[R. Siva Kumar is one of the most revered living historians of Modern Indian Art. A singular authority on the Santiniketan School and its tradition, Siva Kumar is also widely known for his works on living masters like K.G.Subramanyan, A.Ramachandran, K.S. Radhakrishnan and Jogen Chowdhury. Parvez Kabir was one of the finest young art historians of contemporary India and a former student of Siva Kumar–here, in conversation with him on his life and work. This is one of Kabir’s rare and unpublished conversations before he breathed his last this October in rather tragic circumstances.
HUG publishes the first of the two-part interview.]
Parvez Kabir: Shiv da, it is indeed an honour to be able to interview you on your works. Please allow me to begin with the commonest of all questions. When and how did you decide to do Art History?
R. Siva kumar: I decided to do art history only at the end of my second year at Kala Bhavana, which is to say at the end of the foundation course when we were required to choose an area of specialization. Like others in my class I had come to Santiniketan with the idea of studying painting and not art history. I was drawn to painting while I was at school and had wanted to become a professional painter. So it was more by accident or force of circumstance rather than design that I opted for art history when the time came to choose.
And how did this happen? During my first two years at Kala Bhavana I did enough to be seen as a stubborn and intractable student by most of my teachers. Paradoxically this happened because I was bent on charting an individual course and not because of any attempt to offend or revolt per se. But by the end of the second year my reputation was such I feared losing my seat. Having joined the art college against the advice of my mother who believed I was inviting starvation upon my self by seeking to be an artist I was eager to keep my seat in Kala Bhavana. And I thought the only way to ensure this was to take shelter under art history since my teachers there were generally more accommodative and convinced about the seriousness of my interest in art.
However, my efforts to become an artist did not end with this. I actually tried to do my masters in painting at Baroda. But this did not materialize. Prof, Ratan Parimoo who was the dean then was more interested in seeing me join the art history department. My itch to paint subsided gradually only after I became a fulltime teacher of art history.
P.K: You studied in Santiniketan in the late seventies. How was the academic situation back in those days? We know that Kala Bhavana always valued the study of Art History, but it rather conceived the subject as a supplement to the practice of Art. Was the department specializedenough in your student days? What kind of a scholarship did it initiate you in?
R.S.K: Yes, that is right it began that way. Rabindranath wanted artists to be informed so that they would not be merely skilled professionals but artists capable of making informed choices as creative men with theoretical moorings. So while art was discussed and an art historian like Stella Kramrisch was invited to deliver lectures, art history did not become a separate discipline until much later. Even when we were students it was more or less the same, although there was a department by then and the teaching of art history was more formalized than in the early days.
In my year there were two students, the other being Anil Singh my classmate from Manipur who did not, however, enroll for masters. And before us the Department had only three students. So the department was still very loosely organized and was still in a very nascent state. It was not specialized by present day standards, but this had its advantages. It didn’t initiate us into anything much except the very basics, and we were not taken on a high-powered conducted tour through art historical scholarship but left free to ramble and explore.
P.K: Was it more beneficial as a matter of irony? It is sometimes said that certain students are better helped if they are left on their own.
R.S.K: I at least benefited from the situation; because it gave me time to access Visva Bharati’s many libraries and other informal sources of knowledge it offered. Santiniketan was then home to several scholars and its informal milieu allowed one to take benefit of their presence. There were scholars like Sisir Kumar Ghose, Asin Das Gupta, Kalidas Bhattacharya and Anjan Shukla on the campus and it was not difficult to rub shoulders with them if one wanted. Visiting scholars also came from outside, either to participate in symposiums or to deliver lectures. That among them were Susanne Langer, Max Black, Richard Wollheim, P.F. Strawson, J. P. Mohanty, Amartya Sen, A.L. Basham, Shambu Mitra, Richard Gombrich, K.N. Raj, D.C. Sirkar, Kamleshwar Bhattacharya, Sarasai Kumar Saraswati, and Richard Soloman etc. would give you a sense of the range and quality of the intellectual stimulus that was on offer. May be this was small compared the fare on offer in large urban centres today but being a small community the interaction was often more intimate. And combined with the slow pace of life it gave one time to ruminate and internalize. Interactions with a few fellow students from other departments and young staff members of the university supplemented and amplified these exposures further.
