those of us who had encountered him through his writing, art, and activism. To those who knew him well, this outpouring of grief was not surprising.

Subramanyan (or “Mani da,” as he was widely known) — who in 2012 received India’s second-highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan — had a deep-rooted sense of humanity. As an activist and a Gandhian, he was very active in India’s freedom struggle. Born in Kerala in 1924, he first completed a degree in economics from the Presidency College in Chennai before graduating from the Kala Bhavan art school in Santiniketan in 1948. He studied under Benode Behari Mukherjee, Nandalal Bose, and Ramkinkar Baij.

K. G. Subramanyan, "KGS26," gouache on paper, 22 x 29 in (courtesy the Seagull Foundation for the Arts)
K. G. Subramanyan, “KGS26” (undated), gouache on paper, 22 x 29 in (all images courtesy the Seagull Foundation for the Arts, unless indicated otherwise) (click to enlarge)

As an artist, Mani da was prolific and remained relevant through India’s modern art period and into the contemporary era, unlike many of his mentors and peers. His enduring impact across generations has a lot to do with how he articulated his sharp, candid politics within the spaces of art and activism (including being jailed for six months when he was student politician). Rather than looking exclusively to history or postulating imagined futures as a way to navigate forms of nationalism, regionalisms, and local mythologies as identity-building, Mani da was always of the moment. His works have a flat, edgy style, with bold lines that contain a formalism merged fine, craft, and folk art to erase any kind of hierarchy or privileging of a particular style. He elevated toy-making and terracotta, for instance, into scalable media, and he worked closely with other cottage industries as part of his commitment to engaging with the many locals who make up the global. His grid-like structures allow for a multiplicity of narratives — as if he understood that histories are but anecdotes, each with its own biases that we must acknowledge.

Mani da’s extensive writings come from a place where the intellect is articulated in simple language, conveying thought processes that are highly instinctive and profound. Without resorting to jargon or the tone of inaccessibility that a lot of academic writing on culture take, Mani da proposed ways of thinking through subjects that still dominate discourses in the context of the local and global, including the White Gaze, hegemonic historical narratives, and culture as a space to discuss the political.

K. G. Subramanyan, "The City is not for Burning" (1993), oil on canvas, 48 x 48 in (courtesy the Seagull Foundation for the Arts)
K. G. Subramanyan, “The City is not for Burning” (1993), oil on canvas, 48 x 48 in (click to enlarge)

His writings give a sense of the integrity with which he held his convictions — with openness rather than a myopic, binary perception of art world roles — coupled with a sense of humility in how he delivered his ideas to an audience. In the lecture “The Art Language,” presented to the Philosophy Study Circle at Visva-Bharati University in 1987 (and published in 2007), he said:

In a theoretical sense, a sensitive artist can subsist and function all by himself in his private world, even if he is surrounded by apathetic and insensitive people, if he does not rue his isolation and lack of appreciation and reward. But, certainly, it is not the best of situations. No art that grows like a lonely desert flower in the midst of barrenness can survive in the long run, let alone flourish; to do so, it needs around it the presence of an art language (and, so, a wide presence of art practice and connoisseurship); this alone will nourish an artist’s total sensibility. And if he on his part can infiltrate into its various channels, as much as his talent will permit, it will not only broaden the spectrum of his sensibility but enrich the environment as well. This is not to advise any artist to make any compromises, but only to spread himself out.

In a competitive art world system that often perpetuates (and perhaps even necessitates) clear-cut distinctions between the roles of cultural producers, Mani da’s words can provide much needed clarity.

K. G. Subramanyan, "Windows 1" (1968), acrylic on board, 53.5 x 53.5 in
K. G. Subramanyan, “Windows 1” (1968), acrylic on board, 53.5 x 53.5 in (click to enlarge)

Recollecting on his relationship with Mani da, Naveen Kishore — the founder of the Seagull Foundation for the Arts (an independent publisher in Calcutta) and the person responsible for compiling and publishing many of Mani da’s writings and lectures — recounted his intimate insights. In a letter Kishore wrote to the artist and shared with me, he commented on Mani da’s interaction with a student:

the manner in which you gently and with great humor guided the young lad through his computer images was a lesson in education. Teaching has a humaneness that is now completely lost. Teachers talk down these days. They do not ‘include.’ Nor do they ‘raise’ the students to a level where self-worth and self-assurance and, yes, self-knowledge reside. They dampen and intimidate and therefore ‘command’ obedience. Not your way at all. I would go so far as to say that your every critical utterance is a blessing because it holds within it a ‘way,’ a ‘corrective’ measure, the ‘possibility’ of doing something differently, ‘insights’ into approaching one’s shortcomings in a positive sense; in other words, the way forward.

Mani da also wrote children’s books with narratives that dealt with broad, sometimes-difficult topics. Through simple storytelling, they provide humanistic insights into the grander sociopolitical narratives of history. These books were not only intended to help young readers understand their country’s many histories, but also to appeal to adult readers prone to losing themselves to cynicism. In another letter to Mani da, Kishore captured his unique ability to appeal to the child-like sensibilities of readers of all ages:

I wish I could express in words the ‘sense of pleasure’ you emanate when sharing ideas. It must have something to do with the connection one feels with one’s ‘child’-self. Let me explain: I think our best ideas are those that appeal to the ‘child’ in us. The ‘wonder’ that resides in that part of our head and heart that has quietly and safely protected those qualities of innocence and awe that children have. A quality that never loses its sheen or luster. Because it refuses to ‘grow up.’ Refuses to let anything other than the purely intuitive rejoice at every pleasurable idea!

K. G. Subramanyan, "Ochre Room" (1967), acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 in
K. G. Subramanyan, “Ochre Room” (1967), acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 in (click to enlarge)

Writing about her experience of Mani da’s New Works series in his 2014 retrospective at the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad, art historian Sita Reddy captured the essence of his artistic practice. She wrote:

If there is one story narrated through New Works, it spills far beyond process or period or biographical detail, although the drawings and murals do describe particular episodes and encounters in the artist’s year. What is in fact being told — drawn, painted, etched — is a resonant tale, a fable, filled with juxtapositions of the real and the mythical, the fantastic and the demonic, the sacred and the profane, the fabulous and the everyday. And as always, K.G. Subramanyan’s work rarely disappoints, always surprises, and never leaves one cold. This is contemporary narrative art at its evocative and mature best, touching some universal core of what it means to be human, with its contradictions of suffering and joy, passion and paralysis, attachment and death.

Mani da’s work and legacy will remain relevant for generations to come. They teach us how, as cultural producers, we can incorporate the humanistic and intuitive ethos as we navigate the space of art.

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