regular-article-logo Wednesday, 19 June 2024

The Beauty of the Beast

Artist's approach to toy-making was based on a constructive use of materials to create analogue representations of real-world things

Anasuya Basu Published 09.06.24, 05:37 AM
Pics: Pradip Sanyal

Pics: Pradip Sanyal Pics: Pradip Sanyal

A curiously shaped beast with four legs and some hemp for a mane occupies the corner of a display case at the Kolkata Centre for Creativity. The body is made of blocks of wood, while the muzzle, head and rear are made of wood covered with faux leather. Miniature barrels of wood form the eyes and nose. It is one of the many toys K.G. Subramanyan or KGS created.

The Calcutta retrospective of Manida — as KGS is fondly referred to — is titled “One Hundred Years and Counting: Rescripting KG Subramanyan”.

Curated by culture historian Nancy Adajania, it encapsulates the vast repertoire of the artist including his paintings, glass paintings, murals, mock-ups of children’s books...

The toy exhibits are from the collection of Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. KGS made these for the fine arts fairs hosted by the university. Apart from the lion, the collection has a mountain goat, a monkey laughing out at its viewers, a buffalo...


Artist Sankho Choudhury from Santiniketan took the initial lead in the art fairs at MS University. Later KGS also joined in, says art historian and Kala Bhavana professor R. Siva Kumar. The art fair at MS University was conceived to establish an interface between the community of artists and the city’s people. Last held before the pandemic, it has grown into the grandest event of the cultural calendar of Vadodara.

The fair provided entertainment — if not through art, through small things that are readily buyable. The mobile installations, the puppet shows that parodied the popular film/theatre idiom, the unique gate decorations, the surprisingly different toys and the multi-cultural ambience astonished the people.

Says Siva Kumar, “The fairs were conducted annually to help needy students and also to contribute to national causes. Being from Kala Bhavana in Santiniketan, both Choudhury and KGS brought the idea of the fair from their alma mater. In 1919, Kala Bhavana started participating in the annual Pous Mela. Even art historian Stella Kramrisch wrote about her purchases from the art fair there.”

The fairs at MS University allowed for a free flow of ideas. KGS did many things, such as making costumes, backdrops and masks for the plays that were staged. He also made posters and invites that would open out like visual puzzles. “He wanted to demonstrate that designing toys need not conform to commercial models; it could be imaginative, creative and playful,” says Siva Kumar.

In that sense, his toy-making had a pedagogic side to it. For instance, the lion with its hemp mane and felt muzzle could trigger the imagination of children, leading them to think differently of the animal than as just another ferocious beast.

KGS made his toys with the help of Gyarsilal Varma, who was an expert at making murals as well as stone and ivory carvings. KGS would make the drawings and prototypes of the toys and Varma would execute them. As Siva Kumar tells it, KGS allowed Varma to sell the toys outside and while making copies, Varma made them more decorative.

The toys also reflect his familiarity with the image-making traditions in other parts of the world. Those of African sculpture for instance, which were made using multiple materials — wood, straw, rags, beads and nails. His approach to toy-making was based on a constructive use of materials to create analogue representations of real-world things. A sense of fun and play united them, everything else separated them.

Poet-artist Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, who was among the fine arts faculty at MS University from 1960 to 1980 and has written catalogues for K.G. Subramanyan’s exhibitions, says, “KGS’s toy-making was some kind of continuity from his student days in Santiniketan. Through his toys, he endeavoured to communicate with the community at large, at multiple levels, and devise ways of creating art that would communicate. With his toys, he wanted to reach out to the community that did not engage with the complexities of art.”

Sheikh also talks about KGS’s use of local material — clay, wood, bamboo and rope — to make his toys. That said, his toy-making was not taken forward very much.

Indrapramit Roy, another fine arts teacher at MS University, points out that when the National Institute of Design (NID) came up in Ahmedabad around the early 1960s, it had its own toy-making department. He says, “The idea was to make toys with Indian materials and for Indian children. And the fine arts fairs at Baroda and NID were suffused with the idea of combining tradition with modernity. Toys were made with the simplest and commonest of things that needed little work.”

The collection from MS University includes the prototypes of the toys made by KGS. There are multiple copies and remakes of his toys made either by Varma or by other artists and students; many of these were sold at the fine arts fairs.
A collector in Vadodara came across some pieces at a Friday flea market last year and bought them for Rs 100 a piece before restoring them and adding them to his collection. Christie’s online auction lists three of KGS’s toys — a gazelle, a bison and a mule — all made primarily of wood with leather, felt and beads used as embellishments. Christie’s auctioned the pieces for $56,700 in March 2022.

Writes Adajania in her curatorial notes about KGS’s toys, “We know they can’t
be hugged or broken into. But what we don’t know is how to contain that immense sense of adbhuta or wonder that we experience on encountering them.”

Follow us on: