Saturday, April 2, 2016

Reading the Murals of K.G.Subramanyan: Enchantment and Engagement

(Prof.R.Sivakumar, author of Enchantment and Engagement)

In 2011-12, when K.G.Subramanyan decided to do a large mural on the walls of the polygonal building in the Kalabhavana campus in Santiniketan, a ‘little bit more permanent’ by nature than the previous ones that he had done in the same campus, thanks to the pressure of many friends and lovers of the institution, suddenly a group of traditionalists felt that the move was blasphemous for the building that was about to get a KGS touch was the illustrious ‘Mastermoshai’s Studio’. Master Moshai is none other than Nandlal Bose (1882-1966) who used to use a few of the seven cubicles in this building as his studio spaces. While preservation of a building touched by history was the prime motto of the people who opposed KGS’ mural making, KGS and his supporters felt that it was underlining a great lineage of art and aesthetic philosophy that made Santiniketan a vibrant space, without altering the architecture structurally. Despite the agitations and rumor mongering, the mural was finished and that too when KGS had already touched 90 glorious years of his life.

‘Moving hand writes and write on’ wrote Omar Khayyam in Rubaiyat. That was how the exactly most of the poets felt when they wrote poetry; it was a divine inspiration, we believe it or not. 19th century literary critic Mathew Arnold while writing about William Wordsworth said, ‘nature seems to take pen from the poet’s hand and write for him’. Almost four centuries before Arnold, when Ezhuthacchan wrote his ‘Adhyatma Ramayana’, he invoked the Goddess of Learning saying that she should create words in him like waves in the sea. KGS painted, wrote, ideated, taught and did murals as if he were just a medium of the divine inspirations and sources. And he, even at this advanced age of 94, continues remain the divine medium of creativity. Perhaps, KGS would not agree with it. But textual analysis of his works proves that he knew about this that too from a critic like T.S.Eliot who wrote ‘Tradition and Individual Talent’ and furthered the notions of Arnold and it is not surprising a fact that KGS too has written books titled ‘Living Tradition’ and ‘Creative Circuit’ definitely resonating a few of the ideas expressed by Arnold and later carried on further by T.S.Eliot.

(KGS working on a Mural)

The Kalabhavana mural at Mastermoshai’s Studio was successfully completed and when Prof.R.Sivakumar narrates the making of it, we get to know the depth of the ideas that have gone into the making of such an ambitious process. Read ‘Enchantment and Engagement- The Murals of K.G.Subramanyan’ written by R.Sivakumar and published by the Seagull Books, we get a chance to travel through time and visit all those twelve monumental murals that KGS has done over a period of fifty years. Yes, that in other words is called ‘half a century’. When KGS came once again to Santiniketan to do this mural, he had already finished nine of his documented murals in different parts of the country and had even seen his Handloom board time textile murals coming up for sales in some auction houses, with a lot of amusement. But the making of this mural was a new experience for KGS. He chose the cow dung color for the stoneware tiles because he wanted to continue the Mastermoshai’s views on traditional aesthetical activities of people and the those of the academically educated artists; in other words, the intrinsic link between craft and art. Hence the color was evocative. As the technique was laborious, KGS limited himself to abstract patterns which have the resonances of/from the traditional crafts of India and elsewhere. First he drew them on the biscuit baked titles and then sent for final firing. It took a whole year for KGS to finish the work.

