New Delhi

K. G. Subramanyan, Ageless Combat I, 1998, watercolor and oil on acrylic sheet, 74 3/8 x 50 3/4".

K. G. Subramanyan, Ageless Combat I, 1998, watercolor and oil on acrylic sheet, 74 3/8 x 50 3/4".

K. G. Subramanyan

Art Heritage

K. G. Subramanyan, Ageless Combat I, 1998, watercolor and oil on acrylic sheet, 74 3/8 x 50 3/4".

K. G. Subramanyan’s dramatic War of the Relics, 2012, occupied pride of place in this show mounted as a tribute to the artist and teacher, who passed away in June 2016. As the title suggests, confrontation is a strong element in the black-and-white, acrylic-on-canvas work. Amid luxuriant vegetation where mythical creatures abound, men astride elephants and horses encounter battle tanks, while the desire-fulfilling cow goddess, Kamadhenu, faces off against a ferocious rhinoceros-like creature and grim-faced warriors cross swords. Decorative borders frame the individual panels—a nod to Subramanyan’s engagement with indigenous craft traditions during his stint at the Weavers’ Service Centre of the All India Handloom Board. The narrative emphasizes Subramanyan’s underlying message: Religious symbols and relics, originating as vehicles of peace and brotherhood, over time create divisions between communities and emphasize otherness, leading to wars in which malevolence triumphs over compassion and demonic forces prevail over the divine.

As also demonstrated by works such as Mahishasura Mardini, 1989, and Ageless Combat I and II, 1998, issues of conflict and sectarian strife are a common thread in Subramanyan’s art. But he preferred to describe himself as an artist-activist rather than an activist-artist. Though his works carry a political charge, they are couched in the language of allegory and satire and laced with playfulness, spontaneity, sly humor, and even eroticism. He drew on folklore, myth, and fable to comment on political and social circumstances without slipping into didacticism.

Subramanyan was adept at using the properties of various media as metaphors for his concerns, as evident in his suite of terra-cotta works Anatomy Lesson 1–5, 2008. His handling of clay—kneading, tearing, and folding—could produce works that took on ominous overtones, suggesting flesh being ripped apart or bodies being butchered. As the artist once said, “I do terra-cotta reliefs because clay has the quality that comes closer to human flesh; when handled in a certain way, it folds, fissures, warps, bends like flesh does.” Similarly, his works in watercolor and oil on acrylic sheets depicting fractured or fragmented planes evoke the ruptures in society created by identitarian politics.

At the far end of the gallery a series of forty-three striking black-and-white drawings, “The Tale of the Talking Face,” 1989, was mounted on a crimson wall. Started in 1975 during the Emergency declared by the country’s then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, it was published much later as a book. The satirical tale of an autocratic princess whose political ambitions inflicted misery on her people, the work was meant as a warning on the pitfalls of democracy and the dangers of authoritarianism. It also summoned memories of Subramanyan’s illustrated children’s book When God First Made the Animals, He Made Them All Alike (1969), a response to the first major communal riots in post-independence India. It is significant that this exhibition was mounted at a time when many in India were commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the destruction of the sixteenth-century mosque Babri Masjid by right-wing Hindu nationalists in 1992.

Meera Menezes