JM Subramani (1949-2021): Resonance of Rustic Origins
by Alka Chadha Harpalani
“I had left the visible, physical blue at the door, outside, in the street. The real blue was inside, the blue of the profundity of space, the blur of my kingdom . . . the immaterialisation of blue, the coloured space that cannot be seen but which we impregnate ourselves with.” – Yves Klein
@JMS Mani Facebook account
JM Subramani’s paintings that were spattered and smeared with touches of pastoral life have left a lasting imprint on the cultural fabric of the state of Karnataka and, indeed, the country as a whole. In particular, I’d like to single out his Badami series which were inspired from the hometown of his mentor Hadapad. In the series and his other works, one can see the resonance of his rustic origins through his inner visual statements, ideas, perceptions and concepts. The observations were sifted through the mind’s eye, which later took shape in the form of a coherent work of art.
Acclaimed artist JM Subramani (or Mani as he was affectionately called) was born in Bangalore in 1949. He started his art education under the apprenticeship of RM Hadapad, the founder of the school at Kuvempu Kala Sanstha, Ken School of Art, in 1974, where he completed his Diploma in Drawing and Painting. He served as an educator in his alma mater and retired as the Principal in 2007. In JMS Mani’s art we see the assimilation of forms and visual demarcations, while the cropped spaces manifest untold interpretations that can change the perception of the onlooker. We see calming and unwavering portrayals in his work, as in the body language of the Mother and Child series or variations in the picturesque, abstract representations of nature. Leo Tolstoy said, “Art is not a handicraft, it is the transmission of the feeling the artist has experienced.” In Mani’s work we see conceptions of the substitute realm of frameworks from Hampi and his reflections on nature, monuments and characterizations of mountains and peaks where Mani invites the viewer to dwell imaginatively in the layers of defined and altered territories, boundaries or precincts.
Mani would always reach out in a spirit of simplicity and identify with, for instance, an agrarian with typical Dravidian facial features carrying out simple, domestic chores like making garlands. He had a deep sensitivity for the countryside and the rural folk of the Deccan plateau in South India and their community life. Many of his paintings illustrate common folk following their daily routine, such as selling fruits and vegetables or in the idle chit-chat of a woman, veiled in a sari with a turbaned man.
@JMS Mani Facebook account
@JMS Mani Facebook account
The earthy, yet vivacious colours and dark-coloured bodies, forceful strokes and merged contours convey an intensely felt experience. There is a raw grandeur, splendour and wildness in the magnetism of his figurative forms – similar yet varied in gesture. Bright shades of life joyfully intermingling with the spirit of cordiality are rendered dramatically. Visually embellishing details act as or hold together the compositions or serve as backdrops. We see an unending variety of such components: colourful balloons; an interlaced mat on the wall; puppets on a stick; paper kites; a flower-laden basket over a woman’s head; bananas hanging on a canopy shaft of canopy; strings of birds and beads dangling on the cane hamper; an umbrella hooked over a man’s wrist with roosters fluttering in the lap; hooks, wooden angles and rods.
Mani made several explorations in texture using the impasto technique, be it in his impressionistic treatments of the subject matter or in his more surrealistic depictions. In all this his attempt was to integrate Indian ethos and sensibility with occidental formalism. Going beyond the restraints of conventional mediums like charcoal, water colour, oil and acrylic, Mani also experimented with mixed media, and also tried his hand in both sculpture and printmaking.
While talking to a few whose lives, knowingly or unknowingly, he touched, it is easy to guess why they received so many positive vibes from Mani. He will always be remembered affectionately by the people he motivated and imparted his knowledge. Former Chairperson of Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, CS Krishna Setty says, “JMS Mani was like a lone tusker, who wherever it steps becomes a pathway. Without seriously following any artistic ideologies, his motto was ‘Kaayakave Kailaasa’(work is worship). He was a 24 x 7 versatile artist, who handled almost all art media. Following his mentor RM Hadapad, he even surpassed him in many aspects. He was a down-to-earth personality and helped many poor art students.”
Artist Mahendra, President, Karnataka Lalitakala Academy, had this to say: “It is hard to believe that senior artist and teacher of the state JMS Mani is no more with us. His departure is a huge loss to Karnataka University; he was the link between the artist and the state's art field. Mani used to take the students for landscape demonstration near Sheshadripuram Railway Bridge, which used to become a fun activity along with a learning process. And this is the goal of the uninterrupted relationship between teachers and disciples! This land cannot forget Mani who created hundreds of artists while serving at Ken College. Karnataka Lalitakala Academy will always remember the extraordinary service and contributions to the state.”
