‘​On Sketches, Scribbles and Drawings’ by K.G. Subramanyan: An Excerpt

K. G. Subramanyan (1924–2016) was one of India’s most eminent artists who worked with diverse media and materials, and exhibited extensively both within and outside the country. He was known as much for his wide-ranging scholarship as for his artworks which are full of wit, subversion, folklore and critical social commentary. Member of the arts faculty at M. S. University, Baroda, he was professor emeritus oat Kala Bhavana, Visva Bharati, Santiniketan. In 2012, he received the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian award, for his outstanding contribution to the arts.

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‘On Sketches, Scribbles and Drawings’ by K.G. Subramanyan: An Excerpt

Academic drawing [. . .] ruled the roost in Europe. Now it is all passé. Whatever the modern European might think, art has been there for infinitely longer. Europe is, after all, not the whole world. Different kinds of art have had different disciplines, approaches, angles of perception. The Greeks and the Romans, those role models of the Renaissance, did not go through the same exercises. Neither did the others. Nor did they have the same intentions. Did the artists from Altamira go to art school? Learn anatomy? Wander about with a sketchbook? But his drawings are no less true or dynamic. Our sculptors and painters did not tread the same path, either. In each part of the world, artists respond to what they see or feel in their own ways. And make their own kind of statements. Even the strength of [. . .] Picasso lay in his overriding his academic preconcepts and seeking alternatives. . . .


A sketch [. . .] records something that happens between the artists and the object. Now closer to the artist, now closer to the object, hanging in the tension in-between. Or the memory or recall of that tension. A composite of lines, scratches, smears, swabs and dots, it recreates an object at the same time as it learns its rhythm. And becomes an object itself. At times, the artist keeps it to the essentials; at other times, he dresses it up and makes it play a role. Set sail a narrative. Take one to new shores of experience. And uncover new images. Hence this ceaseless doodling—the unravelling of what is and then its reknitting into novel composites.


An eye-deceiving image has its own kind of attraction. But is it more real than, say, signatory images? Placing Stubbs’ horses side by side with the horses of the Han painters of China, you are left to wonder which are more real. Each has its own reality, its own power. Each functions at a certain level of concomitance. Even ‘factual’ images a personal intervention or editing, special stress or elisions. This accounts for the otherness of even the most realistic photographs—they present another kind of reality. In special packages and flavours. But factual images are not all of the same kind. At a readable distance they are of one kind, but seen from afar or under a microscope, another. An housefly looks sleek and innocent when seen in normal vision but under a microscope it seems a veritable monster.

An eye-deceiving image has its own kind of limitation—it is body-tied to the object like a Siamese twin, only when it delinks and distances itself does it gain mobility. To play new roles. Extend itself. Or change identity. Nor is an eye-deceiving image the whole truth of a thing. Like a thing as we see it is not the whole truth of itself—there are many aspects of it that we do not see or know. Today we think we know its totality, tomorrow a bunch of new details surface and show our knowledge of it to be partial. Se we have to accept that the presence of a thing is sensed by various kinds of people through various kinds of signals and at various points. And that it is validated more soundly when it is sensed through a variety of signals. This calls for constant effort.


When we first comes across things, all our flags are flying and all our sensors turned on. When we get to know them and decide their relations to us, we reduce them to codes. We normally inhabit this world of codes. And naturally. If it is a new encounter every time, needing fresh recognition, reaction, reappraisal and docketing, we could not have progressed at the pace we have, nor amassed and preserved the enormous body of experiences that we have. The codes have made this easy. But, for all their usefulness, these codes can die or lose meaning if they are not reconnected to primary experiences or recharged by fresh sensory exposure. Or retested by new circumstances. So this effort has to continue. And this has a moral dimension, for it emphasizes the necessity of art.

No one has visualized this in our country as well as Rabindranath. He was quick to realize that the human personality grew in interaction with nature or life around. And its size, depth and dynamism had a direct relation to the size, depth and dynamics of this interaction. And in a really civilized society, these interactions had to be pervasive—not confined to a privileged few. To know oneself, one had to know nature; and to know nature, one had to love nature. Self-knowledge is not confined to knowing whatever is held in this body-sack of bone and muscle, gene and enzyme, and whatever else it holds or activates; it calls for continuous cross-reference with other facts of nature.

To an artist, sketching, drawing or doodling provides the grounds for this interaction. Direct, indirect or tangential. To represent, to analyse or reconstruct. To fabricate viable analogies. To link and reconfigurate these into narratives. To move from seeking contact with a thing to laying a magnetic field involving many.

