Dear departed...

Dear departed...

Giridhar Khasnis reflects on the recent demise of K G Subramanyan and S H Raza, who, despite their contrasting styles, left an indelible mark on Indian art

Recently, in less than one month, two stalwarts of Indian modern art decided to take a final bow. True, both of them had lived a full life; and were well into their 90s when the end came. That, however, did not diminish the tragic import of their passing away to their numerous friends, associates and ardent admirers.

First it was 92-year-old Kalpathi Ganpathi Subramanyan (Mani-da for everyone) who breathed his last on June 29, 2016 in Vadodara. Few weeks later, on July 23, Syed Haider Raza, 94, followed suit in Delhi.

Well-respected figures and cultural icons for decades, Mani-da and Raza, in a sense represented two sides of Indian art’s modernist coin. Recipients of the country’s second highest civilian honour, the Padma Vibhushan (Subramanyan in 2012; Raza in 2013), their work was well-recognised by critics, historians and collectors within India and abroad.

Rural upbringing

Both Raza and Subramanyan were products of rural India and grew up in the pre-Independence era. Born in the forest village of Babaria near the Narmada river in Madhya Pradesh, Raza went on to study art at the J J School in Mumbai. He held his first solo show in 1946 in Mumbai; 10 years later, he was to become the first non-French artist to win the prestigious Prix de la Critique, which catapulted him on to the world stage.   

Raza, whose most renowned works often featured the ubiquitous ‘Bindu’ as an abstract symbol of spiritual expression, was a founding member of the short-lived but influential Progressive Art Group (other members included the likes of F N Souza and M F Husain). Formed in the wake of the country’s Independence, PAG sought to charter a new course of modern art in India by casting away the academic styles set by the erstwhile British masters. The group, however, disbanded soon, with some of its members leaving the country. Raza, then aged 28, went to Paris on a French Government Scholarship to study at École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in 1950; he lived there for six decades before returning to India permanently in his twilight years.

As his popularity rose, so did the price of his works, breaking auction records at regular intervals. In June 2010, it reached a pinnacle when his massive 79 inch x 79 inch acrylic on canvas, Saurashtra, painted in 1983, was sold for a whopping £2.4 million ($3.5 million, Rs 16.42 crore) at a Christie’s auction in London.

Freedom fighter

Subramanyan, who was born in Kalpathi (also known as Dakshin Kasi or the Varanasi of the South), Kerala, was an accidental artist. A student of economics in erstwhile Madras, he was arrested for taking part in the freedom struggle. When released, he was banned from seeking admission in any college; that led him to Santiniketan in the mid-1940s where he eventually became a close associate of the great Bengali masters, Ramkinkar Baij, Benode Behari Mukherjee and Nandalal Bose.

The young Subramanyan grew up to become a distinguished polymath, excelling in many areas of art: as a painter, sculptor, muralist, illustrator, teacher, writer, scholar, critic and commentator. As someone who considered Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore as his mentors, he encouraged his students to get out of their classrooms and personal studios to see the world around; he also motivated them to learn from the rich and vibrant tradition of Indian crafts making.

Mani-da often spoke of and exemplified the ‘magic of making’. Whether it was a palm-sized doll, a large painting or a monumental mural which covered the expanse of an entire building’s façade, he made them all with his own hands. His last major work War of the Relics was an epic mural: 9-ft high, 36-ft wide and comprising 16 panels. Created just three years before his death, the 89-year-old artist was just recovering from a hip surgery when he took on the project.

Interesting contrasts

Deeply entrenched in their art till the very end, Mani-da and Raza belonged to the same era, but exhibited somewhat differing approaches to art and life.

One of the moving spirits behind the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, Raza firmly believed that the group did make a significant contribution to Indian art even during its short existence. Coming to his own practice, he said “art is meditation; it meditates through colours”. Interestingly, he credited his adopted country for teaching him about the importance of colours. “France has given me what is most important — the understanding of the relation of colours. I’m grateful that it was possible for me to learn that which I would not have if I stayed back in India.”

Mani-da, on the other hand, had his reservations about the Bombay Progressives (as well as the Calcutta Progressives who held a joint exhibition in 1950 with the Bombay group). “Art historians make much out of it, but I don’t think too highly of them,” he revealed in an interview. “There were some talented artists among them; and they tried to make a mark in various parts of the world. That I agree. But then, the Progressives were not terribly progressive. And their manifestos were not so terribly well balanced and forward thinking. Really speaking, I do not give much importance to them.”

As regards colour, he said that in India it was an inherent signature. “I don’t think colour is something that one can discuss,” he said in an interview with Uma Nair (Conversations with colour/2006). “That is a western notion of dissection and discussion... Colour is something that just happens. It is not premeditated or thought about; it is a spontaneous analogy that occurs naturally... An artist must be alive to colour, it is like a self-awareness, in which the past is immovable...”

Such differences notwithstanding, there is no doubt that both Raza and Mani-da left a profound impact on Indian art in their own way. They will be deeply missed by all those who were touched by their art and thought.

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