Sivakumar turns poetic when he writes about this particular mural. He captures the essence of the building with its new skin the way an impressionist painter would do with his canvas and colors: ‘This mural is like a landscape seen under a changing light rather than a work of art in a museum seen under constant illuminations. To know it mindfully and feel it fully, it has to be seen through the hours of the day and through the seasons, and attention has to be paid to the perpetual changes, not to the perpetual constancies.” (Page 29). KGS knew the effect of light and seasons on a mural because he had already had three encounters with another building in the Kalabhavana campus. In 1990, KGS came to Kalabhavana yet again and started working his famous black and white mural. He just wanted to reflect the surroundings (or the pace with which it was depleting) on the building so he chose the first tier and drew a lot of birds, monkeys and trees. Maintaining his post Expressionist style, which he has employed in his paintings, KGS worked on this mural and left it there only to make a revisit in 1993 to finish the second tier. While narrating the making of the present version Sivakumar says how he was coaxed into ‘mending and repairing the mural’ as the layers were coming off after a decade or so, instead of getting into that trap, KGS decided to ‘rub off or erase’ the existing mural and do a new one altogether!

(Mastermoshai's studio after the making of Mural by KGS)

In 2004, when KGS did this ‘redoing’ of the black and white mural, he had become more sensitive to the building and surroundings in a different way. The sylvan play and the pastoral metaphors that had enthralled the artist into the romanticism of the Santiniketan campus and even the sub-conscious demand of the artist to see the place as he had seen it during his student days, take a back seat in the third visit of the mural and in its place KGS brings complicated mythological narrative, which is entirely of the artist’s conjuration rather than the transportation of the existing ones onto a different medium, along with some traces of the early pastoral metaphors. The new mythology however is not completely out of the popular understanding. At the outset itself Sivakumar contextualizes murals as an art form and writes: “Illustrations and murals are firstly embellishments- they draw the viewers in, almost entice them in and then work upon them, make them read the message and ponder over it, and then through that perhaps connect with the physical and cultural world that surround them” (Page 6). KGS, while making it, was thoroughly aware of this ‘linguistic, communicational and aesthetic link’. Hence, we see a KGS creating a new mythology while drawing up a lot from the already popular mythologies but turning them around to his purpose in order ‘entice the viewer’ to weave a new fabric of narratives along with the artist.

KGS in his interviews with Sivakumar and other has said how he is impressed by his own making because the black and white combination which responds to the surroundings like a monolith having a different autonomy than the other building around it, changing the vehemence of presence according to the changing light. It is something when there is sunlight, something else there is rain and absolutely transforms into an ethereal thing on the moonlit nights. KGS however is not a fanatic who would vouch only for the black and white. His sand casting mural with three goddesses, turtle, fish and crocodile in Santiniketan stands apart in this case. Done in 1988, this mural is experimental and narrative at the same time. He not only takes the mythological narratives into one frame of reference but also incorporates geographical and topographical evolution of the place into the extended narrative of this mural. This is done in three frames, which perhaps is an interesting spatial technique for the artist. In most of the murals KGS uses polyptychs (multiple frames) to set up the narrative and Sivakumar says that this is not purely directional in function but is an attempt to provide multiple entries into the murals. In his latest murals like ‘Conflict to Conviviality’ (2010) and ‘War of Relics’ (2012-13) he uses multiple frames to create a larger narrative.

 (The book cover of Enchantment and Engagement by R.Sivakumar)

More than convenience, argues Sivakumar, the choice of multiple frames is meant as a ‘structural device’ to generate multiple meanings. He writes: “Most triptychs and polyptychs offer more than one reading; they have always been structural devices to generate multiple readings, and often for paired presentations of contrasting alternatives. Subramanyan uses the triptych here as a compositional device to present a complex situation rather than to signal a single reading of the scene. So it can also be read from right to left to suggest that the world has moved tragically from conviviality to conflict, or a little more hopefully , it suggest that the die is yet to be cast and it is for us to choose.” (Page 36=37). And the latest murals, as Sivakumar observes, draws the final points of a full circle where even if these two murals are done in canvas, KGS treats them like a mural on an actual wall whereas he had done his first mural in 1955 for the Jyoti Limited in Gujarat and he had treated it as a large scale painting rather than a mural.

