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  • Jun 30, 2016

KG Subramanyan (1924–2016)

The late KG Subramanyan at David Hall, Fort Kochi. Courtesy Kochi Biennale Foundation.

On June 29, KG Subramanyan, a seminal figure in midcentury Indian modern art, died in Vadodara, at the age of 92. His death came as a result of a sudden decline in his health on Wednesday as he was recuperating from hip surgery that he underwent four weeks ago.

Subramanyan was best known for his paintings that feature interlaced grids, as well as window-like designs placed within each other, and subject matters that include flora, fauna and historical characters. In addition to his paintings, he was renowned for his outdoor murals, terra-cotta sculptures and works in which he experimented with weaving, toys and glass.

Born in 1924 in Kerala, a tropical state in southern India, Subramanyan grew up in the city of Baroda, where he had lived on and off during his six-decade career as a painter, sculptor, muralist, printmaker and teacher of arts. Early in his life he attended the Presidency College in Madras (now Chennai), where he received a bachelor’s degree in economics. The turning point of his life came when he joined Kala Bhavana, the fine arts department of the Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan, in 1944. There, Subramanyan studied for four years under the tutelage of early modernists such as Benode Behari Mukherjee, Nandalal Bose and Ramkinkar Baij and cultivated an original artistic style inspired by Indian folk traditions and cubism.

In 1951, Subramanyan returned to Baroda, where he taught painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Maharaja Sayajirao University until 1959. During this time, from 1955 to 1956, he also attended the Slade School of Art in London as a British Council research scholar. Upon leaving his position at Maharaja Sayajirao University, Subramanyan worked as the deputy director of design for the All India Handloom Board in Mumbai, which advised the government of India on the development of the textile industry.

Soon after, however, Subramanyan returned to the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda, where he taught painting as a professor, and later became its dean, from 1966 to 1980. During his tenure at the university he also took his practice abroad, including to New York, which he visited as a recipient of the JD Rockefeller III Fellowship, from 1966 to 1967. In the mid-1970s he attended meetings held by the World Crafts Council—a nonprofit that promoted traditional crafts and economic development through related exchange programs, workshops, conferences, seminars and exhibitions—as a delegate of India, and also served as a visiting lecturer at various universities in Canada. In 1975, Subramanyan received the Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian award given by the government of India, in recognition for his contribution to the arts.

In 1980 Subramanyan moved back to Santiniketan to become a professor of painting at his alma mater, Kala Bhavana, and was later appointed professor emeritus of Visva-Bharati University in 1989. In the years since, the artist remained active, with a major retrospective of his work held at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi in 2003. The show featured 300 of Subramanyan’s works, including terra-cotta reliefs, reverse paintings on glass and acrylic, linocuts, lithographs, etchings, silkscreens, drawings and children’s books that he illustrated. In the last decade, the artist was bestowed with Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian award given by the Indian government, in 2006, and the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award  in 2012.

Commenting on Subramanyan’s passing to The Times of India, NGMA director Rajeev Lochan said, “The country has lost one of its legendary artists, pedagogue, theorist and scholar with the demise of KG Subramanyan. The NGMA mourns the loss of this noted personality whose contribution to the art world would be always remembered.” Subramanyam, whose wife Sushila passed away a decade ago, is survived by his only daughter Uma and his son-in-law. 

Hanae Ko is reviews editor at ArtAsiaPacific.