KG Subramanyan, who died in Baroda on Wednesday at the age of 92, was one of India’s most senior artists, working with diverse media and materials, and exhibiting extensively both within and outside the country. Known as much for his wide-ranging scholarship as for his artworks which are full of wit, subversion, eroticism and critical social commentary, Subramanyan was a towering figure in modern Indian art. Excerpts from an interview conducted in 2014.

From the mid-1980s, icons and mythical characters figure in your paintings. You do not use them as conventional symbols but set them up in juxtaposition to real-life animals or figures, like a monkey against Hanuman or a modern girl against Durga. Or you use them as metaphors in order to articulate your vision of the world. Could you explain this a little?
My works have always sought to move between the real and the imaginary. True, what we call real is itself an image of a kind. My main interest was once in the passage of the objective to the abstract. Abstract to mean here an image of relative anonymity. Which allowed it a variety of interpretations. Gave it the ability to play various visual roles.

Now the cross-connections I am interested in are more complicated. The images are more than visual. They have a complex identity, diverse cultural associations and background lore.

The image of Hanuman has a whole line of characters behind it. An intrepid monkey who ventures to capture the sun, who has the god of wind as father and gets from him speed, power, agility, volatility and the ability to change in size. Later, a staunch devotee of Rama, his emissary and worshipful vehicle.

His role changing from the playful and comic to the heroic. In a Kathakali act, he delights his audience with his monkey tricks. In an iconic painting, he flies through the air, carrying a mountain on which grow life-saving herbs.

Similarly, Durga has various versions, ranging from an elegant household deity, almost like a member of the family, to a multi-armed war goddess who rides a lion or tiger and fights and slays the buffalo demon. The lion or the tiger, even the monkey, symbolise the positive powers that fire and support our initiatives; the buffalo, on the other hand, represents a negative power or inertia.

These images certainly have their origins in common scenes observed in town or village. The vision of an able-bodied woman in a Jat village trying to control a runaway buffalo calf or a wiry Bengali villager doing the same, though with more physical skill than strength, give you two image sources for Durga.

What I have an eye for are these sources, where the icon unfolds from the actual. And holds within it hidden implications – of the divinities inherent in human beings and their powers. And the need of the human being to be constantly aware of the conflict between benevolent and malevolent forces, or the angel and the demon, within himself.

In a way it allows you to retrieve the past, at least fragments of it, in a certain way, as a counterpoint if not as a continuity. Similarly, one can also notice resonances of imagery or styles from other traditions coming into your work and nuancing your statements.
You are probably right. My work, so to say, deconstructs an old concept and sees its similarities with others. In our multicultural society, there are many versions of these. The popular ones as outlined in mass media are simplistic; they counterpose good and evil on either side of a clearly marked line. But it is rarely so.

In a culture where the gods have to incarnate themselves as human beings (sometimes even as animals) to come to the aid of fellow humans, they are rarely perfect; they too have their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. This then gives one ground on which to speculate about a human being’s ascent from beast to divinity and the possible alternatives. Hence the colour and variety of our mythologies. And the kind of sanguine earthiness to the narratives and theatricals these mythologies inspire in which the human characters can be remarkably heroic and the divinities open to criticism and caricature.

In a lot of modern art, especially in India, artists are almost out of touch with the historical arts of their own country. Of course, we cannot expect a changeless continuity, but Indian art could still provide us with metaphors – it need not be entirely inaccessible.
Strangely enough, a lot of our modern artists have a divided choice. To keep up with the world at large. And, at the same time, to preserve their cultural identity. This has kept them tied to the externals, meaning, to methods of statement or styles and their rapprochements. They have not gone deep into the traditional lore or their imagery; they have left it to the traditional artists. Even those who chose to represent them in their individual styles.

Ravi Varma, for example, chose the realistic style made popular by European professionals. Abanindranath Tagore plumped for a narrative style based partly on the practices of the late Mughal ateliers, partly on Far Eastern anecdotal painting. Rabindranath Tagore doodled and experimented with various art forms before finally settling for an individualistic expressionist manner. Even Jamini Roy, who made a conscious effort to forge a link with traditional practices, was more involved with the stylistic minutiare of Kalighat pats than with cultivating a familiarity with their visual language that holds together sensuousness and irony in delectable ways.

