K.G. Subramanyan, 81-year-old master of narrative-allegorical painting, is guru to generations of painters and sculptors. NANCY ADAJANIA reviews his recent works.
The master's art -- the figures handle space with the finesse and jaggedness of characters in a cartoon strip or an animation film.
THE air that circulates through K.G. Subramanyan's recent paintings, presented under the aegis of the Sakshi Gallery at Mumbai's Jehangir Art Gallery, does not carry the smell of blood; and yet sacrifices are laid out on tables here like so much casual still life. A goat's head plays companion to a vase in which a bouquet blossoms; women revellers dance victoriously over a shrouded bird arranged like a prize feast; and an ageing rooster sits entrapped, trying to recall the sound of his own throaty wake-up call.
Nonetheless, these works are not pessimistic offerings from the 81-year-old artist, master of narrative-allegorical painting and guru to several generations of painters and sculptors. Rather, these paintings add a dimension of menacing tenderness to his pictorial vocabulary, which has otherwise enthralled us with its cartwheels of sardonic wit. The concupiscent women still perform to the master's script: their supple bodies, sometimes curiously marked with furry stipples, are covered in tantalising ribbons of masquerade, sadistically ripped off at the erogenous zones; their alluring faces pout and hiss to suit the act. In an oblique bow to the artist's ageing self, elderly men make guest appearances alongside these women figures, baring their gapped teeth and bristling like greying jesters.
The emotional centre
When an artist comes to be identified with the play of wit and satire, and with a phantasmagoric theatre of surfaces, we tend to forget the deeper basis of his art. Before we explore Subramanyan's recent works, therefore, I would like to throw some light on the emotional centre of his art. To my mind, Subramanyan's art arises from a well-plumbed life of the instincts. By which I imply that the artist never loses sight of the primitive core of the brain: the limbic-brainstem system, which is concerned with appetites, sexual and consummatory behaviour and evolved defence behaviour patterns. These basic instincts, which are related to the fight/flight response, to desire and possession, the need to hold and protect, are activated in an extreme moment or crisis. Subramanyan articulates such impulses, in his work, in relation to sexuality and perversity: his art is based on an appreciation of the perception that, beneath the civilisational veneer, it is the life of instincts that determines the choices and actions of the human self.
Freud approaches this situation by way of the model of the primeval id set against the cultivations of the superego; Marcuse counterpoints the libidinous Eros impulse against the regulating structures of Civilisation. I would suggest that, because of the picaresque, sometimes even Rabelaisian high spirits of Subramanyan's theatre of romp and strut, you do not quite realise that his is, in actuality, a tragic vision. Tragic, because premised on the insight that, beneath the centuries-old, carefully acquired forms of civilisation, there lurks and is always ready to burst forth the unregenerate self driven by the instincts, the satyr within the saint, the lustful and savage Mr. Hyde always waiting to destabilise the prim proprieties of Dr. Jekyll.
This tension between the instinctual self and the regulating forces of civilisation is dramatised through the tension between pictorial form and subject matter in Subramanyan's paintings. He employs a sophisticated form that allies itself as much to Matisse as to ukiyo-e, to Frank Stella as closely as to Jehangiri miniature; but his subject matter is messy, wonderfully excessive, extreme, as he deals with concupiscence and voyeurism, violence and the human desire to triumph by dominance and annihilation.
This explains the action of Subramanyan's paintings, which is presented with candour or with cheeky surreptitiousness, but never concealed behind a curtain. His picture surface is often structured into cellular spaces, reminiscent of the collapsing of past and present, proximate and faraway, which characterises the pattachitra traditions; his figures handle the spaces that they occupy with the alternate finesse and jaggedness of characters in a cartoon strip or an animation movie, although they most often display an elegance reminiscent of Matisse's paper-cuts.
When walls do appear, they open out like accordion screens in an ukiyo-e print, paradoxically meant to reveal rather than hide the action. The artist overlaps these cellular spaces, to blur the boundaries between the inside and the outside. It is the same unregenerate self that is manifested both in the intimate gestures and public actions, the madness of love and the frenzy of rabble-rousing: there is no difference between the private and the public self. There is no sanitisation of the self in Subramanyan, since the instinctive self is pre-moral and does not so much deliberately breach social proprieties as it is disdainfully indifferent to them.
That is why Subramanyan's pictorial narrative may prompt us to follow the many visual clues that seem to decode the work; but it is, in reality, composed like a jigsaw puzzle that always stops short of clicking into place. This ambiguous attitude makes his art cryptic: viewers are left grasping at answers. Is Subramanyan a misogynist? Or is he a sado-masochist? As I have tried to show, it is almost irrelevant to pass moral judgment on the artist's works, because the real impulse behind his works is a portraiture of the instinctual life; it is perhaps through this provocative approach that he can achieve a true picture of contemporary reality, which seems to thrive on every form of social perversity and ethical malfunction.
One of his gouaches, with the word "Bakery" inscribed on it, is an ominous fleshy pink and yellow painting in which an interior is consumed by tongues of fire that strike out like crisp sharpened knives. A perplexed woman crawls on all fours, her body writhing in pain; an intestine unwinds and hangs loose from her stomach. In the foreground, an androgynous figure, performs the Yama-like act of pulling the living into the kingdom of death: he snatches away a boy in his sleep. The term "Bakery" could refer to the Best Bakery, one of the establishments that was set ablaze during the Gujarat pogrom of 2002. Subramanyan's composition reminds us that the human species is the only one that commits execrable crimes against its own, in the name of causes and ideals.
But where do we go from here? There is a certain sterility to simply stating the matter as follows: We are, at the root of our being, both nectar and poison, as capable of angelic flight as of demonic excess. Such self-awareness, almost Manichean, only leads us to self-doubt. To resolve the question in performative terms, one would have to address its effects on the complexity of human self-presentation and the articulation of the self's relations with others. I would contend that for Subramanyan, the life of the instincts holds no moral anguish; instead, he maps the range of expressions that are possible between the two extremes: Instinct at the core of the self, and Civilisation as the largest envelope in which the self is held. What Subramanyan does is to explore the concentric grey areas between the Instinct-centre and the Civilisation-boundary. And thus he seeks the creativity manifested in quick changes of identity, instabilities of position, ambiguities of definition; he looks for that protean principle of life which is both a thing and its opposite, that wears now one mask and now another, that says to the imagination, "Catch me if you can!"
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