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Q & A(rt)
Muhammad Yusuf April 23, 2015
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The UAE debut of ‘Sketches, Scribbles, Drawings by KG Subramanyan’ came to an end on April 18 at the Sultan Bin Ali Al Owais Cultural Foundation (Dar Sultan), Dubai.

An artist of wide-ranging ability and very active and contemporary even in his 90s, Subramanyan is one of India’s most engaging and influential artists.

Born in Kerala, India, in 1924 and keenly interested in the arts since childhood, he decided to study art after an initial engagement with socialist and Gandhian activism and a short term in prison for participation in the Quit India Movement against the British.

Debarred from government colleges, he left Madras (now Chennai) where he was pursuing a degree in economics and moved to Santiniketan and Visva-Bharati university, founded by Indian Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

As an artist, Subramanyan is known as one of the most versatile practitioners, having done works in the traditions of painting, murals, toy-making, pottery, illustration, design and terracotta sculpture. His paintings are noted for their inherent wit, ironies, satire and critical social commentaries.

He is an acknowledged cross-over pioneer, breaking down the distinction between artist and artisan. A theoretician and art historian, he is equally famous for his extensive written work on Indian art.

He is India’s artist version of academician Edward Said, having re-written - or re-drawn - Western codes in the Indian or Oriental context. He possesses first-hand knowledge of Western art practices: during 1955 and 1956, he went to the Slade School of Art, London, to study as a British Council research scholar.

He is compared to legends like Tyeb Mehta and MF Husain and the Government of India has awarded him high honours like the Padma Shri (1975), Padma Bhushan (2006) and Padma Vibhushan (2012), three of India’s four highest civilian tributes.

Mini S Menon, representing the organisers of his Dubai exhibition, was more than happy to answer Time Out’s questions, reproduced below 

KG Subramanyan is a pioneer and veteran of modern Indian art. Don’t you think the title of the exhibition should have better reflected his artistic career?
‘Sketches, Scribbles, Drawings by KG Subramanyan’ is a deliberate choice of title. The show was inspired by a book under the same title published by Seagull Books, which features hundreds of his works done over the span of more than five decades.

Though we had brought many of the artist’s later paintings - reverse paintings on mylar sheets and acrylics, as well as gouaches on board - the focus of the show remained his experimental works using different mediums, ranging from ballpoint pen and ink to crayon on paper; a quick overview of KGS’ unique creative journey through Santinketan, Oxford and the Far East.

Doesn’t KGS’ insistence to draw inspiration from Indian traditions circumscribe his weltanschaaung?
As I see it, KGS does not ‘insist on drawing inspiration from Indian traditions’ at the cost of restricting his weltanschaaung. Rather, he uses Indian traditions and mythology to express his singularly magnanimous and ecumenical views of the world.

Every artist uses mediums s/he is most familiar and comfortable with - and KGS’ background and wealth of knowledge on Indian mythology and traditions makes him reach out to them. They are a medium of expression, just like any other.

Do you find similarities in Indian author R K Narayan’s literary offerings and KGS’ art output? If so, what are they?
I would hesitate to compare the two, for obvious reasons. What can be said is that both KGS and RK Narayan have, in their lifetimes, achieved an enviable degree of ease with their chosen mode of expression. That, and a rather light hearted, irreverent way of addressing things and situations that would otherwise have made the person sitting across uncomfortable.

KGS draws his human figures with a lot of impish wit. Comment.

What can I say, except that his works speak for themselves! An attempt on my part to comment would be rather trite, wouldn’t it?
There is a Gandhian simplicity in his works. Do you agree?
I find his works profound and extremely complex in their simplicity. If that is what you mean by ‘Gandhian’, then yes, I can say that is there in KGS’ works.

KGS’ works are more rustic than cosmopolitan. Is this statement correct?
I would think that the so-called rusticity is a medium that expresses his truly eclectic and cosmopolitan perceptions of life, of the world around him.

In the current show, was there a tension between figurative and abstract schools? Or was the inimitable KGS been able to bridge the genres effortlessly?
Personally, I believe that it is limiting to slot KGS and his works into ‘schools’ and genres. He is what he is, unapologetically and uncompromisingly. Through ‘Sketches, Scribbles, Drawings’, what we have tried was to capture what we felt are some of his more experimental works, ones that encapsulated his creative metamorphosis over decades.

In a world roiled by conflict (even in 1980s, 90s), KGS seems to be in a self-imposed isolation ward, unaffected by events. Is this so?
‘Self-imposed isolation ward, unaffected by events’ are terms I would hesitate to use when talking about a person who was imprisoned for taking part in India’s freedom movement, with life-changing impact. A person who has been actively supportive of causes which vary from education to revival of arts and crafts.

Rather, I would prefer to use the artist’s own words to answer that question, as recorded in a conversation with renowned art historian and curator R Siva Kumar:

“I think our response to events should come out of a deeply felt emotional reaction which ties up, in turn, with earlier experiences or reactions. Like Picasso’s Guernica that moves from his response to the brutality of the bullfight to his response to war.

“There are many things happening in this world that force you to react against them and be an activist, to speak against them or take other measures depending upon your competence and ability. Just painting against them is a poor gesture. I do not however disapprove of those who do. My choice will be to be an artist activist - not an activist artist”.

How has KGS been able to preserve a childlike naivete even in his 90s? Can you explain how he has been able to do this (without having to ask him?!). He doesn’t move one to tears as much as he makes him smile. Comment.

Once again, I shall resort to the artist’s words to answer the two questions:
“There are many things in our lives that throw us into a state of anger. There are many things in our environment that irritate us. There are round us various social pressures we want to rebel against.Our lives are hemmed in with restrictions and frustrations of various kinds. In this over-inhabited world, there are various conflicts of interests which cannot be fully resolved.

“Administrators, social scientists, philosophers, priests - they all try in their own ways to contain the conflicts. But the best incentive for civilised living can come only from loving the world. This alone willforce everyone to live in peace, to care for the environment like it was a common park.

“I remember hearing in my childhood a prayer my father used to sing. It had a line that went: ‘Lord, let each day of mine be a festival, a celebration’.

What can one add to that except that KGS has chosen to live his life devoid of bitterness, which may well seem like ‘childlike naïveté’.

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