My teachers were thankfully liberal and as I mentioned they allowed us a fair amount of intellectual freewheeling. This allowed me to take some interest in related fields like literature, philosophy and psychology.
P.K: It is quite curious to see a certain similarity between your scholarship and Kala Bhavana’s original pedagogic aims. We know that Kala Bhavana always pursued an all-round cultivation of sensibilities in a student rather than training him in specialized skills. On a comparable plane, being an Art Historian, you were always remarkably attentive towards artistic practices. How does the Art Historian benefit from a close association with Art practices?
R.S.K: Perhaps you are right. Nandalal wanted his students to be multi-skilled and capable of responding to various communicational and design needs besides being creative artists. This encouraged an all-round cultivation of sensibilities and not become mono-focused professionals. If there is something similar about my writings it just happened; it was not planned, or even desired, at least initially. Perhaps I was instinctively led in that direction by my own early art practice. But what made me conscious of it was my encounter with Mani-da (K.G. Subramanyan) during my fourth year, his writings and work helped me to take notice and appreciate this aspect of early Kala Bhavana much better. Since then I have come to regard it as an advantage.
An amount of dabbling in art activity allows an art historian or critic to acquire an insider’s view of art. I have been drawn to the writings of John Berger, Leo Steinberg and Meyer Schapiro for this reason. Unlike many others they are acute readers of the image. Berger’s connoisseur-ship often allows him to transcend the limitations of his own ideological framework. His hostility towards bourgeoisie social life and comforts which he argued Matisse represented did not stop him from saying some insightful things about his paintings and sculpture. Steinberg and Schapiro also make us see familiar works in new ways and above all by making the art works their primary source they encourage the reader to return to the works themselves. It is educational to look at art with them. Schapiro is exemplary in this. No other historian of our times matches his range of interest, scholarship and breadth of sensibility. He has not only made us look at Cezanne, Van Gogh and Mondrian in fresh ways but also at Gothic and Romanesque art. Approaching medieval art with a modernist sensibility he made representational and expressive what was till then considered merely hieratic and schematic.
To put it simply and rather crudely, although Benodebehari made paintings after he had gone blind it is always advantageous for an art historian not to be blind. But of course an art historian should also be endowed in other ways.
P:K: One question which always interested me regarding the study of Art History in Santiniketan is, here we do not have a proper base for Indological researches. Unlike the M.S.U in Baroda, very few researches on pre modern arts were carried out here, and no proper advancements are made on the studies of iconography, epigraphy and attributions regarding pre modern Indian Art. I am particularly curious about it because I remember attending your classes on Chola Bronzes which was a fascinating experience. Didn’t you ever feel the urge to do Indology?
R.S.K: There is perhaps a historical reason or antecedent to this. You should remember that Havell had tried to veer away the study of Indian art from the archaeological approach favoured by the early colonial scholars and give it an aesthetic turn. Abanindranath, as an artist, found this sensible and carried it further. Nandalal too found this agreeable. As an artist and teacher he wanted to establish a kind of symmetry between art and nature; read or animate one in terms of the other. We can also notice this in the writings of Benodebehari. Nandalal saw the body rhythms and corporeal materiality of the Bhils reflected in the Bagh murals, and Benodebehari saw the Nataraja and Trithankara as representing not two different iconographies but two different experiences of the body. As they brought a certain conceptual sophistication to this, theirs was not a crude naturalist reading of art or a plain spectatorial reading of life.
However, indological approach was not altogether absent in Kala Bhavana. Two of my art history teachers, Kanchan Chakraberti and Jayanta Chakrabarti, were scholars in different areas of pre-modern Indian art. You might say that I sort of moved away from the indological approach and connected up with what in retrospect appears to be an approach closer to that of the earlier generation of artist-writers from Santiniketan. But my immediate stimulus for this came not from them but from the modernist faith in sensibility as a singular tool for unravelling artistic meaning.