I presume people of my generation took this seriously. I certainly did. So also did those elder artists whose company I profited from. Artists like Nandalal, Benodebehari or Ramkinkar. So, to me, drawing meant many things, and was never confined to mere mimicry of appearance or factual representation. It went forward—to analysis, to recomposition and to making new statements.


[Nandalal] tried to devise a broad-based alternative to the academic canon. Some of us who were, so to say, post-academic in attitude could feel it. We did not want to be restrained by the standard art-school orientation that placed greater emphasis and importance on streamlined competence than on creativity; and whose perspectives and workshop practices isolated one from the larger art panorama. We wanted to break out into whatever direction we wanted and seek cultural inputs of our own choosing.

Nandalal’s outlook had room for such a plurality. The only steady reference would be to nature or the life content. So exposure to natural facts, the study and analysis of natural forms and their cycle of growth and change from various angles assumed not only great importance but also became very nearly an obsession.

Here was a studio without walls. No cast room, potted plants, stuffed animals and birds. No life room or lay figures. Only the landscape, its flora and fauna. The scrawny palms, the pebbly earth, the reedy grasses. The midget goat, the puny cattle, the pigs and dogs. The variety of local birds. In that spare environment, each seemed an icon. And this pantheon of natural forms compelled the attention of both master and novice.

Nandalal rarely sat down and sketched from a spot. But he made small notes or scribbles. From what we know from his little statements, he was not looking for the specific fact as he was its inner armature. Or its bone structure (as mentioned in Hseih Ho’s principles). Then he sat back and built it up into a whole, putting in whatever detail he had gathered through his constant observation. A bit like making diverse musical improvisations out of a single notational structure.

Nandala’s method suited Benodebehari too, if only because of his eyesight which was highly myopic. Ramkinkar sketched from nature, but he read motifs into it, reconciling vision and design. So their studies were, in a sense, complete wherever they left them. And each stage was an incentive to another encounter.

I have been to some extent affected by this. All my drawings and studies of landscapes, birds or animals, of places visited or persons seen are reconstructed in the studio out of things remembered and little mnemonic notes. I have also been affected by their habit of sketching on small cards they kept in their pockets. Little leaflets of reminiscence. Of things seen or imagined. Or projected fantasies. Given as gifts, on occasions, with an inscription or greeting.

Nandalal was a compulsive sketcher. He carried cards, ink, brush and rags in a small bag wherever he went. A restless man, he turned out little sketches one after another, almost like a holy man rolls his beads. Perhaps for the same reason. To get over his restlessness. And to keep his main preoccupation alive. I too get driven by such a restlessness, so I too indulge in this diversion. My sketches and doodles do not always have a pointed object reference. Rather, they are inmates of the mind’s menagerie, choreographed in various ways, moving effortlessly from mime to caricature. Then to burlesque and fantasy. Undergoing various metamorphoses.

This change of stress, this crossing of borders, this mixing up of images and making them multilingual and ambivalent arises also from my interest in the larger art spectrum. Not just the workshop methods and manners and iconographies of the professionals and the adept. But also the surprising tours de forces of people with lesser skills or limited repertoires, such as craftsmen and non-professionals. And the surprising life content of their work. Despite the simplicity of statement. Their doubts, crudities and loose-endedness.


This is why the line drawing of a horse seems more dynamic than a seen horse or its elaborately painted image. Why the Van Gogh portrait of Dr Gachet is more gripping than his photograph. Why the drawings of Hokusai or Sharaku, for all their stylizations and deviations from reality, pulsate with a special kind of life. Why the clothed women of Harunobu or Utamaro are more erotic than most candid nudes. Nor can one deny that some of the graffiti of the untutored and some drawings of children have their own kind of truth and power. Recent developments in art have demonstrated that an intelligent response to these can change our work horizons.

This multiplicity in both perception and expression is natural to us. In our normal perception, we go from the known to the unknown and, in the process, we apprehend the similarities and dissimilarities of things, compare experiences and then identify them. In scientific and pragmatic vision, once the identification is done, then intermediate readings get wiped out. But not in art or our creative imagination. Here, each reading or misreading has an emotional value. And together they make a large body of image composites. Forming visual metaphors, figures of speech and figures of thought. Which form a large part of the matrix of creative expression and give it its basic vitality.

From K. G. Subramanyan, ‘Reminiscences and Remembrances’. Originally published in K. G. Subramanyan: Sketches, Scribbles , Drawings (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1999).