K G Subramanyan (1924 - 2016), one of India’s most engaging and influential artists, was active in the Indian art scene for more than 70 years. Born in Kerala in 1924 and keenly interested in the arts since childhood, he decided to study art only after an initial engagement with socialism, Gandhian activism and a short term in prison for participation in the Quit India movement. Debarred from government colleges for his involvement in the national movement, he left Madras (now Chennai) where he was pursuing a degree in economics and moved to Santiniketan in 1944—out of the orbit of Gandhi into the orbit of Rabindranath Tagore.

In Santiniketan he came in intimate contact with Nandalal Bose and his close associates in the new art movement, Benodebehari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij, who sensitised him to the requisites of a modernism alert to the environment and life around. From them he learned to see art as a response to social and personal needs for communication and expression, and to seek a perspective on art, which had a broad, cultural horizon, rather than a narrow, professional one. This led him to simultaneously pursue the varied roles of artist, designer and teacher, and to make them mutually enriching.

A lucid and perceptive writer, an inspired educator closely associated with the art institutions at Baroda and Santiniketan, and a design-consultant associated for many years with national and international bodies for design education and crafts promotion, Subramanyan combined the ingenuity of a consummate craftsman with the alertness of a nimble thinker. He liberally shared his ideas and vision with three generations of Indian artists and designers and has had a seminal influence on art and design practice in India.

—R Siva Kumar, Santiniketan


For more than 25 years, K G Subramanyan worked closely with the Seagull Foundation for the Arts based in Kolkata. Apart from publishing his art criticism and exhibition catalogues, the Foundation also hosted touring exhibitions of the artist’s work. Since Subramanyan’s death in 2016, the Foundation has continued to devote itself to promoting awareness of Subramanyan’s art and writing. 

“He was never at a loss for words to say behind your back. Kind words. Words of affection. Words that would have made you blush with pride were they uttered in earshot. But you got tempered versions of them anyway. Through a loyal grapevine.

I would often hear, for example, “Only my dear friend Naveen is mad enough to carry large quantities of my paintings in trucks around the country. Lucknow, Bhubaneshwar, Chandigarh, Patna, Bhopal … otherwise I wouldn’t get shown all over to younger people. Mostly the paintings get shown and sold in the metro cities.

Last week, Uma [Subramanyan’s daughter] shared the last few entries written in the notebooks wrapped in brown paper. His texts echo his preoccupation with the exhibition and must have been written a few days before his hip fracture. His surgery. His sudden passing.

“When they see you working they often ask, are you working for a show? By which they mean a “sale.” For them a painting is something material, a removable object that others will pay for. Decorate their houses or offices. That a painting is a device to open up your vision and extend its reach, broaden its coverage does not readily occur to them.”

Here was a man who spent a lifetime affirming his faith in the gallery system. Working with every gallery in the country that approached him. And yet, he remained outside the marketplace. Never tempted by anything other than his muse—his art.” 

—Naveen Kishore, Seagull Foundation for the Arts, 2016 

(Excerpt from a text written at the time of the artist’s death)

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