Although we may not be anymore in full agreement with writers like Roger Fry who believed that one needs nothing more than sensibility to experience and unravel art, I still think that sensibility empowers us to access art in a certain way. Take for instance the image of the Nataraja. While Coomaraswamy interpreted it by marshalling an impressive array of archival resources Rodin unravelled its expressive meaning intuitively and almost viscerally using his sculptor’s understanding of the human body in motion or his special sensibility as a sculptor. We can’t claim that one supplants the other, but each empowers the art historian or critic in a different way. I think another example will make this clear. Take the case of Panofsky, his scholarship and command over archival resources is unparalleled and simply intimidating, yet his reading of Raphael is inadequate and uninspiring, compared to that of Wolfflin’s – and also Gombrich’s, which are now commonly denigrated as formalist, made on the strength of their aesthetic sensibility and are more insightful. So I would rather argue that the two approaches are complementary and makes an art historian, when he can combine them, more complete.
Certain kinds of modern art, in which I had an early interest, also favoured a sensory or visceral reading of the image. Much as I admired Panofsky’s scholarship I was also convinced that I neither have the mettle nor the inclination to be an art historian in that tradition. This does not however mean that I had little interest in pre-modern art, especially Indian art. But writings on Indian art, with the exception Stella Kramrisch’s Indian Sculpture and some of Coomaraswamy’s essays, did not measure up to the kind of methodological and intellectual rigour one encountered in Western art history. Outside them there was nothing like Panofsky’s masterly reading of the Arnolfini Portrait or anything comparable to his interpretation of the different systems of proportions and their implications, Riegl’s essay on Dutch portraiture or Wolfflin’s Classic Art. This made familiarising myself with Western art history a priority while I was a student.
But I did want to eventually bring that rigour to bear upon my writings on Indian art. And before I turned to modern Indian art I had made some study of traditional Indian art. One of these was a study of Miskin. In it I tried to demonstrate, through an analysis of his contributions to Akbar Nama, that he was as an artist with an independent response to his times and not a mere illustrator of Abul Fazal’s text. Although I did present it as a talk I have not put it to writing yet.
P.K: I am sure your readers would love to see it get materialized in a paper. Now talking about your early works, not many people know that your M.A dissertation, entitled: ‘Tasting the Manna’, was on the nature of Contemporary Arts, primarily of the West. To my mind it was a revealing work for a number of reasons. On one hand it recognized the externality of Cultural Institutions to a contemporary artist. On the other it also aimed to enquire the question of subjectivity outside the internal [psychological] as well as the social external [collectivism], in the grey realm of language performance [artistic]. Today, when you look back to your dissertation, what do you think of it?
R.S.K: It was undertaken primarily to clarify the logic and development of modernism to myself than to expound any thesis. It reflected in a general way my interest in modernism both as a student of art history and as a painter. The ‘Manna’ in the title merely indicated art as the last spiritual sustenance available to modern man who saw himself as either stalking through a Post-Nietzschean wasteland or as travelling towards a positivist promised land.
P.K: There is another observation I would like to make here. The structure of your dissertation, its chapterization, reveals a very rounded and wholesome attitude from your part, as if you didn’t want to leave anything unsaid. This, you know, is said quite often about your later publications on individual artists. Yours’ is indeed an ambitious style which does have some quality predecessors in the West, but not so in India. Did the biographical classics influence your working style; for example, Panofsky’s work on Durer or Clark’s on Leonardo?
R.S.K: As I said it was undertaken more for self-education and therefore I wanted to make it as comprehensive as possible. Although I tried to be even-handed in retrospect it is not difficult to notice a bias towards expressionist and humanist traditions within modernism, in tone and feeling if not in coverage. I now see this as a reflection of my interests as a painter which veered towards an intellectually informed expressionism.
My later writings on individual artists are different. They were, except for the one on Abanindranath, occasioned by exhibitions. Three of them were written to accompany retrospective exhibitions. Thus the context itself called for a comprehensive treatment. But I have tried, I believe, to turn them into studies of their artistic careers and not merely into biographical chronicles or anecdotal accounts of their life. There is little personal biography in them except what is required to situate their work or career.
My approach in these books has been simple. I begin with their work and its possible readings, and see how they string together into a career and an artistic programme. While I have tried to be analytical I don’t get overtly polemical since they were written for occasions that were inherently celebratory. Keeping this in mind I have tried to explain their oeuvre following the ideology intrinsic to each rather than critic it from a wholly extrinsic position.
In simple terms they are about what the artist did and the context in which he did what he did. You can place them if you want in the genre of art historical monographs; a genre which many believe is on the decline since the beginning of modernism, though Simon Schama’s monumental Rembrandt’s Eyes published hardly ten years ago suggests that monographs need not be simple ‘Life and Work’ books and can still be a complex and challenging undertaking.
