First Padma Shri, then Padma Bhushan and recently, Padma Vibhushan! Prof. K G Subramanyan has received all these awards! Is there any other contemporary Indian artist who has received such national honour?
It was such a pleasure to hear him speak recently at a function organized by the Association of British Scholars, Vadodara chapter! The event was organised to felicitate him on this extraordinary achievement, as well as his recently completed monumental work on murals on the buildings at the Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan.
Lest we forget, Prof. Subramanyan, or Manida or Mani Sir as he is more popularly known, is 88 years old.
For those who came in late, here is a quick recap on who Mani Sir is. Prof. K G Subramanyan was born in 1924 in Kerala. While studying economics at the Presidency College, Madras, he got influenced by the Gandhian ideology, became active in the freedom srtuggle , was caught and jailed by British rulers.
The turning point of his life, as an artist, came in 1944 when he visited Santiniketan to study at Kala Bhavan, the fine art faculty of Visva Bharti University.
He studied here till 1948 under the tutelage of such pioneers of modern Indian art as Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij.
In 1951, he joined the Faculty of Fine Arts at the M.S. University in Vadodara as a lecturer and later became Dean of the Faculty before he left for Santiniketan in 1980.
Along with sculptor, Prof. Sankho Chaudhuri, he initiated the famous Fine Arts Fair at Vadodara in 1962. He went to study briefly in London at the Slade School of Art as a British Council scholar in 1956 and also did a short stint in New York as a Rockfeller Fellow in 1966.
From 1980 onwards, he taught at Santiniketan, his alma mater, as professor in painting, until he retired in 1989. In the same year he was made a Professor Emeritus of Visva Bharati.
A true Renaissance Man, Prof. Subramanyan is as revered as an artist as he is as a teacher, writer, commentator, historian, art theoretician, illustrator and writer.
His chief contribution as a theorist has been the rigorous re-contextualization of Western theories and practices in the Indian or Oriental context. Also, for pointing out the fundamental differences between the Western and Indian social realities, namely the perception of art/craft in Indian artistic traditions!
As an artist he is known as one of its most versatile practitioners, having done works, apart from painting, in the traditions of mural, toy-making, pottery, printmaking, glass-painting, illustration and design and terracotta sculpture. His paintings are noted for their inherent wit, irony, satire and critical social commentary.
Indrapramit Roy, currently lecturer in the Painting Department at the Faculty of Fine Arts here and a former student of Mani Sir gave a concise yet very warm introduction to the multi-faceted, talented man, who he compared to a vast banyan tree, sheltering many in its huge branches, dropping roots everywhere, providing shade yet allowing a lot of plants to grow under and around it. What better analogy could there be for a man living in ‘Vadodara’ city?
Mani Sir began his talk rather emotionally as well as appropriately, speaking about how he missed the late Ranjitsinh Gaekwad in the present audience. He spoke warmly of the ‘king’ who had once been his student, especially of his humility.
He went on to speak about the difficulty of teaching art, how both Tagore and his own teacher, Nandalal Bose, believed that art cannot really be taught. You can teach the craft and the skills, but how these techniques must be harnessed to be brought out as art depends totally on the art student/artist.
He also concisely summarized the kaleidoscopic changes in the development of contemporary Indian art over the last six decades – the questions that artists in the forties and fifties asked themselves constantly: How can Indian art be Indian? How do we ‘re-discover’ ourselves? Then, finding that you can’t really ‘re-discover’ everything and understanding that you need to move ahead and letting the past be; the period of Purism in art when painters only painted and sculptors sculpted.
“When I started studying art, there was just art,” he laughed, “Now everybody does everything; installation, graffiti! If maybe all of us vandalize the whole world, it might become better! That’s where I am at the moment. This is the thought that is reflected in the murals that I have done over the last two decades on selected buildings at Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan.”
He went on to explain, “Bengal is a curious place, where you rarely see a plain wall – they are either scribbled with election slogans, advertisement messages, or interesting patterns of cow-dung pats! I liked the idea of creating art in the environment. People will go ‘out’ and see it instead of going ‘in’ a gallery. Most of the buildings in Santiniketan, especially when we see them together, were quite ordinary – so I thought I should do something here that would stand out. That’s how the idea of black and white murals came to me.”
The project was finished in two phases - in 1991-92 and 2004-05. The weather in Santiniketan is not the best one can get and after the murals were finished, a lot of questions regarding their ‘permanence’ came up. Would they survive this climate? How long would they last? That brought Mani Sir to an important issue – “It is not only enough to keep the art alive, but also the artist alive. When one creates a work of art, one should not really think of its permanence, though I know many artists look upon their works as their children. If it is damaged or destroyed, we should do it again.”
However, the community at Kala Bhavan thought differently and an extra project was added later, where the building was covered in fired terracotta tiles that were earlier painted by the artist, to assure a more permanent environmental artwork, which the climate and natural forces would not affect as much.
The talk by Prof. Subramanyan was followed by the slide show of the murals, watched in an almost stunned silence by an audience which was quietly astounded by an untiring 88-year old man, climbing up scaffoldings, an orthopaedic belt around his back, a bamboo hat on his head to keep off the unrelenting Santiniketan sun, as he worked creating the amazing black and white murals that must now be the highlight of the Santiniketan campus.
Though Santiniketan is close to his heart and he visits it at least once every year, it is an honour for Vadodara that Mani Sir has decided to return and settle here in our midst.