KGS operated from the modernist frame work. For him creating a personal repertoire of linguistic elements was one of the prime motives than making them absolutely ‘communicative’. But at the same time he knew that without communication the art would perhaps remain a very private activity. KGS was not really for a purposeful communication with a message as done by his teacher Nandalal Bose. Sivakumar observes that KGS was more attracted towards Benode Behari Mukherjee and Ram Kinkar Baij who pursued their individuality with some strange sort of divine inspiration and automatically their art served certain social and aesthetic purposes without forcing it on the people. When KGS worked with Benode Behari Mukherjee while he was making the Medieval Saints mural in Hindi Bhavan in Santiniketan, he did not know what would be the purpose of this mural. But what he liked was Mukherjee’s wish to see things the way the Renaissance masters would have preferred to see the buildings around them. It was a great learning experience for KGS though he got only a chance to do a pair of Horse riders in the whole mural. Looking at it, Mukherjee told him, ‘Your Horsemen are too fleshy’. Sending his images for weight loosing was then easier for a young KGS because the admonition came in a Zen way.

(The King of Dark Chamber Mural in Rabindralaya, Lucknow, by KGS- Detail)

At the outset of the book itself Sivakumar says that murals happen within a shared linguistic concern. If the sharing does not happen they will just remain as mere embellishments without drawing or enticing the viewers into it. We live in times when the state itself sponsor mural in the name of public art, urban planning and city beautification. Many of these visual embellishments though remain as a part of the collective consciousness and part of the general visual culture, fail drastically to move the people towards the sublime of whatever sort mainly because they do not function from within the shared linguistic concerns. Banksy’s success and failure of several others in our country should be seen against this historical and aesthetical point of view. Sivakumar after citing the milestones in the world mural art like the Russian Avant Garde murals, Bauhaus and Mexican murals, says this: “Though the Russian Avant Garde, the Bauhaus and the Mexican muralists attempted to create such a meaningful traffic between the two, they were in the end, contrary to the general course of modernism, moments of aberration inspired by utopian social ideologies.” (Page 3). What Sivakumar says as the ‘traffic between the two’ is traffic between the artists and their audience’.

 (The Black and White mural in Kalabhavana by KGS)

KGS knew the trappings of this traffic and the lack of it. As a person initiated very early into the mundane ritualistic symbolism that brought an exclusive community into the same thread of communication and also as a young man who happened to witness the western religious symbolism in the abundance of churches and the socio-political symbolism of both the Gandhian and the Communist movements, KGS could discern between the Utopian symbolism that took birth within the studios and the vibrant metaphors and symbols that people lived both in their mundane and cultural memories. The artist just needed to poke them in order to facilitate communication. That was what he did when he created his ‘King of the Dark Chamber’ mural for the Rabindralaya in Lucknow as a part of the Birth Centenary of Rabindranath Tagore. Sivakumar explains how KGS brought not only multiple narrative and entry points to the mural but also how he incorporated two version of the same drama written by Tagore, its oral base and its theatre production variant in which he had a part as a set and costume designer. The cultural sharing of the story make this mural interesting though it is one mural that KGS had done before the building was finished!

 (KGS preparing for sand casting one of his early murals)

As a modernist and as an artist who sought linkages between craft traditions and art, KGS never got into the exploitative mode with which he could have absorbed the talents of many rural crafts people into the scheme of his own works. That does not mean that KGS kept them away from his works. While using their expertise and knowledge in the making of several of his mural where he extensively used sandcasting and terracotta, he never let them to transfer their metaphorical repertoire into his mural formats. So the question is whether KGS was using them just as technical assistants or was he using their support as crafts people? The answer is perhaps both but it was not just about using and throwing or making them stand behind the curtains as many of the artists do these days. KGS was bold enough to seek their support (Gyarsilal from Rajasthan who was an expert in Jaipur Fresco was his constant technical support for over three decades) and at the same time not letting them make a kichri out of his works. KGS believed making art with his hands, exactly the way his masters did and in this he found both tradition and individual talent merging into one. 

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