The Political Works of K. G. Subramanyan

Compact and well designed, Art Heritage gallery in Triveni Kala Sangam evokes a sense of thrilled anticipation as one walks into KG Subramanyan’s show. Quotes by KG Subramanyan and eminent art critics regarding his art practice abound. I immerse myself in the poetry and art of Subramanyan and meet Mrs. Amal Allana, the director of Art Heritage, who is also the curator of this show, over a cup of coffee.

1.Could you tell me more about the title? It’s very Wordsworthian.

It’s actually a quote from KG Subramanyan. Just like Wordsworth was the poet of the common man, Subramanyan was the people’s artist. He wanted to transform the real into an icon. The show is about the masses and art transforms the real into something that is so elegant and profound. There is a tremendous amount of lyricism and music in his works, much like the folktales and myths that he sought inspiration from.

2. What was it that urged you to have this particular show?

What interested me was that we should re-assess and re-look at his work. When he worked in his heyday, Indian art was still finding its identity. There was a very different context that enmeshed his works. But times have changed. Different times bring different perspectives and even though he talked about his own time, they will resonate differently today. I wanted to find out what his works mean to us today. Yes, he was taking his imagery from mythological beings like avengers who fight for justice. How was he critiquing the times he lived through his art? This I thought would be very interesting and relevant to look into. It’s all couched in a different visual language and not replicating the real at all. He’s talking about the kind of anguish that he feels about how from Gandhian times what we have become now. So these are things which one needs to talk about, the kind of integrated society that Gandhi was trying to build.

3. Subramanyan’s borrowed a lot from Gandhi and Tagore. What was he trying to do with his artwork when he borrowed the ideologies of these two stalwarts?

In Gandhi’s and Tagore’s time, Indians were black Englishmen. In my opinion, Subramanyan was not a Tagorean but a Gandhian. You have to see his work contextualized in the handloom and handicrafts board for example. He was on these boards. He didn’t think that the artist was entitled to live a free, bohemian life to live and explore possibilities. He disagreed with it. He believed that the artist was just an artisan. He was just a man who was imbibing a tradition from his forefathers. He was therefore against the whole concept of an art market. He thought that art was very much of the people, by the people, and for the people, that it was just an ordinary activity. He had a very earthy kind of connection, a very Shantiniketan connection.

4. How does Subramanyan’s brand of modernism work? What of the human condition? Because traditional literary modernism is more about withdrawing into yourself and introspecting rather than going out and observing the world.

Subramanyan’s artistic sensibility is much more objective. He may have been pained by what was going around him but it didn’t come off as pain when he drew dismembered bodies. The subjective-objective balance is what he is after in all his works. It’s very Brechtian in that sense where he is engaged and also distanced himself.

5. There are a lot of dismembered bodies, naked, vulnerable women, multiple organs in his paintings. What do these things symbolize in his paintings?

Subramanyan was horrified by the violence that was within us. In his paintings, the woman is continually being ravaged. It is very disturbing to see because at the same time there’s a monkey sitting on a branch or a bird chirping somewhere in the painting. This is his type of political and modernist engagement.

6. Is there a running narrative in the black and white panel that runs across an entire wall of the gallery?

He’s talking about how both objects and ideas are now relegated to becoming relics. These are our relics because we no longer understand their meanings. They have all become iconized. An icon can be either open or closed. So these have become closed icons or closed chapters because they no longer have the impact that they should have and what they formerly had. So now we have to wage this war on the relics to unearth them. The images that he has used in the panels are staid images, in the sense that you can see that they’re not active. This is a static wall. If you see his other works, there’s a lot of movement. Here you will see one image plastered against the other in order to form a monumental, closed mine that offers no meaning or treasures, for that matter.

Seeking a Poetry in the Real as an exhibition comprises his paintings, as well as his poetry and sculptures with helpful commentaries that supplement one’s understanding about each period in KG Subramanyan’s artistic career. The show is not only educationally comprehensive but also extremely enjoyable to all those who would like to understand and witness the synthesis of art, literature, politics, and life.

Seeking a Poetry of the Real: The Political Works of KG Subramanyan is on till December 30th, 2017, at Art Heritage Gallery, Triveni Kala Sangam, New Delhi.

All images used with permission.