Review of Asian Studies Volume 18 (2016) 213-222 Richardson: Subramanyan



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Art Practice
But how can one cultivate and utilize this “creative circuit?” One of Subramanyan’s solutions is versatility; his own art practice reveals the many forms to which he responds. According to Subramanyan, the artist must be free to experiment with various media for their different expressive qualities thereby creating not a personal style but a personal language. He says: “Each medium I explore responds to a particular expressive need of mine, to a particular sensibility strand….I do not want to be contained by any one of them….In my universe everything exists; one does not wipe out another.”14 Throughout his career, Subramanyan has explored the potentialities of different levels of artistic creation—from textiles, toy making, and architectonic murals to printmaking, sketching, painting, and illustration. He has also worked in numerous media—cement, stone, wood, terracotta, glass, watercolor, acrylic, and oil. He chooses his techniques and media according to his expressive needs.15
For example, Subramanyan notes that different effects are achieved with different media. The folds, pinches, and cuts of his low relief terracotta panels from the 1970s depict faces, gestures, and objects that convey sensuous tactility and communication. These clay works also allude to both ancient terracotta sculptures from Mohenjo-daro as well as contemporary village art. On the other hand, paintings like Terrace II (1974) make reference to modern European oil painting. The flattened space, rich blocks of color, bold black outlines, and decorative patterns seen in Subramanyan’s painting can also be found in modern European paintings like those of Henri Matisse. However, the same aspects also have roots in Japanese ukiyo-e prints as well as Indian miniature paintings, which inspired European modernists like Matisse. Drawing attention to the similarities between these different genres, Subramanyan reveals the interconnectedness of them and the fruits of cultural exchange. Ultimately, it is difficult to clearly distinguish which characteristic belongs to which cultural tradition. These images are the products of Subramanyan’s personal language which is composed of various images perceived and borrowed in the eclectic modern world.
This versatility and eclecticism is perhaps best illustrated by Subramanyan’s series of reverse glass or acrylic sheet paintings which he began in 1979. Painting on glass is an especially eclectic medium found in folk traditions and popular culture all over the world, and it was spread across continents by trade and colonialism. Originally brought to India from China, glass painting became popular in India during the colonial period where it was transformed to depict religious icons as well as beauties, musicians and lovers.16 In painting on glass, the artist must reverse the typical painting process, calling for versatility. Since the pigments will be seen through the glass, the artist paints the details first, adds broad color swatches, and applies the background last. The technique is characterized by bold details, flattened forms, and a layered saturation of colors, qualities that are manifest in Subramanyan’s translations.
In his early experiments with this form, Subramanyan depicted subjects typical of the traditional medium—mainly women with large, almond eyes, painted faces, cleavage, plump dimpled knees, and expressive gestures. Erotic, docile, and at times, humorous, their casual poses are counteracted with the blatant mudras that conjure associations with deities and classical Indian dance. In these images, we begin to see Subramanyan gradually transforming the everyday woman into the traditional and the mythic.
As Subramanyan continued to play with the glass painting technique, his compositions became more formally complex and layered while more conceptually connected with his eclectic cultural and personal environments. His language system has naturally expanded and evolved as he has matured, and his images on acrylic sheet reflect these changes. The process of aging, the accumulation and distortion of memories, and changes over time pervade later works. Transformed from simple interior scenes and witty dialogues with various artistic genres, they are more complex “landscapes” that interweave everyday observations with fantasy and myth.

In these paintings, Subramanyan “reads” stories and fantasies into his world. Ordinary cityscapes or intimate interior scenes are transformed into mythic battles. Figures interpenetrate landscape details and morph into animals or powerful deities. Contemporary events are imbued with spiritual and fantastic resonance. For Subramanyan, these references relate to the myths and stories of everyday experience that are part of the collective memory of a people living in the same cultural climate.


For example, in Ageless Combat I (1999), Subramanyan illustrates the many forms, real and imagined, that could characterize life in India.17 The painting is divided into seemingly disparate scenes. At the bottom, a white female with black and gray hair and a lavender and dark blue man stand on either side of a table. Lavender “flowers” in a complementary yellow vase that look more like snake heads sit on this table reaching out to the figures who also seem to be transforming before the viewer’s eyes. Both figures’ heads are multiplied, and animal heads and other limbs are interwoven into their forms. The yellow vase could double as a mouth or animal-like form, suggesting the mutability of meaning. A black line separates these figures from the top half of the painting except for five orange heads that seem to grow out of the flower arrangement, mediating between the two realms.
Above these heads, a multi-limbed, white, blonde female figure floats with her animal vehicle below her as they drive out a three-headed bull. In her hands, she holds various implements including a flower, a rope, and a sword. Her speckled light blue crown is echoed in a second vase of flowers in the lower half of the painting, and that same color pattern is repeated throughout the composition, guiding the viewer through the scene.
Into a seemingly ordinary interior scene, Subramanyan has inserted what appears to be a divine being. With her multiple limbs and iconography, she could be the Hindu goddess, Durga, one form of the divine female principle. Durga the destroyer is typically represented with ten arms and hands which hold, among other items, a sword and a noose. She is often depicted destroying a symbol of death, the “Bull-Demon,” thereby restoring heaven to the gods.18 However, her white form and blonde hair and the wing-shaped speckled blue forms that mark her sides and the sides of the beasts could suggest another possible reading, perhaps of the angelic sort. Like language, the meaning and associations a viewer might make to the sign presented depend on the context. That the word Durga actually means “unfathomable” adds additional significance. Conjuring these polymorphic signs, Subramanyan reveals the multiple layers of meaning in the global eclectic world.
In these works, both Indian and European subjects and figures are reinforced by the eclectic traditional technique of glass painting and its connection to other artistic genres. In their many layers, the works can speak to many different viewers throughout the world on many different levels, both conceptually and formally. The grid-like pattern that constructs the paintings’ compositions makes reference to Mughal miniatures, post-Cubist forms, and even the Minimalist grid that many artists were exploring in New York when Subramanyan was there in the mid-1960s. Figures and forms are interwoven into each other and work in concert with the abstract motifs and patterns that articulate the surface of the paintings. They are fitted into the grid-like construction to convey a narrative, albeit elusive, similar to some Indian miniature paintings. In other words, into traditional Indian genres, Subramanyan “reads” a Cubist arrangement of space and modernist simplifications of form. In this way, media and image converge to create an eclectic work that engages the traditional and the modern with an image that is culturally relevant to the global environment of which Subramanyan is a member and in which he finds his humanity and his vocabulary.




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