Throughout his career, Subramanyan has been consistently concerned with negotiating the continually manifold cultural exchanges in India brought about by ever-expanding technology and globalization. Subramanyan’s formative years were shaped by the conflicting political and cultural discourses concerning the character of the Indian nation and the state of its cultural heritage. He synthesized the ideas of various political and cultural leaders growing up in colonial India and beginning his career in art in the 1950s following independence.3 A Gandhian activist in his youth, Subramanyan was initially concerned with the impact of British colonialism and was actively involved in the later stages of the nationalist struggle for independence in the early 1940s. Nationalist political leaders like Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) and Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) raised questions about the character of the nation and the values that would eventually shape it. Their confluent and conflicted positions about the vitality of traditional practices and the importance of being modern and secular defined the cultural debates that would preoccupy generations of Indian artists, and Subramanyan’s discussions of the dialogue between the traditional and the modern were informed by this context.
While nationalist and postcolonial discourses offered Subramanyan political forms to consider, his experience at Santiniketan provided complementary cultural considerations. His political activism was tempered and enhanced by the philosophy of Nobel-prize winning poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), founder of the Visva-Bharati University at Santiniketan. Tagore had a profound effect on the burgeoning artist with his emphasis on the cultivation and perpetuation of indigenous practices as a means to negotiate foreign influence. Broadening the scope of the dominant nationalist discourse that tended to focus on reviving an “authentic” Indian tradition, Tagore and his followers worked to critically analyze and utilize the many influences and forms of India’s past and present, from ancient murals, courtly miniature paintings and village folk art to European-inspired naturalism and modern art. Under the tutelage of his teachers at Santiniketan, Nandalal Bose (1882-1966), Benodebehari Mukherjee (1904-1980), and Ramkinkar Baij (1906-1980), and later from his experience studying abroad in London (1955-56) and the United States (1966-67), Subramanyan began to formulate his concepts of modernism and eclecticism as his teachers urged him to draw inspiration from the world around him—a cultural environment composed of both indigenous and foreign traditions and modern elements.
Since the 1950s, Subramanyan has translated these experiences to generations of Indian artists as a practicing artist, teacher, and scholar. He spent more than thirty years teaching art at two of India’s premier schools, the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in Vadodara, Gujarat and the Visva-Bharati University at Santiniketan in West Bengal, and he has extensively lectured and published essays on these ideas throughout India and the world. At 92, he says he manages to “move with the times,” drawing or painting every day.4 The philosophical structure he employs allows him to recontextualize and adapt to his expressive needs the many forms he continues to encounter in the world.