K. G. Subramanyan as Muralist #2

There had to be a personal angle, it also had to be for him, as it was for Nandalal and his other mentors at Santiniketan. Public art, meant not only art in a public space or on public buildings, but art that came alive through an environmental connect and was made meaningful by the response of variously endowed viewers.

The interplay between materials and image, metaphorical and cultural associations, ideas and style that that bring a work into life at multiple levels of perception and meaning is even more complexly realized in his next mural in the ‘India of My Dreams’ pavilion at the Gandhi Darshan complex in New Delhi. It was begun in 1968 and completed in 1969. While the mural on Rabindralaya was conceived as a continuous narrative frieze, the Gandhi Darshan work consisted of three structures, two freestanding and one partly attached to a wall, within an open courtyard. Half-reliefs and half-sculptures the structures were fabricated using sand-cast cement reliefs fixed over a core of concrete along with some details in other materials.

The first structure consists of a wheel of hands standing out from the wall with the hands radiating outward suggesting the rays of the sun, a flower in bloom or the spokes of a wheel symbolizing progress. On its two sides are two porcelain panels showcasing various products of village crafts and industry. And it carries a quote from the Gita reflecting Gandhi’s ethics of work and cooperation: ‘Every man finds fulfilment through dedicated pursuit of work.’ The second structure has a rural grain chest metamorphosed into a bovine goddess invoking the wish fulfilling Kamadenu of mythology projecting from a screen of schematic village plans. Symbolizing rural prosperity it carries Gandhi’s famous caveat that, ‘If the villages of India perish, India also perishes.’ And the third structure is like an outdoor display stand set between two arms opening like a portal with a collage of real and imagined religious symbols construed from colourful pieces of cloth pressed between plastic sheets. It carries two quotes from Gandhi: ‘There are as many religions as there are individuals,’ and ‘God as many names as there are creatures and so we call him The Nameless, and since he has many forms, we also call him The Formless.’

The inscribed quotations contextualise the mural and guide our readings, but the structures are more than visual interpretations of the verbal texts, they are structured and polyvalent articulations of abstract ideas. The three structures with their complex interplay of representational forms, textural abstractions, associative symbols and contextualising texts represent the three coordinates of Gandhi’s dream India: progress through harnessing human resources and cooperation, nurturing rural prosperity and religious harmony. And initially he had thought of creating a pond at the centre so that the three structures would stand reflected in its shimmering field underscoring the unity of Gandhian thought. Given Subramanyan’s early involvement with the Gandhian movement this was a theme that was close to his own heart. And so was Tagore’s vision on whose play the first mural was based.

Clearly for Subramanyan a mural was not a blown up painting or personal expression on a monumental scale as it was for many of his contemporaries. There had to be a personal angle, it also had to be for him, as it was for Nandalal and his other mentors at Santiniketan. Public art, meant not only art in a public space or on public buildings, but art that came alive through an environmental connect and was made meaningful by the response of variously endowed viewers. Even the few public commissions of art there, gave little scope for such fusion of the personal and the public and did not interest him. Thus despite doing two successful murals during the 60s he did not undertake any major mural project until the late 80s. Then between 1988 and 2012 he undertook three major murals including one which he repainted thrice over, and all of them were in Santiniketan, to where he had returned as professor of painting in 1980. With its early history of public art and the sporadic efforts at reviving it in the 70s and early 80s and the presence of a large number murals and sculptures designed to enliven the lived environment and to communicate with the local community Subramanyan saw Santiniketan as a place still receptive such an idea of public art and was inspired to add his own effort to extend it.

The drawings and the maquette for his first mural in Santiniketan was in place by 1986. But having been invited to Oxford for a term its actual execution took place only in the winter of 1988. Conceived as an ensemble of reliefs and freestanding sculptures in sand-cast cement and metal it was technically similar to the Gandhi Darshan mural but different in image and theme. The reliefs invoking the three popular goddesses of Bengal Durga, Manasa and Kamale Kamini – one riding a tiger and the other two flanking her, holding snakes and lotuses in their hands – were fixed onto the outer wall of a studio building in the art college. And on the ground in front of them he placed several freestanding sculptures in sand-cast cement including those of a crocodile, two tortoises and several lotus leaves symbolizing a pond, and at its centre he planted a schematic tree in welded metal with a bird alighting on it. The images are iconic and together the ensemble resembles a wayside shrine but woven into it is the implicit story of Bengal’s geological evolution from a swamp to land, but it is a story that waits to be teased out of the iconic by perceptive viewers.

