March 31, 2023

K. G. Subramanyan as Muralist #3

The imagery is minimal and its overall impact is austere, some would think too spartan. Compared to the black and white mural its sensuousness is subtler and deliberately underplayed as in many of Nandalal’s works. This is Subramanyan’s homage to Nandalal as well as a demonstration of his personal insight into the expressive subtleties of design gained through long years of engagement.

The new mural is similar to the one it replaced in starkness of design and in the interplay of broad gestalt and graphic details yet subtly different in imagery and iconography. Firstly the menagerie has been enlarged to include besides birds, peacocks, monkeys, and crocodiles other creatures like snakes, including human-headed ones, cats, fish, frogs, flies, crabs, scorpions, tortoise, goats, dogs, horses, lions and donkeys. There are also more mythical and celestial figures – garuda, a winged kamadenu, apsaras, hanuman and Indra – and a new and indeed an interesting cast of human characters. Secondly, painted at one go the demarcation between the lower and the upper zones are more conceptual, and one of experiential difference. Things grow upwards from the ground and grow thick; there is a swarm of trees, houses, and animals at this level. Decorations on either side of the main door culminate in shapes that recall the thatched roofs of village huts. The windows and ledges are resting stations for larger birds and other creatures. And ornamental forms dangle from the roofline like branches swaying in the wind, things in the upper reaches are light, the sky is open and belongs to birds and mythical creatures, even the windows here have wings and are ready to fly. And finally, the ledges, windows, doors, brackets and such other architectural details are integrated into the design but the stern symmetry these impose on the design is shrewdly loosened through the subtle asymmetrical distribution of motifs.

This is largely the mural as seen from the front; on the back wall the theme of hatred and amelioration is redone with a slightly altered iconographic and formal treatment. The theriomorphic figures are now more clearly identified as Durga and Mahisasura and the demon is shown flying at the goddess in a rage and she is shown confronting him with a shower of flowers. The flurry of movements that was limited to the interspace between the confronting figures in the earlier version now animates the whole scene like a gale blowing across it. While the main scene unfolds on a prosenium like space beneath it, in the pit as it where, are three panels separated by windows showing a rearing tiger, the tiger and a buffalo in mortal combat, and the tumbling figure of the ripped buffalo. This makes the central image triumphing over the grim events beneath a desired vision hailed by the winged, garland bearing celestial figures in the upper corners.

The two side walls connecting the broad facade with the square back wall are replete with projections and recesses, nooks and niches. Taking advantage of this, there are also more figures and narrative subplots on these walls. Some like the elephant attacked by the crocodile (or the image of the hanuman flying with a mountain in one hand on the facade) are mythological narratives invoked by the painter to comment upon local concerns. Their allegorical import is bound to be lost on viewers who are not informed of these concerns. Others whether it be a cat stalking a photographer who himself is painted waiting by a real door like a paparazzi, or a man training his binoculars at lovers on a side wall, goats eating down a garden, a cat prowling around a basket of fish are more readily readable visual narratives. And in the midst of all this wit and bustle there are also images of quietness like that of an artist seated with his back turned to the mural immersed in sketching, and the silent and serene landscape on a narrow vertical strip of wall with a solitary palm tree with a full moon over it reflected in clear dark water below, all visual and cryptic and evocative as a haiku.

The next and most recent mural of Subramanyan was done during the winter of 2011-2012. Done in painted stoneware and covering an entire low roofed octagonal building at the centre of the Kala Bhavana campus it is in many ways a counterpoint to the adjacent black and white mural. Compared to the black and white mural – with its scintillating graphic exuberance and complex interplay of images – it is distinctly simple and muted. The contrast was planned and guided by several factors. Firstly it would finely playoff against the bolder gestalt of the nearby black and white mural without raising an environmental cacophony. Secondly having chosen to work with painted stoneware tiles, partly in response to suggestions from colleagues to do something more permanent, it was necessary to consider the design compulsions it imposed. For the motifs to be permanent the painting had to be done on biscuit fired tiles and the tiles were bound to shrink on firing and there would be some breakage, so there would be problems with complex predetermined imagery and improvisation had to be planned for. The solution was to have few predetermined images and to keep even these simple, and to work with permutations and combinations of simple textures and patterns.

