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Handmade magic

Sudha G Tilak | Updated on January 17, 2018

All-inclusive spirit: KG Subramanyan—also known as Mani da—was a true symbol of a syncretic new India. Photo: H Vibhu   -  The Hindu

Scholar-artist KG Subramanyan was the last Renaissance polymath among the modernists of India, making a wide variety of mediums his own

The demise of Kalpathi Ganapati Subramanyan (1924-2016) signals the passing of one of India’s instinctive and inclusive of artists.

For that’s what Mani da was — a true symbol of a syncretic new India, as visualised by its founding fathers. Born in a village in Palakkad, Kerala, he was intrigued by Western art reviews and the underground political ideas in the then French colony Mahe. He turned rebel during college days in Madras, became a Gandhian and courted imprisonment during the radical days of the freedom movement. He found his artistic passion in Bengal, was fired by the visual impact of the European masters and stints in England and New York, and shifted to Gujarat and taught at Baroda University. He was wedded to a Punjabi and responded to the Bengali dak naam (pet name) Mani da and signed his works of art in Tamil.

Subramanyan’s oeuvre was eclectic. As a polymath he collaborated with a number of people and worked on a variety of mediums — oils, acrylic paintings, reverse glass paintings, mammoth murals, gouaches of boards, terracotta panels, ceramic craft, wooden toys, silk screens, lino cuts, wire, metal, bronze, fabric… His clever mind and dexterous skills allowed him to work on a variety of materials. As longtime friend and publisher Naveen Kishore says, “He worked his hands as his mind.”

Mani da truly felt fulfilled with the joy of making, the aspect of creativity that was tactile and sensory and needed physical skills, which he took pride in. Many of his poems, essays and copious collections of writings on a variety of subjects were published, of which The Magic of Making comes recommended to know how he engaged with the world around him and the culture of aesthetics, which was as important as the individual’s pursuit of art.

In an interview he recalled that his master at Kala Bhavan, Nandalal Bose, once chided him for “dressing like an Indian and thinking like a European”. From Binod Behari at Santiniketan, he learnt that the creative language went beyond the artist’s studio. He learnt to “draw from life”, engage with craftsmen in villages, when craft and folk art were terms for the unrefined. He saw the wealth of art and craft in the indigenous folk artists of India. He could collaborate with Pupul Jayakar for a handloom textiles project, work with craftsmen on firing a terracotta tablet and at the kilim, and work on a mural project for Santiniketan with the same passion as with his individual paintings. He was a teacher and also wrote and illustrated children’s books.

Subramanyan’s paintings were an explosion of the many experiences, memories and experiments he had had and observed around him. His works reflected the same: tableaux fertile with beings, creatures comic or grotesque, violent, playful; where plant and bird and animal and design and hamlet came together vividly. The occult dancers of North Malabar and the bahurupis of Bengal metamorphose and people his works with their exaggerated features, mixing myths, rituals, and violence past and contemporary, erotic and desire.

The memories of the kolam his mother would draw in the mornings with their geometrical designs and loops and curves; the musical conversations his father had at home with Chembai Vaidyanatha Iyer or Madurai Mani Iyer; his interest in the dance forms of Bharatanatyam, the mythological dramas and epics that would unfold in Kathakali performances; the abstract quality of a ragam he heard during childhood... all have found their way into his works. It would continue later on when he listened in to the Bauls and their ecstatic lament in Bengal; the Santhal tribal toys at the mela, the museums he visited abroad would make their way into his works too.

Until his end, despite crippling pain and fractures, friends and family recall, Subramanyan worked. If it was a large mural he would work on smaller panels or a diptych or wear his belt around his middle and carry on working.

As art critics and his observers would attest, he gave the moody and temperamental artist a bad name. He was not a recluse. He was happy in the company of others and saw it as a source for exchanging ideas and was generous with sharing his works. He was both pupil and mentor. He would take you down on an argument only to offer you an alternative to chew on and was amenable to ideas. Friends recall how in the midst of conversations he would drop a term or a trendy idiom that was playing on the TV, keeping himself clued to politics and popular culture alike.

Subramanyan once said that the prayer song he heard at home as a child rang true of him too — each day is the day for celebration. Perhaps that is the best way to remember Mani da. By celebrating the joy that his works gave people then, and will continue to give us.

Sudha G Tilak is a Delhi-based journalist

Published on July 08, 2016

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