In the summer of 1989 he did another mural in collaboration with primary school children from the Santiniketan school. The children were asked to paint faces on small pieces of glass, he then backed them up with colours and gold foil from behind transforming the image chromatically without altering the forms drawn by the children. These were then turned into a collage of faces framed between decorative borders and set onto a wall in the school hostel as a reverse painted glass mural. Not to be counted among Subramanyan’s personal work or among his major mural projects, it exemplifies his continuing interest in the Santiniketan idea of murals as artwork with which a community of viewers can identify with and feel connected to.

His next mural measuring over 2100 square feet and running around an entire two storied building in the art school campus is the largest he has done. Painted using lamp black mixed with polysynthetic resin over walls coated with white cement-based paint, it is also the only example of direct painting among his murals. The goal he set himself was simple, to embellish a rather nondescript building and bring distinction to the environment. Even as he decided to embellish the building and make it stand out he also wanted to relate the images to the vestiges of rural environment around. So he painted birds of many kinds and sizes in flight or perched on bushes, peacocks resting stately over window frames, geese moving in rows. He also painted monkeys leaping across spaces, and crocodiles basking with opened mouths surrounded by trees and plants and elements of architecture. He made a maquette to plan the mural. But when he began to paint the images were directly drawn on to the walls, some decorative some more realistic.

In the summer of 1990 two thirds of the front and side walls of the building was covered in this manner. Three years later he decided to cover the upper third and the back wall of the building. In the upper register on the front wall he painted more peacocks and birds, monkeys and trees, just a little more dense, animated and decorative. On the upper reaches he also painted more flying creatures including apsaras. And on the back wall, in keeping the light-hearted celebratory spirit of the imagery he had initially thought of painting a spoofy homage to Picasso the twentieth century icon of creative playfulness. This was also a subject he had explored in a couple of paintings from this period. But in the wake of the communal tensions that erupted following the destruction of the Barbari Masjid at the end of 1992 he decided to paint a theriantropic encounter between a tiger-woman and a buffalo-man in which the armed attack is answered with flowers, transforming as it were the paroxysm of hatred into a courtship dance. This image occupying the entire middle register of the back wall is larger and more iconic than the rest; it is like a drama unfolding within a larger one celebrating the efflorescence of nature.

Unlike the three earlier murals which were either sculptural reliefs or freestanding sculptures this black and white mural grew out of his lifelong practice of drawing and showcases his prodigious graphic skills. Subramanyan like his mentors have always been a compulsive draftsman doodling or sketching things around him in sketchbooks or on small cards, and an analytical student of graphic means. The mural is the culmination of years of looking at natural forms their shapes and rhythms, and of going over their representational schema, articulating and rearticulating them in various ways, until it was internalised and almost written into his muscles. In equal measure the striking graphic verve and animation of the images achieved through innovative combinations of simple schematic units demonstrate a deep understanding of the work methods of folk artists. And the two are combined in the mural with an astute sense of design. By cropping the motifs along with their graphic contours and painting the space between them black he creates a stark shadow play of white images projected onto a dark sky. This makes the mural stand out in bold gestalt against the colour and bustle of the surroundings buildings and landscape when seen from far and come alive in scintillating graphic intricacy when viewed motif by motif from near.

Painted on the outer walls with non-permanent colours and exposed to the punishing summers and the humid monsoons of Santiniketan the mural faded gradually. Subramanyan knew this would happen. In many parts of India villagers decorate their mud huts in post harvest celebration and then let it weather and fade until it is renewed again in the next season; he admired this ethics of renewal and the way it kept creativity alive even when artworks perished. He too believes that it was more important for art practices to continue, rather than art objects to be permanent, and felt his mural too could make way for newer visions. By 2009 it was felt that it was time for the mural to make way for another. When he colleagues asked him if could touch it up he decided to scrape it down and do a new one instead. The second mural too was done in the same process; only this time the whole building was covered at one go. With the experience of the previous mural behind him and with a surer idea of the space, he chose to work without a maquette or preparatory drawings, not merely drawing the images directly onto the wall but also developing the composition as he went along guided by rhythms and counter rhythms of motifs and the moving hand.

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.