Artist Gurudas Shenoy reminiscences from the time he was of tender age and his unforgettable first impression when he first saw JMS Mani in an art camp working directly with a tube of colours and rollers in MGM College Udupi. “Mani Sir was a person who ‘just’ created, not at all hesitant while painting, fluid with his strokes. He was versatile with his themes - whether it was Badami figures, still life or abstract. I remember him working whole night with my father during Kala Mela too, in which he made an enormous contribution - whether it was the banner, backstage or giving it a festive look. He was a man of few words but his lectures to students was always beyond words. He was a brilliant teacher and I observed that whenever he visited any studio, competition or exhibitions, he would never restrict himself to giving suggestions to the students. I will miss all the long car rides we had whenever I would drop him home, which passed in a blink while talking of art and techniques. The smell of linseed oil and canvases in his 15 feet x 8 feet studio played magic on everyone. The Shenoy Art Foundation was planning a graphics workshop with him in his studio but now it will just remain a dream.”
Curator Nalini Malaviya penned down her feelings for JMS Mani:
“It was a privilege to have known Mani sir for almost twenty years. We were planning a printmaking workshop at his studio and had detailed discussions about it last year, right before the pandemic, but had to postpone it once the lockdown started. I remember once, many years ago, we were on the jury of an art event where he also gave a demonstration. It was incredible to see the speed with which he completed the painting, a brilliant landscape, before a live audience. His quiet presence will be missed greatly!”
For renowned cartoonist Sridhar Comaravalli, “Mani Sir was a very down-to-earth artist who spoke less with words and more with his art. His mastery over colours rendered with deft strokes was a visual treat. Such was his passion for art that he would always be seen giving tips to budding artists and discussing art with the seniors. His colourful paintings of our rural folk are a lesson to all artists for using the right mix of colours. The world of art has lost a gentle soul who painted with his heart and soul.”
Artist Suresh Waghmore, expressing his sadness, says, “Like others, it was really shocking for me too when I heard that JMS Mani sir had passed away. Most of the times, I met him at exhibitions in Chitrakala Parishath, Bangalore, where he would be busy and so was unable to have much interaction with him. He was a soft spoken, humble and down-to-earth artist who worked hard towards his passion! I really love his paintings on ‘village life’.” Artist Aneez Anzi says, “He was one of the invitees for our group exhibition in Chitrakala Parishath. We exchanged our thoughts and views. I will always remember him as a visionary of art . . . an artist with a personalized style of working. He stood apart from other contemporary artists with a signature style of his own.”
Art historian Pramila Lochan says, “Mani will always be revered both as an inspiring teacher and a passionate artist. His five decades of immense dedication to the field should be rightfully honoured by the government and art fraternity in more ways than one.” Soumya Chavan, Principal, Bengaluru School of Visual Arts, fondly remembers, “I have had an opportunity of painting with JMS Mani Sir in a couple of art camps. He was a friendly person and could interact with great consideration. I enjoyed watching him paint. His spontaneity with colour and form coupled with a graceful impulsiveness showed no inhibitions. He seemed so comfortable with colour and bringing rustic images of daily life to the canvas. His art expression will remain a great source of inspiration to the artists’ fraternity in the present and times to come. He will be missed.”
“I can remember him as the one who frequented CKP campus for art shows or the craft bazaar. He would be mostly seen in simple plain clothing, reclusive, unpretentious, which was quite unusual and in complete contrast with his colorful and melodramatic paintings of the Badami series. What he missed in real life, he found it in his painting.” says Alka Chavda, Director of Lavaru Art Center, Bengaluru. Artist Kandan G from Mangalore recollects, “I met him during an artist camp by Kerala Lalithkala academy. He was and will always remain invaluable to the Karnataka art scene. We were together in two national art camps and I found him very confident with his strokes, his eyes and art said more than his words.” Chetana Ravi reminisces, “Looking at the photographs and wishing if we could relive that memory again . . . some memories cannot be replaced. We have lost another noble soul.”
@JMS Mani Facebook account
A recipient of the Karnataka State Award in 2006, twice awarded by Lalit Kala Akademi in 1981 and 1983, Mani has held numerous solo shows of his paintings and graphics since 1979 at many renowned art galleries in India, including in Bangalore, Mumbai, Chennai, New Delhi and also abroad, in Hong Kong, London, Switzerland and New York. He participated in myriad reputed group shows, Biennials and Kala Melas. JMS Mani’s works are treasured in many private and public collections in India and overseas. His works can be viewed in the digital collections of several prominent art galleries; to name a few: anashaarts.com, artcollective.com, mojarto.com, gnaniarts.com and saffron.com
(Images are courtesy of Alka Chadha Harpalani, anasharts.com, Gurudas Shenoy, Sridhar Comaravalli, Suresh Waghmore, Manoj K Bachan, and JMS Mani Facebook account.)
Dr Alka Chadha Harpalani is an artist, researcher, writer, poet, and has worked as a professor. She is involved in an e-learning project by the Ministry of Human Resource and Development (MHRD) by Dayalbagh University, Agra. Editor of the journal Artistic Narration (Anubooks) for over 10 years and recipient of many prestigious awards and honours, she has held and participated in many all India and international exhibitions, and published research papers and articles in renowned art journals, newspapers and magazines.