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


A Living Tradition and Ecology of Culture



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A Living Tradition and Ecology of Culture
Tapping into the rich imagery of his personal creative circuit, Subramanyan is able to create what he calls a “living tradition.” As he explains, this “living tradition” is not the persistence of old cultural and art forms into the present but involves the growth of an art language to which the individual contributes and from which he or she draws upon for resources. Using this model, artistic and cultural identity can absorb and cultivate many different forms—from within one’s own culture and from without.19

The belief in a living tradition, the creation of an individual art language, and the acceptance of eclecticism has had tremendous impact on generations of modern Indian artists and art historians, many of whom acknowledge a great debt to Subramanyan. Most studies of modern Indian art use or allude to the terms Subramanyan has consistently discussed and defined. Geeta Kapur, a pioneering Indian art critic who has examined Indian and other modernisms, wrote the first monograph on Subramanyan in 1987. Her husband, Vivan Sundaram, another pioneer in Indian installation art, attended M.S. University in the 1960s when Subramanyan was a professor there, and his multi-media works often address India’s past and present histories through local and global lenses.


Art Historian R. Siva Kumar, who was Subramanyan’s student at Visva-Bharati University in the late 1970s and early 80s, has also expanded the definitions of modernism in the context of the activities of Tagore and his students at Santiniketan. Other artists who attended and/ or taught at the universities in Baroda and Santiniketan during Subramanyan’s tenure or who look to connect to their cultural traditions while living abroad demonstrate in their works and methods a conscious effort to meaningfully connect and continue traditional practices and Indian themes while “speaking” a global language in their use of eclectic forms and materials.20 Providing practical methods for art practice, a theoretical framework to examine contemporary art, and ultimately a visionary way of living, Subramanyan’s legacy has been far-reaching.
Pragmatic, visionary, and timely in his terminology, Subramanyan ultimately encourages what he terms an “ecology of culture,” a proposition that encapsulates his vision of art. Borrowing a term that reflects the increasingly global concern for the natural environment, Subramanyan identifies a dire need to be equally concerned about the cultivation and maintenance of a rich and relevant cultural environment. In lectures from the past twenty years, he is increasingly concerned with the effects of globalization and urges the need to be educated about and thus rooted in one’s local and shared global cultural heritage and communities.21 Concerned with how to make art that is relevant and meaningful for a particular culture and the larger world, Subramanyan keeps the hopes of his political and cultural mentors alive, continuously updating their dream of a modern and traditional India for the present.
Throughout his career, Subramanyan has carefully considered the fragments of his eclectic world in his efforts to cultivate a “living” tradition that accommodates the past, present and future. In the process, he has created his own art language in his writings and in his art by reconceiving and broadening terms, concepts, and forms to fit his personal expressive needs and context. This language includes a more inclusive and relevant theoretical vocabulary and framework to discuss modern and contemporary art around the world as well as a formal system that gives structure to an eclectic art practice that can accommodate many, sometimes contradictory, forms. Although formulated in the particular context of India, Subramanyan’s terms and practices are polymorphic and as such are able to speak on multiple levels to a wide variety of viewers across the world.


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