KG Subramanyan retrospective exhibition at Emami Art showcases over 200 works spanning seven decades

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Over 200 works by Indian modernist KG Subramanyan, including his iconic reverse paintings on acrylic and the maquettes for his powerful mural ‘The War of the Relics’, are part of a new retrospective-scale exhibition here at Emami Art. ‘One Hundred Years and Counting: Re-Scripting KG Subramanyan’, curated by Nancy Adajania and organised by Emami Art in collaboration with Seagull Foundation for the Arts, and Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University, Baroda, marks the artist’s birth centenary year.

New exhibition ‘One Hundred Years and Counting: Re-Scripting KG Subramanyan’ celebrates birth centenary(HT File Photo)

Spanning more than seven decades of Subramanyan’s practice, the exhibition features his early paintings from the 1950s, his impressions of his Chinese travels from the 1980s in postcard-size drawings, toys made for the Fine Arts Fairs at the MS University, Baroda, and a significant amount of archival material such as handcrafted mock-ups of children’s books, and preparatory sketches for murals.

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The show aims to “situate and re-assess the artist in the larger cultural scenario of postcolonial India’s unfolding modernism and affirm the continuing relevance of his practice”. “Widely revered for his profound erudition and wit, he was a versatile and multifaceted artist who made the most original contribution to modern art practices in India after Independence, creating a powerful language which is highly eclectic.

“The exhibition aims to present the master in a new light, establishing new relationships and opening up new avenues of discourse and debates,” Richa Agarwal, ceo, Emami Art, said in a statement. Born in 1924 in Kerala, Subramanyan played a pivotal role in shaping India’s artistic identity after Independence.

Graduating in 1948 from Kala Bhavan, Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, he worked under luminaries such as Benode Behari Mukherjee, Nandalal Bose and Ramkinkar Baij. Subramanyan then taught at MS University, Baroda, before returning to his alma mater in Santiniketan as a professor in 1980.

Talking about Subramanyan, Adajania said that the centenary offers an opportunity to reflect on less evident aspects of the artist’s oeuvre that may have eluded sustained critical attention. “In his work, he engaged both manifestly and in subtle ways with the legacies of Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru. Today, all these figures have either been neutralised as icons emptied of content or vilified as bearers of historical error.

“In such a state of permanent emergency, it becomes vital to revisit the practice of an artist-activist like Subramanyan – who taught us to address the past as critical agents, rather than as puppets of stifling traditions,” Adajania said. The exhibition features his political work, including his terracottas commemorating the 1971 Bangladesh War and the critique of the 1975-1977 Emergency in his children’s book, “The Talking Face”.

Adajania noted that these works by Subramanyan should be seen as his continuous process of “political philosophising” instead of singular reactions to political events. The exhibition will also focus on Subramanyan’s work process through archival material, including the mock-ups of his children’s book, “When Hanu Becomes Hanuman”, as well as his preparatory sketches for the murals with textual and visual marginalia that reveal his ideological affinity for the Gandhian notion of an idealised village.

“This show will avoid the pitfalls of hagiography, by pointing up the contradictions and ambivalences in his evolving political stance. Within this context, Subramanyan’s ambivalent take on female agency and sexuality will also be engaged with throughout the show in a critical spirit,” Adajania added. The exhibition will come to an end on June 21.

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