K. G. Subramanyan
  3 - 25 December 2003


Catalogue essay by Kamala Kapoor


Certain apprehensions are inevitable when it comes to writing about an artist one has neither met nor corresponded with in a long time. Especially if he happens to be K. G. Subramanyan, a thinker, a writer, a teacher and a scholar who, is also a muralist and a sculptor, a set designer and a maker of toys and much else.  An artist one has held in awe these many years---since first meeting him when he was a teacher at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda. 

The exhibition of his recent 30/21.5 cms reverse paintings in gouache and oils on plastic sheets, had been slated in Mumbai for next month, following close on the heels of his retrospective show: “K.G. Subramanyan: A Retrospective”( NGMA, New Delhi and Mumbai, early 2003 ), a culmination of an extraordinarily productive 40 years. The traps of nostalgia and selective memory would have to be avoided, as would the temptation of referring back to the writing (with one exception) on and by him, the latter putting to shame a great deal of the critical writing of the past few decades. Keying into these publications would make one’s own writing even more anxious with the worried anticipation of criticism, of making mistakes, of missing the woods for the trees so to speak. 

Armed with the one definitive exception: Shiv Kumar’s book published in conjunction with the retrospective and with colour photographs of the works, one has taken on writing on the artist’s paintings with the hope of reflecting something of their intensity and verve, of meeting some standard of cognitive precision without the text getting too thick with second guessing.

For the last 20 years Subramanyan has been living in Shantiniketan, West Bengal, a once upon a time rural idyll that has changed over the years to a much sought after satellite suburb—of Calcutta. Fashionable weekend homes have more or less replaced the domed and thatched Santhal mud huts that once dotted the landscape. Both the huts and their inhabitants have either been transmogrified or pushed into whatever hinterland that remains.

Subramanyan’s paintings have long reflected both this transition and its outcome. If the tug between the two worlds still exists, it has to be sought out between the lines so to speak. Once found, it becomes a tangible presence. For example, the urban, quotidian environment is what affects the artist’s quickened forms at first sight. Then the dunes and shallows of the Shantiniketan countryside, it’s vegetation and creatures, it’s rainbows and it’s ponds get registered between the forest of gestures. And as the artist’s dramatis personae jostle for a piece of the action, every thing gets turned on it’s head: the sublime and the ridiculous shake hands while the profane lurks in the wings like a *dakin.

His swift images, often ironic and quirky, sometimes cartoonish, have a charge that touches the primordial sensors of the psyche. Symbolic and affective sources of cultural identification, his references, sometimes mythic, at others urban, have remained archetypes of his own pictorial imagination. At the same time, conjectures on his consolidation of images and construction, through influences such as Matisse and Picasso, would not be entirely far fetched. Nor would his jewel sharp colours that recall Byzantine iconicity and splendour---particularly in his reverse glass paintings.

Most of the time the compulsive synergy of his line and colour have a life that is indispensable to the subject being portrayed. The seemingly loose and certainly lively stroke that can even be lush, engages one further as the artist brings together his ‘waywardly’ real and imaginary images in a kind of graphic, at times subversive projection, caught mid-shot, then fractured in it’s dispersions.   

The resulting rhythms and interrupting accents of the images generated, have the intricacy of complex musical scores--- Carnatic perhaps, a form the artist heard through childhood when he attended concerts with his father who, was a connoisseur of Carnatic music. Born and brought up in Kerala, he belongs to the Tamil Brahmin community known for their considerable cultural interests, particularly in music. Theater could be another approximation as the young Subramanyan used to accompany his mother ---who had a fondness for the performing arts—to the performances of harikatha singers and the productions of itinerant theatre groups. #

The stories in his paintings are wall to wall as in certain Indian fresco painting conventions of the past. But even as he employs traditional painterly devices, transposing inherited narrative methods into his current practice, he neutralizes a great deal of art history. One can expect to find some of his colour pitches in the neon-lit flashes of an up-town discotheque for instance. Or even on some intense palette of psychedelic emanations, updating his urban references.

Nothing remains as it is, the constant flux of colour and image creates digressions and apostasies of a sort, stretching in every direction before looping back to the push and pull occurring at it’s very heart where the action is, or was, a moment ago. Can the artist’s paintings be construed as depictions of social milieus or even problems? Are they proposing solutions? Certainly the subjects appear fictionalized, their emotional ramifications opened up. There is a plot, a dialogue, and a sense of drama that takes us inside the characters.

In nos. 1, 3 and 4 of the “Midnight Blues” series, for instance, the drama turns more overt with the dynamics that support ostensible subject matter in enactments verging on the sado-masochistic where, masked men brandish knives as women hurtle for cover. On the other hand in nos. 5 and 7 of the same series, the artist, a master at distilling moments of enigma and uncertainty from a commonplace gesture, expression or pose, tracks subtle gradations between melancholy and regret. Throughout there is a sense of the erotic limned with dark menace, but the physical contortions appear to emanate as if from the theater of the absurd.

K.G. Subramanyan’s art which has so far been “outward looking”, according to Shiv Kumar in his book, and has focused on “issues of perception and language, or with themes belonging to public or historical spaces”, has now begun to turn inwards. “So far his mind had entered his work largely as reason and intelligence, dismantling and re-articulating perceptual facts at a representational level. Now his mind was entering his pictures as an imagination that read stories and dreams into the perceptual”.

Are these “Midnight Blues” series, then voyeuristic reflections of life’s contradictory spirit, of all that is somewhat abortive in sex and passion and in its attendant anxieties and romantic yearnings? Or are these special tragic-comic performances, punctuated by small ironies, staged for the amusement of the artist himself? Which comes first: passion and perversion, or loneliness and longing? Could the works be radiating confrontations between life’s energies that are being celebrated one moment and threatened the next? Is the same thing happening to the encounters between humanity, nature and culture?

