Remembering Subramanyan, the ‘teacher’
K G Subramanyan who passed away at the age of 92 on the 29th of June in Baroda, was a towering figure in the world of Indian Art. One of the several things that marked him out from his contemporaries was his felicity with several mediums, his ability to breathe life into them and make them a part of his statement or vision. His artistic legacy exists in the public space and will be revisited and hopefully better studied and even more widely appreciated in the years to come. But there was another and equally significant side to him, that of a teacher. This won him respect and love and not just admiration. As a teacher he was not merely a pedagogue who devised programmes or built systems and institutions. These he had done, but above all else he was a teacher who breathed a spark of life into each student. This often changed their lives and sealed a lifelong relationship of friendship and gratitude.
This was an aspect of his life that had a large social impact but played out in private at an interpersonal level, and it will be remembered and cherished by hundreds of artists from all over India and elsewhere who were once his students. He began teaching when he joined the Faculty of Fine Arts at the M S University as a lecturer in 1951, and although he shifted base to Santiniketan – his alma mater—in 1980 and officially retired in 1989, he continued to remain not merely an Professor Emeritus but an inspirational figure and thus a true teacher till his death. A list of his students will read like a 'who is who' of Indian art, but as with everything else he wore the mantle of a teacher lightly and gracefully, and viewed his students as friends and fellow travellers. Once quizzed about his success as a teacher he replied that he does not teach but merely kindles the student's imagination; it is like setting a spark of fire to a rocket, he said, which then takes off in its own trajectory powered by innate potentiality.
I first came to know him in 1977 when he came to Santiniketan as a visiting professor for a year. When I was planning to join the art college a distant relative had advised my father: Sent him to Subramanyan in Baroda. I applied, but it did not happen because my application for some strange reason ended up in the Department of Textile Technology. So I looked forward to his coming with anticipation, and a little apprehension because his reputation as a no-nonsense man had travelled ahead of him. Compared to some of our teachers who were easily encouraging he certainly was restrained and said what needs to be said. Initially this made most of the students stay away from him, and allowed us, a small group who were more venturesome, to have a lot of him.
During the one year he was in Santiniketan I talked to him almost every day—sometimes listening sometimes arguing—watched him work on his terracotta reliefs, showed him my paintings and promptly got my grand ideas cut into shreds. To watch him work and to listen to him was exhilarating, to have one's work mercilessly pulled apart was disheartening but eventually both were equally educative. Many of the things I learned in that one year have been the best lessons I have had and they have stayed with me. Not long after he had arrived, armed with my little reading of Freud and Jung I brought up the idea of psychology as a tool in art history and made a cheeky suggestion of applying it to his works. Quoting Henry Moore he told me that even if there was a psychological trigger the artist would prefer not to know about it; and about Faulkner's dismissal of a journalist who had raised the question of Freudian influence in his writings with the quip: 'I have never read him. Neither did Shakespeare.' I learned that he did not like the idea of leaving the work and looking at the artist, and did not think that trying to unravel the intention of the artist rather than the message of the work was a good art history. Years later he brought up these ideas in an essay titled Visual Arts and the Concept of Rasa.
With no formal classes to take, he spent the mornings working in the studio at Kala Bhavana, and in the afternoons he painted at home. He loved quietness while he worked and certainly did not enjoy turning work into a performance as Husain did, but he allowed students to watch him work. He did a series of 13 terracotta reliefs while he was in Santiniketan, and day after day I sneaked in and quietly watched him work on them. Gradually he opened up and related that they were triggered by photographs of accident victims he saw posted at a nearby railway station. They made him think, he said, about the sensuousness of body parts. He began with a totem of lips, which he declared unsuccessful. It was followed by 12 other works conceived in groups of four. One dealing with the idea of switch between faces and masks, another with fishes and fossils and a third with animated clothes tiled Wardrobe Drama – moving from the sensuousness of clay to the sensuousness of flesh, from flesh to bone, and from the movement of limbs to the animation of dress.