The artists who trained in the government art schools were more concerned with object representation and their variables; they shied off multi-focal narratives. Their responses to the traditional arts of India (and this includes certain responses by Rabindranath and Abanindranath) were influenced by the responses of some Western scholars of that time. This is understandable, for we all are subject to some of the attitudes of our times.

But, in the literary sphere, Rabindranath and Abanindranath made amends; they were deeply sensitive to traditional lore and their inner meanings and they were soundly informed of traditional literary practices. I wonder how many have used or reconstructed traditional themes and forms in the way these two have in their writing.

And both realised, at one stage, the pressing need to persuade the artists and writers of their day to familiarise themselves with the various creative levels in each field, to broaden their response spectra and to enrich their means of expression. I presume we are inheritors of this attitude, through Nandalal Bose and his illustrious followers. Part of our new attitudes have emerged from our rediscovery of our old root streams.

While we see this clearly in your art, we see little of it in the rest of modern Indian art. The revivalist went back to traditional art but in the hope of reviving or creating continuity with the past. But you don’t want to revive old art – you only want to use it to add breadth to your statement. Has this happened spontaneously or was it planned?

Each tradition has areas that grew in response to the needs and aspirations of a society, its ideas and sensibilities. Each tradition comes to have an inner code of discipline or grammar which prevents radical extensions. But it also has certain take-off points that accommodate innovation and thus allow a new vision and dimension to its expression. And that is the point where we each read our basic facts differently and invent new devices to represent them.

Some of the images that the Meena women of Rajasthan paint on their walls surprise you with their innovations. The simplicity of their means allow them a freedom that a more structured method of practice would have denied. But there are always means to loosen a structure and find there a foothold for innovation. All growing traditions have this resilience.

I am by nature a fabulist. I transform images, change their character, make them float, fly, perform, tell a visual story. To that extent my pictures are playful and spontaneous. I do occasionally build round a well-known theme, and give it new implications. The matsya avatar motif, for example, generates the vision of a fish goddess. Symbolising elegance and grace or a conference of mermaids. It will be unproductive to explain each image as it will destroy the mystery of its birth.

So there are a lot of things in our literature and our art which can lend themselves to new imagination and new expression?
There certainly are. Benodebehari Mukherjee had many interesting things to say in this regard. He often used to point out that the living tree of tradition had many sensitive points from which new offshoots could grow. He also used to point to the breadth of our traditional lore.

When he had lost his eyesight, he had engaged a young lady to read to him from books and periodicals. But what he found most profitable and diverting were readings from the Mahabharata, which he thought gave us as extensive a picture of human life as only an epic can. Its hopes and fears, its conflicts and crises, their analyses and resolutions. There was hardly any contemporary situation that it did not have a sampling of. Let alone the main narrative, which is of fratricidal strife and of which our modern world has so many distressing instances. And its final lesson, where the hard-won victory is bitter with the taste of defeat.

Most developed cultures have stories of this kind that unmask the contradictions inherent in human life and indicate a way of resolving them, of facing them with dignity. To focus our attention upon various contemporary problems, Rabindranath used the armature of old legends very effectively. I am sure that many other writers and playwrights have done this just as well.

Modern Indian writers, especially in the regional languages, and theatre practitioners have used ancient legends and myths to a certain extent. But painters have on the whole failed to use this material. Do you think this is because of the notions of modernism that they cultivated?

You are right. The visual artists have not been equally forthcoming. This could be because literary themes can be adjusted more readily to varied cultural proscenia while visual representations come with a marked period reference.

Nandalal did Natir Puja based on a Tagore play in Kirti Mandir, Baroda. He also did a dynamic Mahabharata piece. Ramachandran has used the story of Yayati. I have used the theme of the “King of the Dark Chamber” in Rabindralaya, Lucknow. But their function and relevance need to be explained as they are limited by their visual reference.

Literary texts or plays do not need such mediation or interference and can easily be given contemporary colour. In truth, all thematic art expression has to grow out of current practices or cultures. Even the performing arts, especially their traditional forms, which appear artificial as soon as the actions they represent vanish from use.

This has affected the abhinaya areas of dance forms such as Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and Odissi. Where the acts they portray are no more prevalent in village or town, like drawing water from a well, milking a cow, churning butter or carrying water pitchers on the head. Besides, the language of these dances are connected to a certain kind of physical structure and deportment. Drastic changes in these also affect their communicative efficacy and rhythm.

