A little over a year ago, he was just a name to me. A name uttered with a degree of awe by the members of the art group I was then a part of.
“Mini, we may get the opportunity to exhibit KGS’s works, you know!” I was told one day at the group meeting. I knew from their hushed tones that this was no ordinary artist we were discussing. “We need to work out the details with The Seagull Foundation for the Arts. You’ll take care of it, won’t you?” I nodded, suitably impressed.
As it hardly seemed the ideal moment to reveal my ignorance, I quietly opened the search engine and typed in ‘K.G. Subramanyan artist India’. And Alladin’s cave opened.
Over the next few weeks, I read up as much as I could on him, pored through the images of his works, and listened to everything everyone said about this phenomenon called K. G. Subramanyan.
I learned that despite being well into his 90s, he still continues to paint for the sheer joy of it. I saw the images of terracotta and sandblast murals he had worked on, of the lines and brush strokes on every medium from paper and board to fabric, canvas, boards, mylar sheets and glass…
It seemed as if his talent knows no boundaries when it comes to expression.
Being a teacher myself, I am acutely aware of the lasting impact a teacher has on a community. Which made me think about KGS the teacher, with his many decades as a faculty with the art departments of India’s top universities… Little wonder then that he is spoken of as ‘one of India’s most engaging and influential artists’.
My encounter with KGS the writer came a little later, while browsing through the pages between the embroidered black velvet covers of Seagull Books publisher’s catalogue. The wisdom, the quiet wit, in his words seemed to be in keeping with the person I had by then conjured up in my mind.
What I felt at that point was profound gratitude: in a very distant way, I too was a minuscule part of his world…
Then, events transpired as they tend to in life. And a couple of irreconcilable differences and much heartbreak later, I stepped out of the art group, no longer a part of the show that I had so looked forward to.
Soon, some friendly discussions that had been going on in the background solidified into Collage Communications, a partnership entity with a couple of friends.
It was time to move on.
The call came a month or so later.
An unexpected phone call which informed me that the KGS show was called off by both Seagull and the group. The regret in the voice at the other end of the line was palpable – it was one of having unwittingly let down someone you cared for deeply. A sentiment I could understand, given the nature of the relationship between K.G. Subramanyan and Seagull. One built on three decades worth of warmth, love and respect.
Collage Communications stepped in to conduct the KGS show, tentatively at first, and then with increased conviction. And soon, with the support of The Embassy of India in the UAE, Sultan Ali Al Owais Foundation and of course The Seagull Foundation for the Arts, the UAE chapter of Sketches, Scribbles, Drawings by K.G. Subramanyan began to take shape.
Then books started arriving from Seagull: books on KGS, books by him. Beautifully produced, hardbound books that any bibliophile is certain to lust over. I browsed through them all, read randomly through many, and studied a few. At first it was because I had texts to prepare for the media, but the more I read, the more significant his writings became.
I read Tale of the Talking Face, which came packaged as a brilliantly illustrated, deceptively simple fable. Two pages into the book, one became aware of the depth of perception, the profound sadness, it evolved from. Letters, a collection of KGS’ responses to governmental queries, revealed something else: his courage of conviction. Here was a person who did not hesitate to stand up for what he believed in, to voice his opinions without ado or acrimony, regardless of who he was addressing.
Preparing texts on KGS and answering journalists on his behalf then became an honour: it wasn’t everyday that one chanced upon individuals one could look up to, in the real sense of the word. The last one I had met was Atticus Finch in the form of Gregory Peck!
Sketches, Scribbles, Drawings by K.G.Subramanyan opened at India House in Abu Dhabi on April 9, 2015, and Sultan Ali Al Owais Foundation in Dubai on April 15. And for the first time, I got to see for real the ‘magic of making’. Art that is singularly, beautifully, K.G.Subramanyan’s. Art that, while it draws from the wealth of Indian mythology and the Goddess concept, is as modern in its acceptance of the ‘ways of the world’ as the artist himself. Art that is at once irreverent and profound.
The event got dream coverage from the media, and great response from the public. It is a memory I find beyond my ability to describe, one I will cherish for the rest of my life.
When the suggestion came that perhaps I should meet Manida in person, I was unsure at first. But the more I mulled over it, the more it became a want, then a need, and finally a commitment. Of course I had to meet this person who, without even being aware of it, had set my life on a different track!
Moreover, I had a bunch of newspaper clippings and a certificate I had accepted on his behalf, which I could hand over to him in person.
I reached Baroda on the 9th of June. To my surprise, the hotel I was to stay in accepted me as the house guest because, ‘You are Manida’s guest; so you are our guest’! Everything from food and stay to transport was taken care of, leaving me speechless and humbled.
The next morning, I was dropped inside the gates of Manida’s unassuming home, where he lived with his only daughter Uma Padmanabhan.
I met Manida, finally. Sitting in what seemed like a clearing in a pile of books.
He welcomed me without fuss, his by-then-familiar smile warmly in place. And somehow, the nervousness I had been carrying around for weeks slowly began to dissipate. He could easily have been a much-loved elder in the family I was meeting after a long time.
We talked over coffee, lunch and evening tea. We talked about his childhood in Kerala which he had hardly any memories of, and his trip down memory lane decades later with his daughter. We talked about art and culture, and the commercialism that was impacting it. About women writers delving into their experiences, and the relevance of doing that. About the richness of Tamil language, literature, and the intricacies of its grammar…
His wisdom was profound, regardless of the topic we were discussing.
We talked about people mutually known. I found it charming that he still viewed the care and affection he was given with childlike wonderment. And the fact that he made no effort to hide his appreciation, his gratitude, for it all.
Then he spoke about the art education scene. And how he felt that there was a dire need for more thorough research and archiving on the arts, particularly in India. “There is hardly any research being done today, and even less when it comes to proper archiving,” he told me. As a teacher he was cognisant of what that meant to the field of art education. He had donated his home in Santiniketan to the university for the purpose, and was now concerned about raising the funds required to employ and sustain a staff body.
At 92, he had his cause.
In the afternoon, Umaji took me to ‘the room upstairs’ to rest, a room lined with what seemed like a thousand books which belonged to her late mother. The living room next to it, which used to be Manida’s studio before his movements became curtailed due to a hip replacement surgery, still had an air of anticipation – as if it was waiting for its once-occupant to return.
When I took leave, it was strangely without the usual sense of finality. More of an au revoir than good bye.
I flew back to Dubai the next day. Without regret, richer by a handful of good people and a bunch of warm memories.
Yes. There is a larger world out there, alive and well. A world where idealism and sentiment are not funny words; where trust, affection and instinct still guide decisions. Where individuals have causes they take up with earnestness. A world populated by people like K. G. Subramanyan: artist, teacher, writer, art historian…and above all a human being, in the finest sense of the word.
It’s heartwarming, that knowledge.