P.K: You just referred Simon Schama’s work on Rembrandt. If I am not wrong, your first publication was an essay on Rembrandt, where you probed into the hermeneutic of one of his etchings. You demonstrated how the image can be read as a meeting ground of his private values and textual interpretation. How do you relate this paper to your other works?
R.S.K: It was not my first published paper. My first piece to be published was an article on K.C.S.Paniker. It was written for a local students’ seminar we organised soon after Paniker’s death in 1977 but was not published until two years later. The Rembrandt piece was written after that, if I remember rightly, in my fourth year at Kala Bhavana. But it was not published until 1981 or ’82. A few other papers written later were published before it came out in print.
I was drawn to Rembrandt quite early on. I was fascinated by his humanism; exploring himself through self-portraits and painting biblical paintings that were not in demand in protestant Holland, he was in some ways a true precursor of the modern expressionists, not in style but in spirit. Through books I studied his oeuvre very closely, not just his paintings but also his drawings through the six volume catalogue by Otto Benesch and his etchings through the two volumes by L.Munz.
It is generally held that his self-portraits were self-imaging or self-construction as much as self-scrutiny and that he had a personal stake in doing biblical paintings and etchings. The intermixing of the two, Rembrandt being more ‘self-reflexive’, went beyond the post-Renaissance convention of incorporating portraits into historical or narrative paintings. I also discovered that his engagement with certain themes persisted and led a subterranean life in his drawings and by linking these up I wanted to suggest that we get a better insight into his mind and his work.
But, I haven’t attempted to trace this kind of passage from work to psyche in my other writings. Not every artist lends himself to such study. While some artists draw attention to the personal circumstances under which their artistic vision was formed others deflect our vision away from their lives and compel us to concentrate on their work.
P.K: ‘Santiniketan Murals’ was your first significant publication, which you co-authored with Arun Nag and Jayanto Chakrabarti. This work, in a way anticipates the course of your future scholarship and has all the characteristics your readers recognize in your work; empirical strength, a holistic view of art practice and a deep faith in humanism. Would you tell us about this book?
R.S.K: Although I was interested in Western art as a student I gradually realized that I had to connect up with my own surroundings. My familiarity with Western art history also made clear how much there was to be done in India. Indian art and especially modern Indian art was almost unexplored. Since I joined Kala Bhavana as a faculty soon after I completed my studies it gave me an opportunity to research on the local art scene which had made important contributions to the beginnings on modernism in India. Even though a lot of the original work I wanted to study had already left Santiniketan, as a student I had seen a bit of it and the murals were still there, and access to archival material was easy. I wanted to make use of this.
At the same time I also realized that modern Indian art was not even documented leave alone analysed, most of what had been written, by those who approved and those who disapproved of it, was either anecdotal or ill informed opinions. Critical studies, I realized, will not stand or become relevant without a substratum of solid empirical research. Without supportive empirical work it was bound to become fictitious glass castles floating over a sea of ignorance. Therefore it was imperative that I do it for the area I was researching on. At the same time I was not temperamentally disposed to limit myself to archival research and documentation so I had to combine empirical and interpretative art history as much as possible.
In the case of the Santiniketan murals there was also an urgent need for undertaking such a documentary study. These murals are an important part of the history of mural practices in modern India as much as a part of the Santiniketan project of building a new indigenous visual culture for modern India. Although their initial impulses were more communitarian and pedagogic it also produced works of art that have become major historical signposts. Partly because of the impecunious circumstances under which they were produced and partly due to the lack of conservation efforts this valuable piece of history and legacy was on the verge of disappearance. In fact a number of pieces were already lost. The least we could do under the circumstance was to document them and produce a study before even the surviving works deteriorated further.
The humanism, well, it belongs to the artists I write on as much as to me.
P.K: It seems to me that your essay in this book somewhat displays the dual interests of an Art Critic and an Art Historian. These interests overlap each other at places, but occasionally also differ in their scope and function. It seems to me that although you gave your readers a wholesome idea of the murals, you chose them as creations of some special individuals over their status as facts of history, a decision which perhaps disqualified a couple of murals by lesser artists. Would you like to comment on this?
