To be in the presence of an artist and teacher like K.G. Subramanyan was to learn the secret of art and life, and the values of liberty, pluralism, connectedness and compassion.
The passing of the artist, teacher, thinker and philosopher Kalpathi Ganapathi Subramanyan on June 29, at the age of 92, signals the end of an age when artists intertwined their careers and ideas with a larger cause in an organic manner, a cause in which they played a crucial role as educators.
Born in Palakkad, Kerala, in 1924, Subramanyan studied Economics at Presidency College, Chennai, where he was drawn to the freedom movement. When he chose to pursue art, it was under the tutelage of masters such as Nandlal Bose and Benodebehari Mukherjee, who were likewise heavily influenced by the freedom struggle, and inspired by the ideas of Gandhi and Tagore. Theirs was a call to shrug off the colonial past and conceptualise new idioms of art that arose from an understanding of Indian realities and its many traditions – as a modern response to the changing circumstances triggered by a newly independent nation in the making. Imbued with these values, Subramanyan, or “Mani Sir” or “Mani Da”, as he was popularly known, exemplified that rare kind of artist and teacher who is no longer seen in the art colleges of India today.
Well-known sculptor K.S. Radhakrishnan, who works out of Delhi, still has vivid memories of Santiniketan in 1976-1977 for a special reason: that was when Mani Da came to the university for a one-year teaching stint – transforming the young Radhakrishnan’s very understanding of art and the role of the artist in society. To be in the presence of Mani Da was to constantly learn, he says in the following tribute told to Chitra Padmanabhan.
When I joined Kala Bhavan, the institute of fine arts, as a student in 1974, legendary sculptor Ramkinker Baij was living in Santiniketan. We had a faculty of great artists as teachers, among them Sarbarai Roy Choudhury in sculpture and Somenath Hore in printmaking. Although I was specialising in sculpture, such was the atmosphere at Santiniketan that one tried one’s hand at everything – from painting, to craft, to printmaking. Exploring how the various arts allowed diverse interpretations of the world was the way to hone one’s artistic sensibility there.
The one teacher we missed was Mani Da, who was teaching painting at the faculty of fine arts in M.S. University of Baroda at the time. He was spoken of with immense pride, respect and love by our teachers. After all, he was one of ‘ours’, having been mentored by the holy trinity of mastermoshai [the master teachers] Nandlal Bose, Benodebehari Mukherjee and Ramkinker Baij in the 1940s. It was from them that he had imbibed the valuable lesson of breaking stuffy orthodoxies of academic art to cultivate the untrammelled gaze of the modernist. He had the unique ability to dive into the deeper cultural meanings of traditional art forms so as to create idioms that spoke to the contemporary context – droll and subversive, hovering between the real and the imagined. Seeing art and craft as part of the same continuum, he was eager to work with diverse material on diverse scales. He designed toys and textiles, made huge terracotta murals, printed lithographs, wrote and illustrated children’s books, painted canvases that marked his journey as an extraordinary fabulist and wrote extensively on art.
Moreover, as a teacher of art in M.S. University, he made students realise that plurality comprised the essence of society as well as its art forms and traditions in India, that “each way of doing [things] had its own way of seeing or vice versa” and that to create a monolithic aesthetic or yardstick for different art forms was meaningless. Aware of his popularity among students in Baroda, we often wondered how it would be if he came to Kala Bhavan – this extraordinary artist and teacher who had been inspired, as a student, by Gandhi to participate in the Quit India Movement and even suffer imprisonment. The same Gandhian philosophy steered him towards an aesthetic and practice that was based on the idea of a constant creative engagement with the world. The concept of the artist in his ivory tower was not for him.
Wonder of wonders, our wish was fulfilled in the academic year of 1976-1977, when Mani Da came to Santiniketan for a year as a visiting professor at Kala Bhavan’s painting department. I was then in my third year, studying sculpture. But his arrival was a cause for celebration for students from all the artistic disciplines because the sweep of his scholarship was clearly not limited to painting. Teachers who knew him told us that his perceptive observations were such that we would remember them for a long, long time. R. Siva Kumar – an acclaimed art historian heading the department in Kala Bhavan today – and I were batchmates and we spent a great deal of time with Mani Da.
