K.G.Subramanyan painted women but never exuded sanguine personality a la Pablo Picasso. The latter’s paintings and drawings were filled images of women who were either sleeping or astonished by the presence of a ‘real’ minotaur (a surrogate of the artist himself) or the artist’s mesmerising gaze. They are more or less like animals caught in the headlights of a huge vehicle; troubled, frozen, immobile and dazed. But KGS’ women are not like those of Picasso’s. KGS in comparison with Picasso is more benevolent and less aggressive in his approach to women but I should add that is not less in his erotic verve compared to the 20th century prolific genius. These initial thoughts came to me when I was standing before the works of KGS presented by the Art Heritage, New Delhi in collaboration with the Seagull Foundation, Kolkata. The show is titled ‘Women as Seen and Remembered’. The present ensemble consists of drawings by KGS done between 1953 and 2016. Before going further, let me say that it is a commendable show with curatorial precision though a curator’s name is not particularly mentioned and has a pleasant display strategy in place. Spread out in three spaces this show is a must watch one and is expected to run throughout the month of September 2018.
This show tells the viewer one thing; as believed by many, behind the scholastic veil and a sagacious appearance, hidden by the philosopher’s detachment and hoodwinked by the Spartan sartorial choices, there used to be a man who had been passionately at the opposite sex/the fairer sex/stronger sex and was depicting them in all the possible permutations and combinations. The first oil portrait of a woman is in the display and there more than capturing the cold posture of the sitter, KGS’ focus is more on the distribution of the subdued flesh brown and pink and the steady but hesitant brush strokes. From there KGS becomes a mature artist who could conjure up women in many moods through his lines and brush strokes. The initial hesitation or a sort of calculated approach towards the female form should be attributed to the political ideology that KGS was pursuing in those formative years. It is a well known fact that KGS was a leftist to begin with and ended up as a Gandhian. During his leftist days, I assume that KGS might have been restraining himself from looking at women as objects and viewing them as comrades in arms. That explains why KGS draws them with some sort of precision though characteristic details are more or less schematized so that the particularity of an individual is consumed by the generality of independent women.
Gandhian thoughts that came naturally through the educational ethos that was dominated by the doyens like Nandlal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee and Ram Kinkar Baij must have confused KGS initially for the schematic representation of women the works of Bose and Mukherjee, especially their later works and the full bodied expressions of Baij both in his sculptures and paintings. The resolution in KGS came in such way that he could move away from schematic nature of representation and at the same time keep the sympathetic approach Baij always had for women, which in fact was devoid of male gaze, which I would say remains exceptionally unchallenged by any other Indian male modernist, especially we see Baij’s works against the expressionist and erotic orgy that the Progressives who came to the scene after the heydays of Baij. KGS did not fall into the Progressive rut (they remained there for long till they found their own visual styles that even turned into pure abstractions) but could maintain the sympathy for women and a kind of scientific sense pervaded those drawings done in 1960s and early 70s. R.Sivakumar, art historian who has studied KGS in depth observes that at this stage KGS approached the female body clinically and he knew where the joints were and where the sinews and muscles where. From the joints KGS let the rest of the limbs move like ‘puppets’ adding to stylisation and movement.
It was KGS’ forays into the studies of Indian folk and traditional art that helped him to liberate his notions about female form. The interim abstract period by late 1970s and 1980s which oscillated between schematic abstraction and schematic figuration, seemed to be the launching pad for KGS to go dynamically into the firmament of no bars hold sort of eroticism. In 1980s KGS achieves tremendous sense of freedom both in form and content. His graphic skills become fluid and he reaches to a stage where he could turn anything into a female form. Sivakumar once again observes that KGS has drawn more female forms than male forms when it comes to taking a curious census of it but he has counterbalanced it by drawing and painting male figures and so many male animal and monkey figures. With a tongue in cheek fashion but keeping his characteristic calm Sivakumar says that ‘thus he compensates the absence of male figures’ in his other works.
