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What makes ‘Manida’ tick

The Kolkata Literary Meet turned the spotlight on the protean artist, designer and teacher, K.G. Subramanyan, at Galerie 88 on Wednesday as Jogen Chowdhury, art historian R. Siva Kumar and art critic Pranabranjan Ray held a discussion entitled A Life in Art on the career of this artist who turns 90 next month. Instead of going into biographical details, the discussion zoomed in on “what makes Manida (as he is popularly known) tick,” said Siva Kumar, “when most of his contemporaries become part of history”.

Siva Kumar enumerated five reasons for this. Subramanyan’s contemporaries of the 1940s were individualists and they neglected their circumstances. But Subramanyan realised that both were equally important. Again, unlike his coevals, Subramanyan was already part of the nationalist movement when he started being trained as an artist. He was initially engaged in the Gandhian movement. Thereafter, Tagore and his ideas took over. He had met Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, and at Santiniketan, Nandalal Bose was “trying to put Coomaraswamy’s ideas into action”.

Like Gandhi, Subramanyan “sought large answers to small problems”. He tried to expand his own horizon and the horizon of his practice. His contemporaries, on the other hand, stressed originality.

He also tried to develop a personal language, and to bridge the gap between his art and viewers he needed the latter’s help. So viewers, too, had a role to play in comprehending his art. The last and fifth point was that “he tried to keep his art non-professional”, which Siva Kumar said, may be considered an old-fashioned idea. He clarified that Subramanyan did not want to limit himself by certain ideas that determine professional artists. For him art was a tool of knowing oneself in relationship to the world.

Jogen Chowdhury spoke spontaneously on Subramanyan, describing him as an excellent and important designer. He made terracotta toys — “so individualistic yet aware of our traditions”. He is eclectic and one of the most intellectual artists of our times, Chowdhury said. He recalled Nandalal’s drawings in Santiniketan. “The construction of figures was very much organic.”

Subramanyan’s idea of anatomy was very strong but at the same time it was facile and even decorative. Even when anatomy is distorted the idea of construction is not violated. It was like those puppets (talpatar sepai) whose limbs jiggled on their own. Chowdhury asserted that Subramanyan was influenced by both Picasso and Matisse and the freedom afforded by Fauvism. Tanjore glass paintings and patachitras were also major influences but he went beyond these to create a personal language spiked with wit to make “statements about life and society”.

Pranabranjan Ray said modernists in the West began with negation. In India we could not do that for the past was there in the present. So Subramanyan began with affirmation and that included our tradition. There is one common code in all his works, and that is found in configuration. This configuration makes his paintings narrative. His gaze is that of an observer.