R.S.K: The borders between art history and art criticism, you will agree, are no more as firmly drawn as they once used to be. It perhaps began with art historians taking interest in modern art. You might as well go all the way back to Vasari. Among the moderns Roger Fry would be an early example. And it is demonstrated felicitously by Steinberg and Schapiro among the art historians I have referred to. And they are two art historians I much admire. Modern day art historians with interest in contemporary practices also apply what they learn from contemporary practices to the study of historical art. And further, even as they are committed to producing a widely acceptable reading they do not try to hide the role their subjectivities play in the production of their readings of history.
My text on the Santiniketan murals as I said was a double bill. I do believe that works of art are both facts of history and aesthetic objects or objects that affect us. While they might be all equal on the plane of history they need not, and do not, affect us in the same way. It is like this; you might be interested in a certain kind of music but would you listen to everything in that genre indiscriminately, you judge make choices. I am both an art historian and a connoisseur; so I try to see the trees and the woods together and I believe ideally it should be so.
Some of the murals were student-exercises, some copies from Ajanta or elsewhere or images collated without a programme, they constitute a certain stratum of the murals done in Santiniketan these got treated as part of history. Others by artists like Nandalal or Benodebehari are more complex and engaging; these murals have a prominent place in their oeuvre and have already earned a place in discourses on Indian modernism. To put them all on the same plane would be misleading, an enforced homogenization where one does not exist.
P.K: In addition to the last question, I would like to quote E.H.Gombrich’s words on the question of art making. He once said “There are social causes and determinants, as there is fashion and taste, but it is after all the artist, the individual human, who rewards us by letting us have a glance at his mind’s eye.” Do you hold a similar view while writing on individual masters? I am interested in the exact contour of your humanism.
R.S.K: There is both collectivism and individual achievement, and the two are closely interwoven. We might take an ideological position on this but it is a fact we can’t wish away. Take any period and there will be individuals who not only stand out but also stand taller than others. They might be immaculate exemplars of the values of their time or milieu like Raphael and Rubens or relative exceptions within their community like Michelangelo or Rembrandt. Because there are artists of exceptional achievements who stand alone it would not be meaningful to say that there is nothing like Florentine Renaissance or Dutch Baroque and vice versa.
In art history there are both periods and individuals and their study is rewarding in different ways. Studies of the Florentine Renaissance by Michael Baxandall and of Dutch Baroque by Svetlana Alpers have improved our understanding of these two periods immensely. And interestingly both were differently associated with Gombrich as students and Gombrich in his review had much praise for Alpers’ book. Incisive studies of historical periods like theirs also help us to see the individuals better. Alpers herself followed her book on Dutch painting with studies on Rembrandt, Rubens and Velazquez.
The moot point is not whether we read or judge art in the light of some intrinsic or extrinsic value but that as soon we do so there is bound to be a hierarchy of some kind. We can merely trade one for the other, the aesthetic for the social, the Marxist for the feminist and so on. The moment we give this up we will cease to be art historians or art critics and become chroniclers or polemicists with a mission.
My own idea of an artist’s individuality was shaped by my phenomenological and existential readings as a student. I still hold that an individual is born into a situation beyond his control but he can exercise a certain control over the way it develops through his responses and in turn determine the circumstances into which others coming after him would be born. Thus it is both as a product and an author of history that I am interested in individual artists.
I am interested in the human mind behind the work. But the human mind that an artistic oeuvre reveals need not coincide with that of the individual who created it. It is quite possible that in real life Giotto and Rembrandt were tough cookies and not nice guys but that doesn’t negate the humanism one find expressed in their work. Thus I try to look for the individuality of the artist in his oeuvre and not in his biography. Over-focusing on the life of an artist and reading his paintings in terms of biographical details can be facile as Rosalind Krauss argues with regard to Picasso, but at the same time a close and incisive reading of works can also reveal the artist’s mind in its complexity as Alpers’ studies of individual paintings of Rembrandt show. For all the social insights one might gain from a painting I would like to see an art historian begin from a pictorial insight one can have of it.
P.K: Coming back to the question of theory and the practice of art, many of your readers know you as the writer of some significant monographs on contemporary artists. This, I am sure has its advantages as well as its limitations. On one hand, it enables the historian interact, observe and clarify his subject from a very close quarter. On the other, it perhaps also strips him off the power and authority that he enjoys in representing a historically distanced subject. What were the constraints and how did you deal with them?