The decision to keep the images simple and the colours muted was also partly in deference to Nandalal. The building was one of the early studious of Kala Bhavana and is associated with the memory of Nandalal. He worked in one of its seven small cubicles and in memory of Nandalal the studio is known as the mastermoshai studio (the master’s studio). Nandalal with his Gandhian leanings was fond of rural arts and crafts, and as an artist and teacher endeavoured to erase the art craft divide. Considering this Subramanyan decided to use the colour of cow-dung washed mud walls of village huts as the base colour and work on it with white as the villagers do in many parts of India, with a little black put in to add variation and give relief to the motifs.  Thus there is no narration in this mural; it has very few motifs and these too only of trees, some veering towards reality and others towards abstract or decorative motifs. Besides these there are a few quotations from the writings of Rabindranath, Abanindranath and Nandalal on art chosen to remind the viewers of the aesthetic associated with the place and with the mural itself. Rest of the wall space is covered with tiles marked with decorative textures or motifs – tiles with tiny cross or check marks in black used to create muted overall textured grounds, white tiles with irregular spots and stippling for motifs that stand out in marked contrast, tiles with herringbone motifs used for borders or to suggest movements and directions, and tiles with large vertical or diagonal crosses and dots between arms, and one or two kinds of whirl motifs which are used in simple repetitions or rotations to suggest various levels of animation.

The imagery is minimal and its overall impact is austere, some would think too spartan. Compared to the black and white mural its sensuousness is subtler and deliberately underplayed as in many of Nandalal’s works. This is Subramanyan’s homage to Nandalal as well as a demonstration of his personal insight into the expressive subtleties of design gained through long years of engagement.

Like all well designed environmental artworks this mural too is designed to come alive in contact with its environment. In other words it is animated and completed by the environment and changes in it, in this case light. Seen in bright sunlight all three colours stand out in full saturation and the mural glistens, in shadow or when the sun is shielded by a cloud the ground grows darker and the blacks recede while the whites continue to stand out, in the evening twilight and in moonlight the distinction between the ground and black textures is erased and the white motifs turn spectral. Similarly it is one effect when the shadows of surrounding trees dapple the surface and another when architectural shadows cut it up. It is more like a landscape perceived differently in changing light rather than a work of art seen under constant illumination in a museum.

The idea is not unique, medieval cathedrals with stained-glassed interiors; Islamic architecture with surfaces textures and lattices were designed for registering and experiencing such interactions between artwork and illumination. To a lesser extent in various architectural traditions bricklaying, wood panelling, raftering, roof tiling have been used similarly. Subramanyan brings together the simplicity of rural mud buildings decorated seasonally and the refinement of Islamic architectural decoration. This coming together of the earthy and the rarefied ensued partly by design and partly by circumstance. Firstly the intentional part: like Rabindranath and Nandalal he too has realized that in art earthiness is not all crudeness but also a touch of vitality, and refinement is not all transcendence it can also be artifice and affectation. And now the circumstantial part: refinement is accomplished in art when sensibility and skill works in unison and this cannot be expected when an artist works with a group of assistants especially in a non-traditional situation like Subramanyan’s. And Subramanyan’s approach to the issue has been a little different from that of his two eminent predecessors, Nandalal and Benodebehari.

Nandalal almost always used cartoons, sometimes did elaborate colour studies in actual size, and chose assistants who were more attuned to his style. Benodebehari by contrast, partly owing to his impaired vision, worked without cartoons. If there was a preconceived composition it was totally mental, its external realization was guided by the rhythm of the working hand. Because it was difficult to convey this adequately to his assistants he usually carried out the painting himself or apportioned small parts to his assistants which were more like insets within his work. Perhaps the only exception to this was an area within the Hindi Bhavan mural he allowed Suramanyan to paint. Subramanyan sometimes make drawings and sometimes small maquettes, but does not follow the drawing or maquette while working on site and always improvise. He also do not try to choose assistants whose personal styles harmonise with his own but try to accommodate the deviations they bring into the larger scheme of the mural and its linguistic framework.

 Accommodation and improvisation are the crux of his strategy as a muralist. Determined to meet the viewers halfway and open up a polyvalent communicational exchange with them he seldom allow his individual style or unique skills to dominate his murals – the black and white mural being more of an exception. To achieve this he recognizes that a muralist has to make materials and techniques an integral part of his language and let his style be affected by it, determining its representational and expressive apparatus. This would determine the forms he creates and their sensuousness or the representational aspect of his work. When the viewer takes note of the particular sensuousness of forms then he is led from the representational to metaphorical meaning of forms, when the viewer takes note of form relationships and read then metonymically he arrives at the narrative meaning of the work. And finally when a viewer recognizes the context in which the metaphorical and narrative meanings are placed, forms acquires symbolic overtones and allegorical amplitude. While this might be true of the way we encounter artworks in general Subramanyan recognizes it and plans towards such an encounter, and ensures that his work comes alive at many levels.

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.