There was always a throng of students wanting him to look at their work, looking forward to his observations. He had this trick of teasing out of you what you wished to do, what you had ended up doing and what you should have been doing, by gently guiding you to the conceptual core of your work, from where the idea of the art work should unfurl. Being a sculptor, I did not want to learn techniques from him, but rather the way to approach a work at the conceptual level. He was one of the most accessible teachers on campus.
Not just the students, but also the teachers wanted to have their share of time with him. He would sit at his favourite adda, under the Chinese Banyan tree on campus and discussions would unfold over a cup of tea or coffee. Mani Da would light a cigarette, for he was a chain smoker. Those discussions, on an individual or collective level, were one of the most enjoyable aspects of that year.
Indefatigable practitioner that he was, his life was one big lesson for all of us. For instance, he would go to the graphic studio, headed by his close friend Hore, to make a lithograph. Students would surround him, wanting to get a good look at how he worked. He would ask the students to help him. One print would be made. If he was not satisfied, he would make a slight change and a new print would be made. We would be charged with excitement.
Watching a master at work
I look at it this way – whether one is ‘taught’ formally or not, one can learn by observing a master at work. That one year, I was privileged to see Mani Da tune his mind to diverse materials: he worked with terracotta, painted on canvas, made lithographs and made his first exploratory attempts of painting on glass.
Although he returned to M.S. University after that year, Mani Da came back to Kala Bhavan in 1980 to head the painting department. He even bought a house in Santiniketan and settled down to a new phase of life. I was in my final year of my post-graduation studies, following which I left the campus. But the pull of my association with him was so strong that I visited him regularly, making it a 40-year long relationship. The fact that my wife Mimi had been mentored by Mani Da during her Masters at M.S. University deepened the bond further.
Mani Da’s spectrum of art was immense – he could make the smallest of toys in wood or found material and just as effortlessly execute large murals or paint huge canvases. We saw, up close, Mani Da’s ability to imagine and improvise, and coax forms out of any handy material. Baij, too, was known for doing that — he would use bamboo for making the armature for open air sculptures, since there was no steel available. For these artists, a lack of resources was nothing more than an invitation to innovate.
Mani Da did not restrict his imagination in any way, being dynamic in his use of resources and forever open to experimenting with new material. To create a 40-foot canvas from a series of sketches, you need to be tremendously fluid in approach, which he was.
I remember the time he painted the entire façade of Kala Bhavan’s painting department building in black and white, creating a stunning mural. The outermost surface of the wall was removed to make way for a fresh plaster that was treated to create the right kind of surface. The project started as all things with Mani da usually did. He had an idea, worked out an immaculate layout and then painted directly on the wall with his confident flourish, creating spontaneous, flowing lines.
Because the surface was exposed to the elements, the colour faded in a few years. Remarking that everything had a life span of its own, in 2011, Mani Da repainted the entire surface, not bothered in the least that he was creating something that would not last forever. He was in his late ’80s then but there he was, standing on the scaffolding on the second floor, painting away. Looking up in awe at his sheer energy and ability were students and teachers. A man standing in the open and working, it was as if he was an integral part of a choreographed composition. What a privilege for students to see magic being made in this way before their eyes.
Inspired by this experiment, in 2013, Mani Da painted a huge black and white canvas, eight feet high and 40 feet wide, called ‘War of the Relics’, which was exhibited at the India Art Fair in Delhi.
The other major mural Mani Da created on campus was in tribute to his guru, Bose, in 2011-2012; he covered the exterior of his studio with ceramic tiles. He planned each tile in such detail and with such care! He was 88 years old. I photo-documented the entire process, from the initial stage of creating a beautiful model to executing each tile in detail. The hue of the tiles corresponded to the colour of earth, making the studio seem almost like an extension of nature. The meticulousness with which he worked was amazing. It is hard to even imagine the kind of discipline required for work on such a scale – from planning to execution. A factory in Santiniketan gave him space to work. There, with students and teachers assisting him, Mani Da went through the long process of painting each tile, putting it in the kiln and waiting for it to emerge. This was probably his last mural.