In inter-plays that thread their way like a leitmotif through the artist’s tableaux vivants, each character insulated in its own personality, creates it’s own visual puns. The image, now positive, now negative, is constantly disrupted. Implied is a symbolic splitting and dividing of the individual, a complex duality that permeates a great deal of Subramanyan’s work.

Take the several versions of the “Mirror” series, where, alternate states of mind and mood are explored. In these, narcissistic pleasures and disillusionments take centre stage, as dreams and desires, work their way under the lacquered skin of the paint work, barely able to conceal the protagonist’s mutual zones of vulnerability. The act of seeing is played with, almost manipulated. Even so, as in nature, even the most careful constructions often culminate in chaos, suggesting the futility of the human pursuit for predictable meaning and order

His still life studies are compositionally somewhat more contained and pictorially structured. Whimsically geometricized and perspectivised, they propose, like the rest of his paintings, a riveting mix of the waywardly real and the imagined, the optically perceived and the obliquely sensed. Vertical in inclination, they encompass a feel of both exterior and interior spaces, of objects and images held in check by the struggle of shape and colour.

Not above political irony, the artist presents “Bush-Blair Still Life”, where, the former despot stares through hooded eyes and the latter blindly simpers as they oversee some sort of sacrificial ritual. There is no tentative tip–toeing around here as art targets the negative. On the other hand, an urbane feast for the eyes is presented in the still life ‘Cat’, all awash in golden yellow luminescence. Clearly, the ‘zeitgeist’ in Subramanyan’s paintings, both still life and otherwise, has as much to do with materially enriched colours and the animation of edge and line as with just  recognizable image and narration. .

Integral to his boldly suggestive brand of representational painting is the artist’s unique fast time presentation which, changes form into information, seeing into association. The eye at once travels all over: from top to bottom, from left to right and vice versa. The shards of partial rendition and residual memory set up improbable encounters between individuals as well as objects. The constant disjunctions of image and their juxtapositions serve as a visual/ conceptual trigger that dynamizes the work’s allusive and symbolic value.

Subramanyan’s paintings, as always, gain their life through their excess of contradictions: mirror images seek out opposites, faces become masks, masks radiate feelings. Mythological allusion lurks behind the paint’s materiality. Reality has a mysterious side, a metaphorical aspect. Through a constantly changing specificity of narratives that either come close or keep their distance, one experiences a remarkable combination of complexity and freedom.

In earlier times, a concourse of cats, dogs and birds raced through the thickets of Subramanyan’s urban jungles, their lines and colours staking out the territories of creative sign making. This time the animal images, perhaps the true spectators in his dialogues between nature and culture, seem to be missing. There is only one captivating cat and a squawking bird that attempt to simulate communication between so called civilization and nature. Yet the feeling of relationship between nature and culture as a theme persists. Perhaps the proliferation of plant life and rainbows makes up for the missing animals from whose worlds culture increasingly threatens to distance itself.

Subramanyan’s control of linear, colouristic and structural energy has an almost startling vitality, which enables the work to reach out perceptually and affect emotively. Leaving room in an image choked world for humour, pathos, irony, poetics and dreams, his stories and scenes, both tacit and apparent, engage one at the level of comprehension, allusion and allegory. Their sensations of pictorial energy declare the positive and compelling power of the creative intellect and imagination.

This is particularly manifest in his “golden mirror” reverse glass paintings which he first began painting in the late 1970’s, and has returned to intermittently ever since. It is a genre that could be said to constitute a specific chapter in the much larger framework of Subramanyan’s eclectic oeuvre. While acrylic has replaced glass over the years---as has plastic in the forthcoming show---the technique remains much the same as that employed in traditional Indian glass painting.

 The luxurious, sparkling surfaces, sometimes backed with metal foil, encode a complex layering and adjustment of colours that turn resplendent through a play of illusionary depth. The details come first, then the shading and modeling, and the larger areas are filled in last. Multiple surprises are inherent in these reverse aggregates of contingency and strategy.

Never still, always animated, the artist has built an image world on spin. The vivid illusion of constant movement in these paintings is paradoxically arresting, providing an entry point for deeper consideration. Yet the works, that resonate with a genuine if somewhat subversive vision, can only be fathomed up to a certain point. It is only when one gives up on them that the unfathomable opens up. Analogues of some abstract order may then come into play. And as the narratives blur into the inner worlds of imagination, what may surface could well be the co-ordinates of chance and meaning, meaningful chance or chance meanings, pivots around which Subramanyan’s paintings have always revolved.


*A female demon. Synonyms: rakshasi, pishaachi
# The biographical information in this paragraph has been taken from Shiv Kumar’s book “K.G Subramanyan: A Retrospective”, published by NGMA, New Delhi and Brijbasi, 2003

Kamala Kapoor is an Independent art critic and curator based in Mumbai. She has written extensively on Indian contemporary art since 1983. Educated at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda and Shantiniketan, West Bengal, her professional work has involved assignments for newspapers, magazines, journals, catalogues, exhibitions and conferences in India and overseas. Kapoor has been the editorial adviser from India to the Australian art quarterly Art AsiaPacific till recently. Her more recent publications include “The Art of Vivan Sundaram”, a synoptic account of the artist Vivan Sundaram’s life and work, published by Roli Books, New Delhi, 2002 and three contributory essays, one each on the artists Gulam Sheikh, Atul Dodiya and Bhupen Khakhar  for the book “Vitamin P: New Perspectives in Painting”, published by Phaidon Press Ltd., London and New York, 2002. She is currently working as a commissioned researcher on Indian contemporary art for the forthcoming Fukuoka Triennale, to be held at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Fukuoka, Japan in 2005.


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