And readable texts, plays and performing arts have the advantage of narration. As does film but the scope is limited when it comes to painting and sculpture. Much more so when the message is complicated. When I did the The War of the Relics piece for the Delhi Art Summit, I had a complicated message – all religions seek to unite humanity and keep them in peace but the symbols and relics they come up with divide them and encourage confrontations.

In the process, the human being becomes a warring beast or an arrant monster with many heads and arms. It was too large a message for a concise statement and could not be condensed into a single dramatic scene. Though it has many frames of drama that link up into a serial tapestry.

And that is perhaps more visible in the folk traditions?
True. Folk art has a certain kind of mobility that more structured and sophisticated systems of expression do not. But in our art tradition they often live close together and interact and become part of a larger fluid language system.

You have from time to time commented on contemporary events or social attitudes but seldom painted images that address them directly. Is this because you think that painting is not the right medium for commenting on such things or is this because you do not want to be didactic?

I am actually aware that a painting cannot do all that a written text can. It can depict a scene but not analyse or comment with ease. Often the topical events depicted by artists – like the conquest of space, a nuclear explosion, etc. – end up looking rather trite. Like sorry attempts by artists to say that they are aware of the larger world; that they are not closed up in the company of their own selves.

I am also rather bored by the blatant didacticism of many young artists who choose to comment on the pressures and banalities of present-day life, and their persistent irony while keeping their eyes firmly fixed on the market rates. I think our response to events should come out of a deeply felt emotional reaction which ties up, in turn, with earlier experiences or reactions.

Like Picasso’s Guernica, which moves from his response to the brutality of the bullfight to his response to war. I could at one time move in some of my terracotta reliefs from my response to the devastation of a flood to my response to the brutalities of the war in Bangladesh which eventually led to its liberation. Trying to underline the fact that the massacre of a group of human beings and their body count became marks of achievement for another group.

But this can come about only when an outside event is perceived as an assault on one’s being. Superficial topicality and didacticism is something I choose to keep away from.

So you do not wish to be an activist artist?
There are many things happening in this world that force you to react against them and be an activist, to speak against them or take other measures depending upon your competence and ability. Just painting against them is a poor gesture. I do not however disapprove of those who do. My choice will be to be an artist activist – not an activist artist.

When one looks at your work over the years, one sees that you have been trying to achieve a kind of freedom.
I have always been. I do not want to be oppressed by the feeling that art is long, life is short. Life is certainly short – even a long life is not long enough for us to achieve what all we want. But the language of art should emerge naturally, with ease and spontaneity, out of our responses to our environment and out of our inner vision.

Each artist is tuned in a special way for this emergence and his initial effort must be to discover how he is so. Once he discovers it, he is bound to have a sense of freedom.

The problem arises when you go against your grain and try to achieve things that strain your competence. In the modern world, each artist is credited with a vision and genius of his own; his achievement norms are individual; he is outside the race track. Pablo Picasso and Douanier Rousseau are both artists of the same time – the former informed and versatile and individual, the latter naive and limited and individual. Both are influential pioneers of a kind.

You have from time to time pointed to the imperfections of the world but you continue to be passionate about it and, in spite of all its blemishes, celebrate it.
There are many things in our lives that throw us into a state of anger. There are many things in our environment that irritate us. There are round us various social pressures we want to rebel against. Our lives are hemmed in with restrictions and frustrations of various kinds.

In this over-inhabited world, there are various conflicts of interests which cannot be fully resolved. Administrators, social scientists, philosophers, priests – they all try in their own ways to contain the conflicts. But the best incentive for civilised living can come only from loving the world. This alone will force everyone to live in peace, to care for the environment like it was a common park.

I remember hearing in my childhood a prayer my father used to sing. It had a line that went: “Lord, let each day of mine be a festival, a celebration.”

R Siva Kumar, educated in Kerala and Santiniketan, is Professor of Art History at Visva Bharati, Santiniketan. He has curated several important exhibitions and written extensively on modern Indian art. His publications include The Santiniketan Murals (1995), KG Subramanyan: The Painted Platters (2007) and Paintings of Abanindranath Tagore (2008).

This interview is excerpted from the catalogue for KG Subramanyan’s 2014 exhibition in Kolkata, titled New Works, presented by the Seagull Foundation of the Arts, Calcutta.