“In the Honeycomb of Stories”, curated by Gallery Director Sangeeta Raghavan, features over 30 of the artist’s works representing over 50 years of his practice.
On display until 10 March 2018, the exhibition “In the Honeycomb of Stories” is on view at Art Musings and opened on 31 January 2018 as part of the annual Mumbai Gallery Weekend. Art Radar speaks to the curator of the show to find out more.
The multiplicities of an artist’s production
Nestled in the vibrant, culturally rich and sylvan surroundings of Colaba is one of South Mumbai’s earliest art galleries, which has been both a trailblazer in terms of the contemporary artists it has represented as well as a loyal presenter of the works of legendary Indian Modernists such as SH Raza, MF Hussain, FN Souza and Ram Kumar. KG Subramanyan (1924-2016), one of India’s foremost multimedia artists, belonged to the latter group – a prestigious fraternity that defined the trajectory taken by post-colonial Indian art and brought it into the 21st century.
A painter, sculptor, muralist, toymaker, teacher and writer, Subramanyan was born in Kerala and initially studied economics at Presidency College, Madras. He was known for his Gandhian ideology and was actively involved in India’s struggle for freedom, even being imprisoned during these years. In 1944 he went to Santiniketan to study art at Kala Bhavan, the art school of Visva Bharati University and was taught by several stalwarts of modern Indian art including Nandalal Bose, Benode BehariMukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij – all of whose stylistic influences can be seen in his practice. In 1951, Subramanyan joined the Faculty of Fine Arts at MS University Baroda after which he visited London in 1956, to study at the Slade School of Art as a British Council scholar and New York in 1966, as a Rockefeller Fellow. He returned to Santiniketan in 1980 and taught painting at his alma mater until his retirement in 1989, when he was made Professor Emeritus of Visva Bharati University.
In a career that spanned seven decades, Subramanyan worked in a variety of media and wove Indian traditional painting styles, folklore, myth and local techniques into his work. His has been exhibited in over 50 solo shows, including an extensive retrospective exhibition, “Sketches, Scribbles and Drawings by KG Subramanyan” (2015-2016) at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai and “KG Subramanyan – The Drawings of Women“ (2017) at Nandan Gallery, Santiniketan.
Weaving a web of stories through painting
In “In the Honeycomb of Stories”, Art Musings showcases over 30 works – including drawings, gouaches and reverse paintings on acrylic sheets – representing over five decades of the artist’s artistic production, from 1963 to 2014. In the catalogue essay accompanying the exhibition, the poet and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote writes:
K G Subramanyan (1924-2016) was a seminal artist and pedagogue who left his formative imprint on postcolonial Indian art. His works transit seamlessly between object and illusion, people and their distorted mirror images, private occasions and public spaces. Vignettes from the boudoir are intercut with scenes from the marketplace. The lady at her toilette is never far away from the hawker peddling her wares. What we know of Subramanyan as a suave critic, a legendary teacher, and a man of sardonic, sometimes cutting humour, can sometimes divert us from the substance of his art – which delves playfully into the secret lives that we conceal behind the public masks we present to the world.
In the artist’s early works from the 1940s and 1950s we see a fusion of influences from the Bengal School where he studied, far-eastern calligraphy and traditional Indian colours and motifs. Soon he started using stronger lines as outlines to separate the myriad colours, thereby giving his work a semblance of stained glass paintings. His oeuvre has continuously evolved since these initial years, imbibing influences from his stints in London and New York, which brought about a multiplicity in the subject matter, technique and media that he used during his illustrious career. From Ukiyo-e to Kalighat pat painting, from mural painting to working in terracotta, from abstract elements to figurative work, from reverse glass painting to gouache and acrylics, the breadth of Subramanyan’s oeuvre is exceptional.
Commenting on how the vernacular language of traditional art helped him in his work, KG Subramanyan said to Timothy Hyman in an interview in 2008:
Each kind of practice has a grammar within it. Even when one practice goes to help another, it creates a bridge from one grammar to another. That has been very interesting for me to do. In fact when I started doing terracotta with clay which has something of its own kind of language, I could see that this was there in the objects that some of the primitive cultures used. That kind of a language could be seen in Mohenjo-Daro terracotta. Then the surface finish became more important than the manipulation of the essential matrix. All this helped me change my perspectives – it helped me visualize things a lot better.
Subramanyan’s skill in drawing from the rich resources of tradition, mythology and memories that were available to him are evident in many of the works that are on display in “In the Honeycomb of Stories”. His interest in women and children as subject matter are evident in paintings like Madonna and Child (2005), while others like Varanasi I (2007) showcase his storytelling capabilities, with the depiction of multiple characters including animals and women with religious symbolism. The latter is also evident in his brilliantly coloured acrylics Icon and Object I & II (2006) and Devi II (2008). In his most recent works completed in 2016, the year he passed away, we see him revisiting some of his favourite themes of vibrant interior scenes with larger-than-life still life objects, like flowers, fruits and vases – and women.
Subramanyan’s most significant contribution to the evolution of 20th and 21st century Indian art was his ability to be inspired by tradition while at the same time creating a different path in his practice, from the art of the past. In the catalogue essay, Ranjit Hoskote quotes the artist saying, when he arrived at Santiniketan in the 1940s and found that Rabindranath Tagore’s emphasis on “self-disruptive experiment had been set aside”:
People at Santiniketan had begun to think of tradition as a continuity of style. I represented an aberrant strain!
Art Radar spoke to gallery director Sangeeta Raghavan who curated “In the Honeycomb of Stories”.
After Sakti Burman’s retrospective a few months ago at the NGMA, Mumbai’s Art Musings has brought to art lovers in the city a retrospective of another stalwart of post-colonial Indian art. How did the idea of this exhibition come about?
As part of the Mumbai Gallery Weekend, we decided against a group exhibition and wanted the city to witness a large body of works by an esteemed Indian artist. Though Art Musings has showcased the works of KG Subramanayan in several group exhibitions over the last decade, this is the first time we are exhibiting such a large body of works spanning several decades (1963 – 2014).
What was the basis for your selection?
Most of the works are from our gallery collection, as well as some works from private collections.
The exhibition opened on the first day of the Mumbai Gallery Weekend 2018. Was there any basis for the choice of shows by galleries during this year’s programmes?
Each gallery was given the freedom to showcase whatever they wanted to. We at Art Musings wanted to share something special with the city of Mumbai. We hosted a talk-through on 3 February 2018, with the distinguished artist Sudhir Patwardhan and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote on the art and the legacy of K G Subramanyan; his impact on several generations of Indian artists and his continuing relevance as a major thinker.
Could you share with Art Radar readers what the year 2018 has in store for art lovers in the city at Art Musings?
We have some interesting exhibitions lined up during the year including a three-day special homage to SH Raza in February, a solo exhibition, “Sublime Machines”, by Raghava KK in March and a sculpture exhibition by renowned sculptor KS Radhakrishnan in December.
“In the Honeycomb of Stories” by K G Subramanyan is on view from 31 January to 10 March 2018 at Art Musings, 1 Admiralty Building, Colaba, Mumbai 400005.
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