Regarding the Drawings of

K. G. Subramanyan

  Book Release and Exhibition
  30 September - 25 October  2010


Between the Seen and the Imagined

Nani is short for Narayani. She was our maid when I was small. It was she who looked after me most of the time. My aging mother was too busy. She had a large household to look after; cook and serve, spend and save, keep people in good humour.

Nani came quite early in the morning before the sun had risen high in the sky. I waited for her at the doorstep. While coming in she would pat me on my backside and called me lollipop. Or something that meant the same thing. Then go about doing her morning chores. When these were over she took charge of me, sat me on her lap and talked about the world around.

To Nani the world was an endless mystery. Nothing was what it seemed. There was always something behind each thing, a shadow or spirit or sorcerer. Some of them were harmless but others were evil. We lived on a hillside where cows grazed, goats wandered about and even jackals nosed around in broad daylight. Nani cautioned me - if some of them have an eye, an ear or horn smaller than the other or a limb noticeably short, beware! They could be sorcerers going around in the shape of animals with mischief on their minds. They can take you to the woods, change you into an animal or bird and keep you as a pet lifelong. She also talked about Yakshinis who lived on trees but climbed down as pretty women in the evenings and charmed young peasants returning from the fields. If any of them gave in, there was no way of saving them.

When I grew up I came to know that there was no truth in what Nani told me then. But it set me to notice things. And see that each thing was special and had features that made you feel that there was something behind it. A staid coconut palm behind our house often shook a solitary frond like it was calling you. A casuarina tree shuffled its cloak of needles in the evening breeze like girls did their windblown shawls. The flowering shrubs seemed to giggle and drooping ferns weep. Some cows wallowed in the grass swollen like pigs; others were light of foot and pranced around like deer.  Then there were cocks that walked around like grandees and hens that waddled like matrons. All typically themselves, but still seeming like something else.

A lot of my drawings seek to represent this mobility, this overlapping of character or metamorphosis, this involuntary play-acting. Though when an animal or bird wants to frighten an enemy or attract a mate they make such astonishing displays that cannot be called involuntary. And they are so breathtakingly spectacular. From time immemorial these have influenced the costumes and dances of communities who live close to the earth, all over the world. The images of these still influence our animators and theatre-men.

So most of my drawings are not itemised records of things seen but restructured equivalents that spell out some aspect of the seen reality that plays a singular role in my mind’s theatre. I feel a fool to say all this; artists of various denominations have been doing this from the beginnings of history - painters, sculptors, dancers, theatre-men, designers, animators.

When I was a student in Santiniketan I used to go sketching with Ramkinkar (Baij) quite often. I was at that time a compulsive sketcher. My artist friends had told me that this was a must; you had to milk Nature dry before you got anywhere as an artist. So I worked like a maniac. But I did not like the results. They were true, carried a lot of detail, but looked lifeless all the same. Nandalal (Bose) once saw a bunch of them and said with a smile that they looked a little like laundry lists – detailed inventories, not living images. This remark helped me a lot. It made me recall the image of a bird someone had shot down with a sling. Everything was there – head and beak, leg and claws, flesh and feathers, even the bright beady eyes. Still it was a lifeless lump.

When I knew him first, Ramkinkar had the reputation of being one of the best draughtsmen around whose graphic skills were admired by Nandalal himself. His drawings had great variety; some were meticulous while some were summary. He could chisel out the shape of a thing on the paper surface with the use of pen or pencil; his rapid watercolours could bring out the essence of a scene with ease, its spatial structure, its range of colours, and basic animation, rarely seen at first sight; his eyes could lay all this bare readily.

He went out sketching almost everyday. “With your experience, I asked him one day, why do you have to go sketching everyday?” With his characteristic laugh which sounded si-si-si, he said, Nature is a jealous mistress. If you do not give her constant attention she will turn her back on you and will not share with you her secrets.

I went with him day after day to watch how he worked. It was time well spent. He often did the same scene over and over, changing the viewpoints. Almost everyday he sat at a certain spot in the khoai to paint an afternoon train puffing in through a clump of khejur trees releasing a cloud of black smoke that got caught in their spiky leaves. And every time he came up with a distinctly new image.

I did not do very much on these trips except watch. For more than one reason. I could not work and watch at the same time. I also felt that I needed to be more skilled to keep pace with him. Besides, I was by nature withdrawn and shy. But I learned my lessons with the passage of time. I learned to extract the building blocks of a thing or scene in diverse ways; then reconfigurate them. This became an engrossing exercise. I did not have Ramkinkar’s persistence in paying court to Nature day in and day out but from time to time, I did manage to do so to ensure that my configurations did not go too far astray and loose their sense of reality.

