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Artist Profile1
Mapping a multi-faceted master’s illustrious career
Eminent painter K.G. Subramanyan has been chosen for the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award of India. A multifaceted artist, he is a printmaker, muralist, art scholar, writer, philosopher, designer and a teacher, all rolled in one. His style inspired by rich folk art traditions also refers the Western Modernism’s cubistic styles. Attaining a subtle synthesis of linear Indian folk tradition and modernism, his immaculate sense of design, especially his handling of pictorial space, exudes Indian ethos. His paintings address socio- political issues, and touch upon disparity inherent in public and private spheres. Unraveling the dichotomy, his work - often autobiographical and narrative, it tends to draw from self-introspection and ruminations.

During his formative years, he was influenced by the nationalist movement, and was also imprisoned for taking part in the 1942 Quit India movement against the British rule. His love for art received a definitive direction after he joined the Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan. It was a liberating and invigorating experience for the talented young artist who got an opportunity to hone his skills under the tutelage of masters like Binode Behari Mukherjee, Ramkinkar Baij and Nandalal Bose. He grasped three basic concepts as basis of art, namely individuality, nature, and tradition, which he steadfastly stuck to, even after being exposed to Western Modernism.

Born in 1924 in North Malabar, Kerela, he first studied economics before joining Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan (1944-48). Later he went to Slade School of Art, University of London on British Council Research Fellowship (1955-56). Apart from a series of solos over more than fifty years of a distinguished career, his work has also been featured in several group exhibitions, including 'Adbhutam', CIMA, Kolkata; 'The Art of Drawing', Guild Art, Mumbai; 'Pause', Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai; 'High-Light', courtesy Sakshi (all in 2011); 'Modern Folk', Aicon Gallery, New York (2010); and 'Tracing Time', Bodhi Art, Mumbai (2009), among others. His select participations include 'Ethos V, Indigo Blue Art, Singapore; 'Roots in the Air, Branches Below', San Jose Museum of Art; 'Time Unfolded', KNMA, Delhi (all in 2011); ‘'Modern India’, courtesy Institut Valencià d'Art Modern and Casa Asia (2008-09).

He was awarded Padma Bhushan by the Government of India in 2006 and Padma Shri in 1975. A recipient of Lalit Kala Ratna Puraskar (2004), he also won the Fellowship of J. D. Rockefeller III Fund (1966) and Medallion of Honorable Mention, Sao Paulo Biennale, Brazil (1961), among other honors. Throwing light on his art practice, renowned critic Ranjit Hoskote has noted: “The basic tension in his art is that between vulnerability and inviolability, secrecy and exposure: he mediates this through the constant opposition, in his tableaux, between dress and undress, face and mask.”

The veteran artist has played a seminal role in propagating the Santiniketan philosophy, emphasizing that traditional visual idiom was a rich art historical resource. His sharp, albeit subtle narratives strike a deft balance between morality and eroticism, public and private, wit and satire. ‘Regarding the Drawings of KG Subramanyan’ (Publisher: The Guild) by R. Siva Kumar, Professor of art history at Visva Bharati, Santiniketan gives a kaleidoscopic view of his art journey. He brings to the fore various facets of his personality.

The art scholar mentions: “Encompassing doodles, scribbles, sketches, studies, calligraphic and tinted drawings, and drawing with pigments; done using ballpoint pen, brush and ink, crayon, alone or in combination with color or ink washes, and in gouache; and employing graphic devices ranging from marks, scrawls, calligraphic brush work, freehand flourishes, strokes and dabs- his repertoire of drawings is indeed large. They are all undertaken to fathom the world and to think his way through it; to let the world into himself and to write himself onto the world. And looking at his drawings when we see aspects of the world reflected in them, and looking at the world we notice elements of his vision reflected in it.”

Like several other of his contemporaries, he desisted Western Modernism as a sole privileged yardstick. He instead turned to indigenous folk and tribal culture of India. As a result international modernism and Indigenous folk references are intertwined in his paintings. Renowned artist Nilima Sheikh has mentioned of his oeuvre: “His contact with surface, whether it is brush, tool or hand, is always light. His eye receives signals quickly - it follows that laying out of surface and contour is rapid; no time spent obscuring the process.”

In an interview with Subhalakshmi Shukla courtesy the Seagull Foundation for the Arts in Kolkata, the celebrated artist has stated: “I don’t have a one-point agenda. I find what I see around exciting, but at various levels. I do not swear by a method nor stick to a process. I don’t want to lose this mobility, and with that my desire and power, to discover the world afresh. I look at it from various viewpoints, and represent it through various media, each and all of which have the ability to unlock new perceptions. I want it to flourish (so-to-say) in a cloud of unknowing.” To sum it up, the exploration of art as language of expression – the personal and social – is the binding thread of his art practice in diverse media, styles and techniques that have subtly blended traditional elements and modernist sensibility.