R.S.K: The monographs have perhaps overshadowed my other writings, and over the years they have grown in volume shrinking my theoretical engagements to an extent. The genre has both its advantages and limitations, the limitations spring from the fact that in India they are seldom independent scholarly works but books commissioned by galleries or written to accompany exhibitions. But that said it is up to the writer to succumb to or resist these pressures. Of course the occasion and civility does not allow one to be aggressively critical of the artist you are writing about. But then should we have to be rude to be insightful? I do not write indiscriminately, I only choose to write about artists who have a remarkable body of work behind them and whose work I respect. As artists who have proven themselves by their continuous and serious engagement, frankly the artist’s I have written about don’t need me to promote them. And being aware of it themselves they have allowed me to read their works and career independently. I know that hiring a praisery is not uncommon but serious and shrewd artists seek informed viewers more than adulation. And it is possible to write an informed and analytical study without being panegyric.
P.K: Your work on K.G.Subramanyan is so well known that it is sometimes difficult to imagine his works without your ekphrasis. It is like seeing two musicians complimenting each other or watching a filmmaker represent his favorite actor. Curiously, both of you were born and brought up in Kerala, and then studied and worked in Santiniketan. Both of you are interested in Tagore’s humanism and are conscientious to community practices. Can you talk about this long working association?
R.S.K: My relationship with Subramanyan is indeed a little different from my relation with the other artists I have written about. This is because more than our shared ties with Kerala and Santiniketan he is my teacher. Of course he didn’t teach art history in Santiniketan and I did not learn painting under him except in an informal way. But the one year he spent in Santiniketan while I was an undergraduate student helped shape my approach to art history and made me more sensitive to the importance of the Santinikeatan masters especially Nandalal. Without that interaction I would not have perhaps devoted my career so fully to the study of Santiniketan’s contribution to Indian art.
When he came to Santiniketan as a visiting professor in 1977, his reputation for being a formidable no-nonsense teacher having preceded him, most of the students here admired him from a distance. This allowed some of us who were more curious to make the best use of his presence, and he welcomed it. While most of the other teachers at Kala Bhavana handled promising students with kid gloves and cheered rather than critique, Subramanyan was brutally frank and by dismantling our opinions he spurred us into thinking. He was not for the chicken-hearted. But he was always ready to argue it out and in this way more open than most.
I showed him my paintings and he pointed out to me that my quasi expressionist style was too heavily overlaid with medieval art to covey the existential ideas I professed. The orientation of one was communitarian and the other was personal he argued. He also advised me to choose between painting and art history and devote myself fully to what ever I chose. I did not buy that idea immediately but gradually I found myself making that choice. I also tried to be present when he critiqued the works of friends who took them to him. During these sessions I noticed that he did not try to sell the same ideas to everyone, he looked at the work and usually tried to get the student to articulate his or her intentions and then discussed the work in its light pointing out where their work failed to converge with their intentions and why. He did not generally offer specific solutions but suggested the directions in which they might look or the various things they might consider. These sessions led me to issues of art language, and to look for and discover those art historians who were exercised about them.
This in turn led me the one hand to psychology of perception and Gombrich and Nelson Goodman and Suzanne Langer and so on, and on the other to Nandalal and Benodebehari and in the process I developed interests similar to his. Some of it was independent but some overlapped with his interests. For instance in the class he often referred to perceptual psychology to explain certain features of art practice. Following this up led me to Gombrich but later I discovered that while at the Slade he had attended Gombrich’s lectures on drawing which were enlarged and developed into Art and Illusion.
A few months after he came back to Santiniketan in 1980 I got a chance to help Lakshma Goud and Mrinalini Mukherjee who were deputed to select works for his first retrospective at Bharat Bhavan. This gave me an opportunity to see his works and document them. I also assisted in organizing the next two at the Birla Academy in Kolkata and at the Art heritage in Delhi. I also became the chief photographer of his works and this allowed me to study his works closely. So by the time I got to curate the NGMA retrospective and write the book that went with it I had more than twenty years of engagement with his works behind me. This definitely was an advantage.
