K. G. Subramanyan as Muralist #1

But unlike his contemporaries, compelled to work as both artist and designer at the outset of his career he learned to explore self-expression within the larger frame of communication and subsume the quest for originality within the operative frame of a visual language that is potentially shareable even if not actually shared.

Among the many things that distinguish K G Subramanyan’s career is his work as a muralist. An interest in murals is rare among his modernist contemporaries and this sets him apart. That there are so few murals by modernist masters is not surprising. Modernism with its commitment to autonomy and decontextualized self-completeness of the art work, its indeterminate and anonymous audience, and the artist’s quest for originality did not provide a climate for murals. Looking at periods when it flourished we can readily see that a shared language or aesthetic pact between the artists and their audience with a substratum of shared beliefs and values provided the right climate for its efflorescence. In the modern period too murals and such other public art is associated with efforts to build a bridge between art and society, if not a two-way communicational flow between them. The Russian avant-garde, the Bauhaus and the Mexican muralists were short-lived efforts at creating a meaningful traffic between art and society. But they were moments of aberration inspired by utopian social ideologies and efforts to find a role for arts in the shaping of society and contrary to the general course of modernism.

In more recent times artists moving away from the modernist paradigm and interested in making social interventions and in tying their practices to our collective lives have been moving beyond decontextualized self-complete art works and putting art into public space and social context. But without the social initiatives and demands that generated murals and other public art in traditional societies this have been unilateral efforts by individual artists in a largely unreceptive society. Well-meaning as these efforts are without an institutionally and linguistically empowered audience, communication between artists and their audience does not ensue naturally, and even art conceived as pure message gets looked at as intractable object. Institutionally art being reduced to private communication or precious commodity, artists anxious to communicate are also often forced to, despite the reputation of being dense, make their works aesthetically unidimensional and semantically lean, and piggy ride into social spaces using technologies and platforms developed for other forms of communication and subvert them to make themselves heard. This was not necessary for the artists who painted the Ajanta murals or made the stained-glass narratives in Gothic cathedrals, or even for artists like Giotto and Michelangelo. Given the socially sanctioned institutional and shared linguistic spaces they worked from their works with its religious stories, theological underpinnings, social messages, human drama and aesthetic nuances could easily be multilayered. And this is an advantage not readily available to contemporary artists.

As a muralist and an artist Subramanyan averts such predicament by adopting a series of positions and strategies. By temporal positioning and temperament Subramanyan is a modernist. He recognized, early on, that in the modern world the artist no more functioned within a domain of overlapping social exchanges and that by historical imperative rather than by personal choice he was obliged to build his work on the basis of his sensibility.

But unlike his contemporaries, compelled to work as both artist and designer at the outset of his career he learned to explore self-expression within the larger frame of communication and subsume the quest for originality within the operative frame of a visual language that is potentially shareable even if not actually shared.

Artists turning to design jobs to earn a living were not uncommon among modern Indian artists but few drew the lessons that Subramnyan drew from it. Even if in the modern period art at its highest level resisted communication and strove to become objects of communion and contemplation, communication still remained a valid goal in the lesser arts and design and Subramanyan strove not to make these goals exclusive to any one area. He was prepared for that by his early exposure to traditional arts, his theoretical readings, and by the art education he was exposed to at Santiniketan.

Born in the early nineteen twenties into a Tamil Brahmin family in north Kerala in his childhood Subramanyan was exposed to a whole spectrum of traditional arts running from the ritual floor decorations that spilled from every doorstep into the street and was revived each day, and progressed in stages of complexity and professionalism through the secular and religious festivals with their spectacles and pageants that added seasonal colour to life, and served as occasions for various ritual and performative arts combining music, dance and theatre, to the temples with their complex interplay of architecture, carved and painted wooden sculptures, and murals. With the family moving to the nearby French colony of Mahe this cultural landscape enlarged with the inclusion of Christian and European elements. In Mahe he also came into contact with Gandhian nationalism and Gandhi’s use of spinning to create a national bonding among people of a vast country. And a little later on reading Coomaraswamy he discovered that the linguistic, communicational and aesthetic hierarchy in the arts, of which he was beginning to be vaguely aware of, was a structural characteristic of traditional cultures and made it accessible to people across social strata.

After a stint in nationalist politics when he decided to study art at Santiniketan Subramanyan found that the educational programme that Nandalal Bose had developed at Santiniketan was based on a similar understanding of traditional cultures and was an effort to forge a visual culture answering the needs of a modern society with similar linguistic, communicational and aesthetic linkages. Only in a modern society with little organic impetus for cultural cohesion the onus now rested on the artist than on the society he served. The artist had to make himself a multi-professional with interest in communication and self-expression and a language that was flexible enough to be employed for communication at different levels. To achieve this Nandalal devised various activities such as designing costumes and accessories, and site and stage for seasonal festivals and theatre or dance presentations, illustrating books for children, textiles for clothing and furnishing, and murals and sculptures in public spaces. By this he hoped on the one hand to encourage his students to become multi-professional artists and on the other hand to inculcate an aesthetic receptivity among the members of the community. As a student Subramanyan was not an enthusiastic participant in the institutional projects Nandalal had devised to steer his students in this direction. He was more drawn to two of his other teachers, Benodebehari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij, who were trying to give a modernist interpretation to Nandalal’s ideas within the sphere of personal expression. But this did stop him from noticing the comprehensiveness of Nandalal’s project and from imbibe its underlying ideas. The distance in fact allowed him to gain a perspective on it rare among Nandalal’s students.

