New Delhi, July 10: It was an evening of sublime remembrance as Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) paid a cinematic tribute to K G Subramanyan by screening a film on the work and journey of the art legend, whose oeuvre makes him one of the most versatile artists in post-independence India.
The 103-minute documentary film on Subramanyan (fondly known as Mani-da), made by acclaimed filmmaker Goutam Ghose, was screened Friday evening to pay homage to the 92-year-old artist, who died at Vadodara on June 29.
The documentary, The Magic of Making, made in 2014 under the “Great Masters” series of IGNCA, explores the life and works of Subramanyan, whose multi-faceted creative journey as painter, muralist, sculptor, printmaker, illustrator, and writer made him a front-ranking artist with an awesome reputation.
The artist worked with an incredible range of material and mediums; he painted on paper, canvas, board, acrylic, and iron sheets; used water colours, gouache, oil, acrylic, and enamel; he made woven tapestries and designed toys and textiles. Terracotta murals and glass painting found a new lease of life in his works. The film shows all these facets of his personality and his ideology in an anecdotal manner.
The slick documentary was largely shot at the Faculty of Fine Arts, M S University, Baroda; at Manida's home; and also at Santiniketan, Lucknow and Kutch, a village in Gujarat.
The film takes off with the artist interacting with a crowd at ‘Mythologies‘, an exhibition which was hosted at Galerie 88 in Kolkata in 2013. The narrator describes Subramanyan as the one who inspired three generations of artists. It vividly depicts the artist’s experience of being in different parts of India and its cultural diversities impacting his art.
“A person’s growth is conditioned by the environment that surrounds him and the fight that he has with it. There are things you accept and there are things you revolt. What we call as culture is a world that we build for ourselves which is in contradiction to what the world really is,” he says.
He also talks about an occasion where he had an opportunity to handle ancient terracotta artefacts at the Baroda Art Fair, which he found better in terms of build and quality as compared to modern-day studio artworks. “I found that clay has a language of its own. And if one has the ability, he can bring out that language,” he notes.
In particular, Subramanyan talks about one of his famous terracotta murals that was inspired by the scattered human bodies and devastation he observed during the floods in Baroda.
The film shows the artist visibly at ease in the premises of Santiniketan, which happened to him as “a matter of luck”. He greatly admired the experiment of Tagore and wanted to be in an institute like Santiniketan.
As a student-activist in Chennai, Subramanyan was imprisoned for six months for picketing outside a government building during the Quit India Movement. In prison, he met people who discussed either politics or about accumulating money or power. But he knew that if India became independent, he would not be involved in politics but in rebuilding the nation.
During this time, Subramanyan’s brother who could not see his sibling’s art suffer, wrote a letter in confidence to Nandlal Bose who was then the principal of Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan. It was a moment of joyous surprise for the artist when the request for admission was accepted. That happened in 1944.
“It was a new place for me. Even the animals looked smaller than the ones I was used to in Kerala. The trees had a lesser girth and goats were smaller. You come to a place of monastic simplicity. Tagore always spoke about tapovan. Maybe this was tapovan. There was always quietude. The interactions did not happen in studios and classrooms but in tea shops,” the artist reminisces.
In the film, Subramanyan talks about Santiniketan teaching him the importance of contributing to the environment and society. The walls of Kala Bhavana were installed with Nandlal Bose’s murals which were being sold off to villagers at a rock-bottom price. It happened because of the efforts of Abanindranath Tagore, Bose’s teacher. These paintings and murals became daily referrals and inspiration for other artists to contribute.
Subramanyan then points out at a building and narrates about a large black and white mural on its wall, which was his own contribution to Santiniketan. The artist also explains how he managed to revamp Bose’s studio after his death.
The slick documentary also shows Subramanyan’s stay in M S University, Baroda. He says he always found a connect between Bengal and Baroda. The artist contributed to the university’s painting studio wall by creating a mural “which was inspired by a Rabindranath Tagore quote which says that no amount of coaxing will open up the bud. What will is the first ray of sun”.
Though he never had a problem with commercialisation of artwork, he did not create to sell. The artist talks about how he conceptualized ‘Nandan Mela’, an annual art fair at Santiniketan, to promote the local art with the participation of local community.
On his practice methods, Subramanyan says he is ‘a compulsive doodler’ and does not practice anything. He just sits in his studio daily and either scribbles or paints something. The film takes us back to ‘Mythologies’. “I must be aging. But there is a profound sense of aliveness in me,” he says.
During the film-making, Ghose had said, “I have made documentaries on some legends and I found a lot of similarities between him and Ustad Bismillah Khan. Both of them, in spite of being such legends, have lived very simple lives and their humility is inspirational."
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