And now the ekphrasis. I don’t think it is special to this book, may be it is a little more effective or convincing here. I always begin with the art object; I try to initially bracket all theories and prior knowledge, at least as much as such a thing is possible, and know the object sensuously. After grasping its materiality more or less intuitively, I try to know it through its formal and linguistic structuring and then through its cultural and historical location. I also try to make this process accessible to the reader.
The primary function of an art writer for me is sharing one’s experience of a work of art with other viewers. In this sense art history and art criticism is an intersection of the visual and the verbal. I don’t believe words can fully translate the experience of images and objects but it can point out things, show them in a certain emotional light and so on. It functions like a metaphor that quickens or stirs the visual imagination of the reader and transforms him or her into a viewer, thus such writing restores the art work back to the realm of the visual.
P.K: The range of Subramanyan’s work is indeed amazing. It seems to us that he prefigured a number of tendencies we associate with some present day art activities. He could work with multiple modalities and improvise, and at the same time relate representation to pure design. In fact I believe he is the last figure of our time, who is still attached to the unbroken, dialectical cord of tradition. How do you place and evaluate his work in the broader canvas of history?
R.S.K: Yes indeed he is very versatile. On this count he is like Picasso and Matisse among the early moderns and like Hockney among those who are closer to him in age. But his versatility came from his mentors in Santiniketan. Through their pedagogy and example they taught him to value versatility over narrow individualism associated with modernism. He imbibed from them a vision of art as both communication and creative innovation and later as he tried to put it into practice he discovered that the two were mutually enriching rather than excluding. This saved him from the fear of plurality that haunted much of modernism.
Today as postmodernist critiques of modernism is gaining ground he looks like a precursor of contemporary tendencies in art. But all the same he should be seen as an artist with an alternative position within modernism. He and the other artists we have referred to above valued coherence and individuality only it was the coherence of sensibility, concerns and a personal language and not one of style.
By combining communication with creativity and putting language above style, that is to say by expressing through a conscious marshalling of the efficacy of materials and language he both recapitulates tradition and breaks new ground. He is to the post-independence art scene what Nandalal was to the pre-independence art scene.
P.K: Subramanyan himself is a prolific writer and his two books, ‘The Living Tradition’ and ‘The Creative Circuit’ were instrumental in changing a generation’s attitude towards the practice of art outside the galleries and the museums. However, many of us also believe that in interrelating practices under the auspices of eclecticism, he somehow dissolved the differences in those practices which otherwise are very real in their operation. What is your take on eclecticism and what can we learn from it [eclecticism] rather than dismissing it as an elitist utopia?
R.S.K: He is talking of eclecticism in the context of modernism. The individual artist in the modern period finds himself in a cultural situation where on the one hand the old cultural cohesiveness is absent and on the other he is surrounded by mélange cultural facts. In such a situation the individual becomes central simply because the umbilical code that ties him to a localized communitarian culture is snapped, and he is left to forge a new identity for himself. But he doesn’t forge this new identity out of nothing; he does it through a personalized assimilation of cross-cultural elements. In the situation he finds himself in eclecticism adds to his resourcefulness.
If cross-culture exposure had acquired a critical mass by the beginning of modernism it has been growing at an accelerated pace since then. In this still emerging scenario our individual identities have become more composite and complex. Today a sensitive or thinking person, even if he doesn’t leave the village or small town where he was born, is bound to have a more composite identity than his predecessors. Again a sensitive middle class professional expatriate or even a migrant labourer mind find it necessary to forge a new identity more than an obdurate conservative clinging to the identity of his forefathers.
Thus while there may be differences and those open to the historical forces shaping the changing scenario may feel the need to forge a new identity more than those who are conservative or resistive it need not be elitist. And the new identities we forge need not be a senseless collage of values; it can have its own internal coherence and language. Subramanyan has tried to argue that in the new situation our common ground is not an insular culture but the environment we live in and share with our neighbours. And the authenticity of what we create will depend on how it relates to our shared environment.
It may not be a pleasant thing to be alienated from what we hold dear. But the things we hold dear were once created by breaking down things that were dear to others. We are condemned by recent history to live amidst a store house of fragmented cultures and in this context eclecticism is way of salvaging the best and the most useful of what we hold dear. That is, unless we manage to turn the course of history.
