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‘Manida’ straight from hip

Galerie 88 celebrated its 25th anniversary with the opening of an exhibition of that rare artist savant, K.G. Subramanyan, who was on one of his infrequent visits to Calcutta from Baroda. He has lived there ever since he left Santiniketan in 2004. It was one of the first galleries to open in Calcutta in a long time, save the Birla Academy of Art & Culture.

“It just happened,” says gallerist Supriya Banerjee. “It was not really a business venture. I wanted to be associated with art.” She named M.F. Husain, Souza, Meera Mukherjee, Ram Kumar, Badri Narayan, Dharmanarayan Dasgupta, Akbar Padamsee and Somnath Hore among the artists she has held shows of in her gallery which has steadily expanded over the years. She always wanted to host a one-man show of K.G. Subramanyan, and it happened, happily a few months before he turns 90 on February 15 next year.

Manida, as he is fondly called, held court on Saturday as the great and good of Calcutta crowded around him. Filmmaker Goutam Ghose was busy shooting him for his documentary — a four-five-hour-long version for the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts archives, and another one-and-a-half-hour version — on the evolution of the artist. He said “Manida” was only comparable with the shehnai maestro, Bismillah Khan, for both had wisdom and both found bliss in creation.

In spite of this great admiration for Subramanyan that borders on reverence, his paintings reveal that he is a no-nonsense man with a sly sense of humour, that is irreverent at times.

With characteristic vehemence he says the Supreme Court ruling on Article 377 is “ridiculous”. This is expected of an artist in whose works cultures, genders, past and present, geographies and identities are always in a fluid state, nothing is sacred, and nothing is insulated from outside influences.

He adds: “Homosexuality was always there. Maybe they overlooked it. They are more Victorian-minded than Victorians. The old tolerance should prevail. We should take it in an open mind. Our bodies have desires which we cannot completely overcome.”

Subramanyan visits Calcutta off and on, and shoots from the hip: “They wanted change. There is no change. Only railings get painted blue.” He, however, quickly qualifies his remark, adding that in recent times he has not stayed in Calcutta for long. He continues in the same vein: “I think during 30 years of Left Front rule, the democratic process slackened. Popular force gained upper hand. That is the worst thing that can happen. The new order is trying to use that.”

He spares neither Santiniketan nor Baroda. “Santiniketan is unkind to people growing old. When I joined the faculty in the 1980s, I waited for 24 years for things to become better. They didn’t. Now it is a carnival site for affluent people in Calcutta. The whole place has grown irregularly.”

In Baroda, Subramanyan initially thought he would get “actively involved” with MS University. But the Bajrang Dal people have “upset” the set of values that the university upheld. The BJP government neglects the institute. “It is only running on reputation.”

Age and hip replacement notwithstanding, the artist has not slowed down. Work is his antidote to shut-eye. He paints, draws, doodles or writes for four hours in the morning, and four more in the evening. “If I sit quietly I doze off.” He jots down notes for lectures. He admits that he did the set of work being exhibited at Galerie 88 largely because of the special, handmade parchment. “It is attractive. It is that kind of grey on which colours floated around. I did them in a month.”

Is globalisation alienating artists from their traditions and culture? He separates the sheep from the goat. Some artists are “very market savvy and try to follow market trends”. He is all for downloading of graphic information as that makes artists aware.

Subramanyan says all city-dwelling artists think they are artists, while the traditional ones are craftsmen. But now all young artists, he says, want to know tradition for “they want to broaden their language”. Suddenly there is a plethora of visual communication — advertisements, hoardings, TV. Some of these are well-designed. Traditional art has to be functional and decorative for use in temples. “Finally we are back to that kind of connectivity,” says Subramanyan.

But art schools, he stresses, are not living up to times. “We have to think broadly in terms of visual communication. Schools should have technical facilities. But till now this hasn’t happened.”