Early in his professional life while doing painting for personal expression and designing for livelihood he recognized the efficacy of Nandalal’s vision of art and craft as connected practices within a spectrum. What began as a necessity soon became a self-enabling prospect; he saw designing for various functional and communicational needs not as a diversion but as complement to self-expression. Functionally different as the two might be they compel an artist to flesh out his visual language and test its resourcefulness. While the resourcefulness of traditional languages came from the cultural milieu an artist shared with his audience, Subramanyan realised that in the modern context it comes from the syntactic resonances of other languages and styles that the audiences recognizes in an artist’s visual language and the semantic suggestiveness of the materials he employs. And broader an artist’s spectrum of practice becomes the expressive and communicational efficacy of his language also grows with it. Thus in the early 60s we notice the beginning of an exponential diversity in Subramanyan’s oeuvre fully driven by an internal need for versatility. And this has grown over the years and his oeuvre now includes besides illustrated books and toys assembled from various materials for children, painted platters originally done for art fairs in Baroda and Santiniketan, forays into costumes for theatre, paintings in gauche, oils and acrylic, terracotta reliefs, reverse paintings, woven and modelled sculptures, thousands of drawings, sketches and doodles, and murals in different mediums and techniques including murals done by direct painting on wall, by painting and printing with textile dyes on cloth, relief murals in terracotta and sand-cast cement, murals in reverse painting on glass, and murals in cast or painted ceramics.

Besides its diversity Subramanyan’s oeuvre demonstrates a resolve to reach out to audiences beyond the art gallery. While galleries and collectors have annexed some of these like the work he produced for the art fairs and turned them into precious collectables, the illustrated books and murals have by their very nature have remained areas of resistance. The young readers of his illustrated books and the uninitiated viewers of his murals may not be aware of the artistic status of what they are viewing. And this is as he would prefer because to him the primary aim of an artist is to add an aesthetic or expressive edge to his communications and to make it come alive at more than one the level of meaning and experience, not making precious objects. Illustrations and murals are firstly embellishments, they draw the viewers in, almost entice them and then work upon them, make them notice the message and ponder over it, and perhaps connect with the physical and cultural world that surrounds them. Obviously working in post-colonial India Subramanyan is more open to world traditions in art, there are resonances of both Asian and European antecedents in his visual language, and his techniques are more varied and non-traditional. But this is the closest any post-40s Indian artist comes to carrying forward Nandalal’s ideas.

Subramanyan’s first experience with mural painting was that of assisting Benodebehari in his mural based on the life of the medieval saints in the Hindi Bhavana at Santiniketan. Eighty feet in length and about eight feet in height and done in the Italian wet process without a cartoon it was a demanding work, and for Subramanyan, who was still a student, a very educative experience. What he learned from it was not technique because he has not painted a fresco himself but the mental and visual thinking and the designing that goes into a mural and the intuitive acts of negotiating between one’s theme, one’s language and the surface. That Benodebehari was as analytic while planning the work and evaluating the result as much as he was intuitive while painting it also seems to have rubbed off on Subramanyan. His own first serious involvement with mural began during the two years (1959-61) he worked as the Deputy Director in the Handloom Board.  On the one hand working as a designer addressing issues of large scale production forced him look beyond painting in a bigger way than he had done so far, on the other it gave him the opportunity of working with new mediums with the support of sensitive craftsmen and good technicians. Among other things he using this facility was a number of hand-painted and block-printed textile murals. Besides helping in enlarging upon what the Handloom Board was doing by way of designing and production at that moment, these exercises also helped him to test the post-cubist language he was employing in his paintings in newer contexts and mediums and extend its expressive range. They were shown at the India Pavilion at the World Trade Fair, New York in 1965 and then dispersed.

His first important site specific mural was done in 1963 on the front wall of Rabindralaya, a theatre building in Lucknow. It was based on Rabindranath Tagore’s play The King of the Dark Chamber and composed using 13000 prefabricated and glazed terracotta units of varied sizes and thickness. Of these only some had predetermined representational specificity, the rest were either geometric or decorative forms. These were intuitively combined into an eighty-one feet long frieze made up of nine episodic segments. With the geometric and decorative units taking on new contextual identities as in the textile murals this too was an attempt to extend the post-cubist language of his paintings. In his paintings of this period which were mostly still-lifes he explored how common place things lost their individual identities when grouped together and found new gestalts through re-constellations. They foregrounded the experience of traversing between representation and abstraction, of visually holding things together and then losing and then finding again a new gestalt, but offered little representational or narrative meaning. In the mural, however, the interplay between the readable and the abstract besides combining into an episodic narrative is used to give a visual palpability to the allegorical content of the play which centres on a queen’s futile search in daylight for the king who makes himself known only in the dark chamber.

While in his paintings without a shared world of cultural exchanges to connect him with his viewers he was pressed to limit all reference to the world of visual experience in the mural with an external shared text between them the images acquired a narrative dimension, and the language greater semantic amplitude. Even if it was not entirely planned this was what he was looking for. A little before he undertook this mural he had written, after explaining how without the benefit of a language enriched by communication between members of a community who share a cultural panoply his paintings offer a quickened vision of things but do not tell stories: ‘But this certainly is not all that I would like to do. If there is an elaborate language I can handle, myths that I can share with others, have polyvalent communication with others through my works – I would prefer it to be so.’[i]

[i] K.G. Subramanyan, ‘The Artist on Art’, Lalit Kala Contemporary, No.3, June 1965, p.14. It was first published in translation in the Gujarati literary magazine Kumar in 1961.

R. Siva Kumar
R. Siva Kumar

R. Siva Kumar is an Indian contemporary art historian, art critic, and curator. R. Siva Kumar’s major research has been in the area of early Indian modernism with special focus on the Santiniketan School.