P.K: Your work on A.Ramachandran is a case in point. We know that much like Subramanyan, Ramachandran is an avid scholar of Indian Painting and has been exploring and enriching the classical tradition ever since. Now what are your observations regarding a contemporary artist’s engagement with the classical tradition? Are there other ways, deeper and meaningful, than using tradition for mere reference gaming, something that is so common to be seen today?
R.S.K: This connects up with what I have just said. Ramachandran is an artist who has become with age anxious about losing what was valuable in our traditional arts. In his youth he was exercised about the human predicament of those around him and of modern man in general. He didn’t then concern himself with the cultural lineage of his visual language or with its aesthetic underpinnings. Today he is more critical of modernism and feels the need to imbibe and keep alive the traditional art language and aesthetics he is heir to.
Despite his talk about Nandalal’s use of Ajanta and the noticeable references to its images in some of his works, a more careful reading will show that he is more eclectic than it appears. Besides having some marked affinities with Ajanta, Kerala murals and Indian miniature paintings his work also connects up with a host of Asian and certain Melanesian antecedents. And more remarkably all this is filtered through a less noticed but undeniable mesh of academic realism he has inherited as part of his colonial legacy. His work is thus differently inscribed by personal will and history.
Whether one quotes Ajanta or Mondrian or Duchamp it matters little if it is done to flaunt one’s club membership. A lot of referencing you find in painting today is either hollow or the sign of a life mediated by media in which culture is more real than reality. In Ramachandran’s case I think there is an element of displaced nostalgia for this lost reality.
P.K: Your association with sculptor K.S.Radhakrishnan goes back to your student days. What struck me in that work is the warmth of your writing, which moved from the personal to the judicial in a smooth, friendly manner. Was it a conscious choice to adopt such a narrative mode?
R.S.K: It would have been pretentious to write that book in any other manner.He and I arrived from Kerala by the same train, introduced ourselves on the railway platform at Bolpur, and spent the next seven years as classmates in Kala Bhavana. Thus we share a lot of common experiences.
He like most of the others I have written about would fit into what can be called my Santiniketan framework, but he is the youngest of the artists I have written on, and being my contemporary and a friend with whom I shared my student days it would have been presumptuous to assume a critical distance while writing about him.
P.K: The next question I ask may sound a little unfair, and I apologize for it. There is also a feeling that you are comfortable in representing those artists from Kerala and Bengal who have overcome the regional context in order to pitch their works on a broader, if I may say, national arena. Now I am not interested in the differential and essentialist biases that are perhaps there in this accusation. I am interested in your views about the ‘place of art’, the forum where a work of art registers its language. The forum of regional expression may not be contradictory to the national one, but in case it is, how do you negotiate that tension?
R.S.K: I always thought there were more chances of being charged with being a regionalist [Laughs]. My chief focus has been not Kerala or Bengal but Santiniketan. Some of the artists just happened to be from Kerala and others from Bengal. There might be some form of regionalism construed in resistance to cultural and economic globalism or political nationalism in different parts of the world today. They have a point to make. But aspiring to reach out and become part of a larger or broader context is also older than modernism. The issue will become clearer if we move away from art to literature for a moment.
Writers who write in any language write for people who share that language. Even in a globalising world for writers in most languages this would still mean more or less contiguous and relatively homogenous readers. Indian writers writing in various regional or what is referred to as vernacular languages write primarily for a small and geographically concentrated constituency of readers, but this does not mean that their perspectives are always regional or small. Many of the world classics were once regional literature.
Like a writer an artist does not have the advantage of having a language that is as closely structured and codified. On the one hand the relation between the signifier and the signified is more flexible in visual language and on the other hand sensuality being integral to the signifying functions of visual signs it is not as arbitrary as in verbal language. This means the artist stands a better chance of being understood if he is addressing viewers who share the same experiences of the world and have similar visual habits or what Baxandall has termed ‘the period eye’. But this requires or implies a contiguous community of viewers, which would not be easy to have in a globally linked but locally fractured world.
The fact more important than language today for defining and articulating the local are shared experiences of the lived world. For all the global traffic of ideas life is lived locally. It is by engaging with it that an artist can hope to create the local, for art not only addresses the local but also creates it and sometimes also creates its language. However I would hope that the local one creates today would not be insular but cosmopolitan.
[To be continued in the next instalment …]