A ‘closet erotician’, if I could call KGS taking a lot of liberty with English language, KGS like Bhupen Khakar made it explicit that the official eroticism is a thing of suspension; there is nothing apprehensive or ambivalent about it. “I am an erotically driven artist,” KGS could have said but he never said so because he wanted his viewers to find some ambivalence in their own understanding and reading of his art rather than creating an apprehension about his own works. In that sense KGS was standing half of his body out of the closet and half of the body inside it. From the threshold and the liminal space of sagacity he could almost lampoon the middle class that looked at his works. In fact when he comes to flourish with his reverse paintings and later on his canvas paintings, this middle class space becomes all the more important in his works where he places all his women characters who are in various stages of auto-eroticism, enticing the absent, letting their body to be gazed at, involving in scandalous gestures almost imitating the terrific joy of fallacio. KGS scandalized the whole middle class existence and liberated its women from the clutches of the social mores. One may wonder then why KGS was never ostracised or censored for his works. I would say he could camouflage himself with his sagacity in appearance exactly the way Gandhi had managed his sexual experiments without getting into trouble with the public. The later revelations almost sixty years after his death must have tarnished the saintly side of Gandhi but as there wouldn’t be many who could come forward to play witness against KGS regarding his erotic endeavours.
When I say this readers may be slightly scandalized as they could think whether I am trying to implicate KGS of any sexual misconduct. Let me clear the air once and for all the time to come. I do not have any such aims and I do not have anything to hold against KGS’ art. KGS mercilessly looked at the hypocrisy of the middle class society and opened up the desires in an expressionist fashion. People needed to stay back and look at the works of KGS to understand the scathing critique that he had forwarded. He was a non-narrativist among the narrative artists of Baroda. The Baroda Narrative artists transcended the space but kept the narrative more or less ‘realistic’ (remember not naturalistic). Their approach to the space was unconventional but KGS’ approach to both space and narrative was absolutely unconventional. Following his tryst with the abstract expressionism of the 1950s and 60s and the encounters with artists like David Hockney KGS flattened his pictorial space and spread his characters out there almost treating them like cotton puppets, devoid of three dimensionality. As he progresses in age we could see how he gives more defined existence to the feminine characters and their extremely voluptuous and provocative postures.
There is a fair amount of emblematic approach in KGS’ rendition of women characters in his works. It is not always necessary that he narrates something within the pictorial format. There are many places where one image gives birth to another one and thereby creating an intrinsic logic of existence and there are times when KGS starts a mythological character and develops additional sub-deities around it. Dominated by the Devi cult of Bengal, many of his imageries have the Goddess Durga and her spoil, the Mahishasura. But in several of them they are in an erotic encounter, or in a playful banter. The Devi becomes quite an ordinary woman in a very normal space and an ordinary woman becomes a very special devi in a reified space; both could be seen in his works. KGS takes off from quotidian life and goes into the realm of mythology which could be remotely connected to the canonical but often remains a personal one. At other times KGS takes image references from the Kalighat paintings, Pata Chitras, murals, Ganjifas, playing cards, ivory medallions, colonial souvenirs and so on. It is not necessary for KGS to be always stuck to the folk and tribal art. A closer would reveal that KGS had gone through all the said sources and visual resources, which has earned him the qualification of being an eclectic. Interestingly, eclecticism is one word that KGS refers many times in his collection of essays and speeches titled ‘Creative Circuits’.
KGS has an Iyer’s laughter; the smirk of a cynic, the understatement of a black humorist, the overstatement of a satirist and also the godliness of a creator for he never makes any self lampooning efforts. The male figure which could be a surrogate of the artist is often seen as the one male who gazes from some part of the pictorial plane but hardly one finds even remotest self portrait in his works. KGS is not a chameleon, which many artists are in their works, but he becomes the singular voyeur and commentator of the narratives as well as non-narratives in his works. Coming back to the male gaze part of his works; in these works where women are seen and remembered, he employs tremendous amount of male gaze and this gaze is not that of a sagacious person at all. KGS has dissected the human activities with a satirist’s eyes and one cannot say that he made fun of women rather he liberated them from their social clutches. From Christian mythologies to the Hindu ones, from the world folklores to the middle class stories, KGS surfed through many scenes and could get away without hurting too many sentiments. Lucky that he was not a Muslim and he had his pedigree to back him up so that his fallen angels and goddesses and middle class house wives in heat could stay and stare back as they do now. I do not think any woman however would like to be remembered the way KGS would make them up but definitely it is an exhibition that shows ‘women seen and drawn’ by a trickster eroticist.