Benodebehari (Mukherjee) also believed in paying court to Nature but in his own individual way. He had serious eyesight problems. He was blind in one eye and highly myopic in the other. He saw small details of things from near, but from far only their general shape. But he had devised for himself a method of reading reality fairly well between these two separate feelers. He sat before a scene or thing and then reduced it to an articulate schema; then fleshed it up with closely observed detail. So his flower studies and landscapes have a rhythmic liveliness and authenticity which a more direct representation would have missed. His keen interest in Far Eastern art had shown him the way. Their ink paintings presented a sort of disjuncture or distanced relationship between the object and the statement. And their liveliness lay in this interspace.

To study the human scene Benodebehari visited melas and fairs. They were his open studio. There he saw a wide assortment of people and a near complete cross section of human life - yogis and mahants, traders and entertainers and all kinds of people from city and village who milled together and lived in the open. He had also a fascination for the riverfront of Benaras for the same reason. It seemed to him like a detailed diorama of the totality of human life. There he rambled on the ghats to see the goings-on from near; then boated on the river to see the larger scene from the distance. The little visual notes he made of these were the source of his later reconstructions. Not perhaps exact documents of what was, but that despite eminently palpable and credible, a virtual Benaras throbbing with life and sound.

Nandalal also used a similar method. He jotted down the structure or rhythmic essentials of whatever he saw in a kind of visual shorthand on a sheaf of postcards which he always carried around; then elaborated them in various ways, animating them with details recalled from memory or drawn from similar visual facts he saw in his vicinity. So each effort resulted in an original construct, with various features his prevailing mood brought in.

My working process follows these models to a greater or lesser extent. I analyse what I see and break them into building blocks, then recompose them. The process is not always the same; nor the result. At times I keep close to the seen image. Other times I deviate from it considerably and improvise, though never to the extent of wiping out connection with the source. The visual world continues to excite me. And the excitement remains a magnetic core from where I make these various sorties to various stations between the real and the imagined. I recognize that this contributes to a great extent to the variety and the liveliness of many sectors of our country’s art tradition; even many art traditions in the rest of the world.

Watching the work methods of Nandalal, Benodebehari and Ramkinkar was liberating of sorts. It did not let you fall in to the beaten track - the inflexible discipline of the orthodox art school which swore by the authenticity of optical realism and the need to justify all deviations from it in its light. To admire the representation of the human figure in an Ajanta mural or a Chola bronze it sought to refer back to the book of anatomy, and go to absurd lengths in rationalising them. To the above three, each art form had a different approach to seen reality and so represented or drew resource from it differently. Each approach had its own choice of building blocks and its own methods of re-composition; in other words its distinct visual vocabulary and syntax. Each way of doing had its own way of seeing or vice versa.

So my drawings are a many-sided dialogue with things seen and remembered. It often leads me to discover something novel about hitherto familiar objects, almost give it a new avatar; which offers me further incentive to pursue this dialogue. Naturally I am a compulsive doodler; I grope and explore all the time.

I presume this groping is necessitated by the special nature of our experiences of reality and their representations. They are never complete and total. Although we are an essential part of the actual world, we know the image of the world we descry though our organs of perception is a limited one. There are many aspects of this world that are outside our reach. We do try to enlarge this reach by using a variety of advanced sensing instruments and abstract calculations based on the data they provide. Our total experience comes out of our exposure to these diverse representations; but we know well that it is still partial. This underscores the need for plurality of representations and the recognition of their validity. The drawing of a bull in the cave paintings of Altamira, in a painting of Picasso, a Toba Sojo scroll, a Greek vase painting or South Indian mural all have their own representations of reality, each valid in its context.

Though many of my drawings deal with single objects and their metamorphosis I generally see many things together in conformities or contrast, in mixed-up or ambivalent relationships, within a total theatre; from where some advance and perform. Some of my drawings are of this kind; action-scripts of sorts. They explore various alternatives. Some are followed up in paintings; some are left where they are.

Even representations of single objects are not fully true by themselves; they carry with them certain proofs of their affinities to the space and things around. This is perhaps why architectural drawings that single out an object form with precision, for all their serviceability to a fabricator, often fail to represent genuine object presence; they remain diagrammatic and skeletal. They avoid the needed imprecision, a shadow-smudge that sticks to its side, a shadow-space that lurks at its feet, be it by implication. I value these imprecisions, smudges, sfumatos, simplifications that indicate an objects’s relationship with the space or things around. Some of these object-forms interlink or interpenetrate; and undergo transformations in individuality and role.

But this talking about what one does, or means to do, gets boring after a time. And there is no end to what one can do.

K. G. Subramanyan
January 2010


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