Frenzied lines of women

Ella Datta | Updated on August 31, 2018 Published on August 31, 2018

Fabled oeuvre: Besides multi-armed goddesses, Subramanyan’s works are often double-edged and provocative representations of women   -  COURTESY: ART HERITAGE

An ongoing exhibition of the late artist KG Subramanyan’s works buzzes with the self-assertive liberation of the female body

His women are not tall and robust like those who people MF Husain’s imagery. Nor are they the weary, asexual women who appear in Tyeb Mehta’s paintings. KG Subramanyan’s way of depicting a woman is certainly distinctive.

That the artist, aesthetician, writer and educationist had a quirky way of representing women is amply clear from the nearly 200 of his drawings now on view at an exhibition in New Delhi. The female form in the works of Subramanyan (1924-2016) is deeply related to his visual language.

Art historian R Siva Kumar, who has closely followed Subramanyan’s oeuvre through the decades, says his images spring from his mind, “each built from a flurry of gestural marks, each enlivened by a spark of animation and together buzzing like a hive.” Subramanyan’s lines are strong, flowing or staccato, complexly cross-hatched, boldly defining the female body.


Different strokes: Between 1986 and 1987, Subramanyan did many sketches of Durga, Saraswati and others. But not all his depictions are of benevolent mother goddesses   -  COURTESY: ART HERITAGE


But even more than his frenzied lines and splotches of bright colours, there is Subramanyan’s wry way of seeing a woman. There are not many representations of sadness or innocence, but when it comes to an image of a mother and child, the artist always shows tenderness. When he does capture the gentler emotions, the appeal is instantaneous, like the watercolour done in 1987 that shows a grave woman in a dark blue garment, legs in a wrap and stretched out in front of her. In spite of the quietness of the work, compared to the buoyancy of his other drawings, it continues to haunt the viewer.

But, for the most part, Subramanyan’s ways of seeing a woman are often playful, witty, mischievous, and sometimes even a little sardonic. He shows them boldly confronting the viewer, flagrantly displaying their sexuality, leaping, gambolling, cavorting, making provocative gestures. They are shown in garden settings, with flowers or birds, as well as in occasional scenes of domesticity. In a couple of drawings, they are shown with their male counterparts in playful scenes of everyday life. But it is the self-assertive liberation of the female body that leaves the strongest impression. It is also true that Subramanyan brings a large dash of irony in all his depictions of the human drama.

During a conversation with Siva Kumar in 2014, the artist had said, “I am by nature a fabulist. I transform images, change their character, make them float, fly, perform, tell a visual story. To that extent, my pictures are playful and spontaneous.”

And, indeed, he paints pictorial fables. There are a number of drawings where women are transformed into multi-armed goddesses. Between 1986 and 1987, he did many sketches of Durga, Saraswati and others. But not all his depictions are of benevolent mother goddesses. Many of them are deities subjugating the male. In one reverse painting on acrylic sheet, the goddess engages the viewer in a direct, frontal gaze, while before her stands a platter with a sacrificial male head.

Another favourite trope in Subramanyan’s work is the woman with an animal. The animal often appears to be male. A very popular theme is that of a seated woman with a cat on her lap. The cat looks longingly at her. Apart from the teasing imagery, the fluid, calligraphic brush lines are a delight. Then there are images of animals licking a woman’s cheek. It can be a horse or a goat. These delightful, double-edged, provocative images showcase the artist’s formidable drawing skills. The woman is often surrounded by a straggle of cats or dogs, buffaloes, some predatory animals, aggressive monkeys.

Subramanyan handles the animal forms with masterly skill. The calligraphic, ink-laden brush drawings of goats are captivating.

The drawings on view are both coloured and black-and-white. Subramanyan used brush, pen, ballpoint and marker pens with a variety of mediums such as ink, watercolour, gouache and crayon. Aside from a few reverse paintings on acrylic sheets, there are a couple of terracotta plaques that bear witness to his mastery over a multiplicity of mediums.

Most of the drawings are from 1980 onwards, although there are some from the earlier decades. The earlier period ones are drawn from models, possibly as pedagogic exercises for his students. Most of the later drawings are preparatory exercises.

Not all the exhibits are on sale. However, those at Art Heritage II are. Mounted dramatically by Amal Allana, director of Art Heritage and also one of Delhi’s foremost theatrepersons, with installations of blown-up photographs of the artist at work and walls painted brightly with monochromatic and diagonal fields of colour, the exhibition is a treat.

(Organised in collaboration with the Seagull Foundation for the Arts, the exhibition is on view till September 9 in Triveni Kala Sangam)

Ella Datta is an art historian and critic

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Published on August 31, 2018
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