Breaking the binary of high and low
What was inspiring was Mani Da’s approach to art practice, seeing in it the potential to fashion a community of students and teachers bound by creativity, and relating to their environment in a bond of friendship.
There were many activities in Santiniketan that fostered such an approach. For instance, on the first and second December every year, Kala Bhavan organises a Nandan mela (fair) to commemorate Bose’s birth anniversary on the third of that month. At that time, the event was preceded by almost two to three months of preparation by teachers and students, who would make art works out of handy materials for sale, and the proceeds would go towards student welfare. I still remember the excitement the annual event caused, for it was one occasion when even students could buy the work of a master; in 1974, I bought a Baij lithograph for Rs 10!
All these masters had one more trait in common: they would draw on the spot and present their drawings as gifts on someone’s birthday or housewarming. Any postcard sent by Bose would contain a drawing by him. None of the masters ever made objects of art with the idea of finding big buyers, seeing them merely as commodities. They were more interested that students learnt to use diverse materials through which to come up with an appropriate aesthetic to express their relationship with the community and world around them. Baij drew a lot from nature and everyday life. Mani Da, who learnt from the masters, imbibed their ideas, distilled them into his own vocabulary and passed on that critical learning to students.
Public art held a special place in Mani Da’s heart. A Gandhian at heart, he made the mural at Gandhi Darshan in Delhi, opposite Rajghat. He designed a courtyard with a tree in the middle, with concrete murals based on Gandhian principles all around. The courtyard represented an idealised space, he said. But, as usual, the place has not been maintained properly. Mani Da felt bad about that. As an artist, you expect that people will get sensitised by a work of art, but in actual fact the very insensitivity of people and institutions destroys public art.
Mani Da frequently spoke to us about making art. He would recall the innumerable craft traditions of India, such as textiles, the terracotta that forms the material of the bankura horses or the ayyanars and the Warli paintings. He would say that the techniques employed by local craftsmen were living traditions, and the manner in which contemporary artists perceived them to create their own vocabulary for their context was what was important. Gradually, one’s preconceived notions about the contemporary artist and ‘high art’ as opposed to the craftsperson’s ‘lowly craft’ receded into the background.
An everlasting presence
A few years after retiring from the department – but not from artistic activity – Mani Da moved back to Vadodara. His wife was unwell and medical care was closer at hand there. His daughter, too, was there. However, he visited Santiniketan regularly, often on his birthday (February 5), because the teachers and students there wanted him in their midst. I, too, would go; celebrating his birthday was my present to myself, for my birthday falls two days later. On his 90th birthday, in 2014, Seagull Foundation organised two major exhibitions of his works, in Kolkata and at Kala Bhavan. Students from across batches, India and the world fluttered around him happily, getting him to sign their catalogues.
This year I could not make it to Santiniketan, as my friends had planned an exhibition opening of my works in Delhi to mark my 60th birthday. I went to meet Mani Da in Vadodara in mid-May instead. Since he found it difficult to go to his studio on the first floor, he had converted his drawing room into a studio. He showed me a canvas he had just completed and mentioned that he was going to start working on a big mural in Vadodara.
It is difficult to believe that Mani Da is no longer in our midst. He was a man constantly in action, his energy infectious. Instead of mentioning what he had done, he would always be talking about what he was planning to do next. Last year, he handed over his house in Santiniketan to Vishva Bharati so that it could house a research and documentation centre on art, named after Benodebehari Mukherjee. He envisaged this centre as an extension of the art history department.
Mani Da’s absence has left a huge void that can never be filled. I can say with certainty that anyone who has had the briefest contact with him will carry the imprint of that experience for a lifetime. For, the material with which he worked so well was the minds of generations of students, creating in them a permanent excitement about exploring the plurality of the world, for a better understanding of it.