He did not discuss them directly, but talked around them. Watching his fingers playfully manipulating the clay one thought he was part housewife rolling rotis, part child cutting up mud pies into fancied shapes, and part primitive artist working with a process which still is in the course of formation. He did not give the impression that there was a well honed skill or technique to it, but watching him work taken together with his words made me think, for the first time, of the relation between image and process, process and material and how all these give shape to the work's meaning. As he worked, like a voice over on a parallel track he talked about Paul Klee, of his notebooks, his pedagogic methods, and how what he taught us about art's language was perhaps more important than the works he did. That was demonstration, that was learning.
After a few months I told him that I wished to show him my paintings. He asked where I worked. Being an art history student, I said, I worked in my hostel room and that I will bring my works to his studio whenever he was ready to look at them. He replied it was not necessary and that he would come to my hostel room instead. The next day he came to my room. I showed him my work and mentioned how some of my other teachers thought that my techniques were improper and that my literary interest was an impediment to free expression. He said that improper techniques were not a problem, if I knew what I wanted to do, he assured, sooner or later appropriate techniques would follow. Instead he quizzed me about what I read. Having grown up in Kerala at a time when Existentialism had a deep impact on its writers, I was then full of Dostoyevsky, Sartre, Camus, Sylvia Plath, Unamuno and their ilk. He smiled mischievously and said that someone who looked at my work would not imagine that I was interested in these authors but assume that I have been looking at Byzantine mosaics or Gothic stained glass. And pointed out how my thought world was dominated by writers who were radically subjective but the style I chose to paint carried resonances of a shared faith. He followed this with an analysis of Kafka's techniques of narration and use of language, and how one's weakness can be turned into one's strength.
At the end of the hour and a half long session he concluded: 'You can either choose to be a painter or an art historian, but don't try to be both.' Not ready to make that choice yet, I shot back, 'You paint and you write, and yet ask me to choose.' He explained, he was only an artist who occasionally expressed his opinions, not an art historian, and sketched out for me what three generations of art historians from Havell and Cooraswamy, to Vasudev S Agarval and Mulk Raj Anand had set out to do and achieved. The first generation, he said, had a certain idea about the purpose of history and they had the appropriate tools, the second generation inherited the tools but did not have a clear sense of purpose, and the third essentially popularized art history as a form of knowledge generation. The broad contours of Indian art were established by the first generation, but the next two have not moved far beyond that, it was, he argued, the responsibility of the fourth generation to look at details, focus on microhistories, set new goals and find new ways of writing history. It took a few years for me to make the choice but the seeds of my efforts as an art historian were sown on that day.
It is not surprising if one of his students did become an art historian. I was certainly not the first or the only one. He has not only helped scores of students to shape themselves into artists of all kinds—painters, sculptors, printmakers, and installation artists—but also inspired others to become photographers, archivists, scholars and curators of craft practices, designers, animators and even social workers, and a few, who were more resourceful, to become multi-professionals like him. He did not herd all his students to the same programme, but helped each one of them to find themselves, to think better with their hands and minds, to look at themselves more reflexively, gain a perspective on art and the world, and chart their individual trajectories.
He did not pat his students on their backs; he was plain spoken with them as much as he was uncompromising with himself. When he cut their fledgling works and their young artistic egos to pieces, and I believe he did this often, they were perplexed and crestfallen for a while. But as they picked themselves up again they usually realized that it had done them some good. And most discovered that he had a soft heart behind the undemonstrative façade. I remember him declining a special lunch arranged by a gallery and joining a few of us, who had helped put the exhibition up, for street food and regaling us with stories as we ate chow-mein from paper plates. And packing us into a taxi and taking us to see exhibitions by other artists while his own was ongoing. Everyone who knew him will have some such spontaneous gesture of humanity to remember. And the rustle of those memories resonate in the words with which they addressed him
– Mani-da, Mani-sir, Mani-saab.
R SIVA KUMAR is an internationally renowned contemporary Indian art historian, art critic, and curator. He has authored over fifteen books on modern Indian art and curated several exhibitions including ‘Santiniketan: The Making of a Contextual Modernism’, the retrospectives ‘K. G. Subramanyan and Benodebehari’, and ‘The Last Harvest: Paintings of Rabindranath.’ He is professor of Art History at Visva Bharati, Santiniketan.