Subhashini Balasubramanian, Artist – Real Leader Interview 25

Dhanya: Subhashini is a wonderful artist and a great person to be with! She was the neighbour of a good friend and he made introductions. She has taught Art at National University of Singapore through our visual arts club NUS ArtVibe. From then we have been in touch and I am a fan of her work. I look up to her just because she has taken up art as a profession! I hope to be inspired by her in a couple of months while making career decisions!
About Subhashini
Born in Chennai India, Subhashini’s initial training in Art started very early under the guidance of her father Maniam Selven – an accomplished illustrator in India. She furthered her interests by acquiring a Bachelor’s degree in Fine arts – Drawing and painting from Stella Maris College, Madras University (1997)  and Master’s degree in Contemporary practice (2009) from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore and University of Huddersfield, UK. She is the recipient of ‘Metal Award’ for her work Raga Shivaranjani and a special award for dedicated Practice in 2009 from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore. She currently lives and practices art in Singapore. She has exhibited her works in Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, UK & India.
Dhanya: Hi Subhashini, thank you for agreeing to do this interview! Can you share a little bit of your story with us?  Where did you grow up, when did you come to Singapore?
Subhashini: I was born in Chennai. My father is a very popular magazine illustrator, Maniam Selvan. I did not realize the influence something like that had on my life.  Even until 10th 11thstandard in high school, I did not realize the gifts I had.
I always thought I would become a doctor. I took up science subjects at school in view of pursuing that. When I was in 12th though, my mother encouraged me to get into Fine Arts. She explained how it would be very difficult to establish a name. In my case, my grandfather and father have already done that. Hence it would easy for me to pick it up form there.
That’s how I joined Fine Arts and Painting in Stella Maris, Chennai. I realized it was logical. My sister and I grew up together. She always came up with very nice artwork. In my head she was the one meant for that, not me. Only after my mother’s thoughts had I decided to give it a shot.
I prepared for my college application and got through. It is very difficult to grow up with powerful people around you. People expect a lot from you! That sort of made me go into my shell and I would be reluctant to show my work to people. Even college, professors would be curious about my work because of my father. I would be very scared of not keeping up to the standard.
I got married and moved to Malaysia after college. I did not take up art because of my lack of confidence. I had a child and I went back to Chennai for a while. I was more interested in graphics design than in traditional art then.
My husband shifted to Singapore and I got the opportunity to work with the Temple of Fine Arts here. I was doing a lot of graphic design and designing publicity materials for them. The Founder of Temple of Fine Arts, Swami Shantanand Saraswathi inspired me to come out with my works and clear the doubt I had around it. He helped me grow in a way!
Our Tabla teacher Nawaz Mirajkar had an idea of having a concert where someone would paint the scene as the concert progresses. It was part of a monthly fundraising performance called Mela. It was a Santhoor performance in January 2003. Swamiji asked me to take up the job and that was my very first break after very long time. I did go on stage and paint. I did this for a couple of other dance performances in KL as well. I went to Perth and repeated the attempt for a couple of performances there. The whole tour was inspired by M F Hussain’s painting of a popular Huindustani Performer. I would not say it was a great success or that it was my best work. It was a starting point! That day was kind of a re-birth after my undergraduate.
In 2006 I joined Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore for a Masters in Contemporary Practice. In the mean time, I went back to basics and reconnected with everything. My husband has been very supportive during my Masters here. He has helped me whenever I was down and encouraged a lot of my progress!
Studying here away from my father was different. Every time I drew something I would show it to my father for his feedback. The education here in Singapore helped look into myself to see what I am most excited about. I think the distance from home gave more freedom to find my identity and my own ground level!
In that respect the last ten years have been a good time for learning away from my father’s shadow. Once, my grandfather’s, my father’s, my sister’s and my works were put together and we exhibited the three-generation’s works in Chennai! It was an interesting learning to exhibit then.
My work was around contemporary belief and my research was about paintings inspired by music. Art was developed a lot around Carnatic music in the early stages. They were inspired by the 16th century Ragamala times. They personified ragas and painted them as figures. I am also a Carnatic singer. Even though there is a lot of research around this idea, being a singer I wanted to express what I best understood about the art.
It was my own journey towards contemporary art. My father and grandfather were illustrators. Only something figurative was art to me. And that’s why learning about modern art was a very different path. It was a lot of struggle to learn about abstract art and trying to understand and connect to it.
Dhanya: What is your take on the Art Scenes in Chennai and Singapore?
Subhashini: I have not spent much time in Chennai to talk about the Art Scene there, apart from my education. When I left Chennai and came to Singapore – in those 10 years I realised a lot had changed with respect to art. Internet made such a difference to the pace of development of art.
In my under-graduation we learnt the basic painting mediums and we studied great masters. We copied great masters. It was a very academic way of painting. We never went into modern art. From this scene I cut straight to my masters where I met students who indulged only in contemporary art. They did cover a bit of renaissance but it was more of abstract art than history. Such a contrast was very challenging for me! And I am still learning.
Renaissance 2.0 after the 1990s has created a lot more of local artists. I am very much impressed by the effort the Singapore Government is putting into bringing up local talents here. They are creating a great environment for the local artists by bringing in international art events and inspiring people. That helps them connect with the western art scene and around the world.
Dhanya: How are you practicing art now? Any plans for the immediate future?
Subhashini: I try to exhibit once in a while. It was much easier when I was with NAFA. We would have a lot of people coming in and of course the support from the school it self was encouraging. It is even more challenging because I have to do it myself. Last year, I exhibited my work in the Gallery of Gnani Arts. The year before I exhibited in the International Art Expo in Malaysia.
I am still working on what I am. I am exploring various topics other than my research. Being a woman I find it difficult to keep in touch with my passion aside from the other responsibilities as a mother and wife. I still try to exhibit twice in two years.
There was an exhibition in Chennai by Anandha Vikatan at Lalit Kala Academy. I donated a painting for the cause there. I am working on another show now. That keeps me going. Until my kids are independent I wont have as much time to practice art. Till then though I will have one string attached to my art!
Dhanya: Have there been any mentor figures through all this?
Subhashini: There have been so many people I would say! Starting from my mother, my father and my husband. Swamiji from the Temple of Fine Arts is a huge inspiration. Dr Shashidharan was the art director for Temple of Fine Arts who was a source of inspiration. They have all helped me do what I do.
Once I started at NAFA I met great people. A fellow graduate from LASALLE, my lecturers and there are so many people. When you are totally lost somebody gives you a direction/spark! Only at the end of the journey you realize how that particular thing made you do something.
Dhanya: Are there any hurdles that stood out? Do you have any stories?
Subhashini: The first event I mentioned was a huge hurdle for me. It was not my best painting, but I did do it. I also realized it turned out to be my grandfather’s birthday. It was the same day 26th of January. It was a wake up call of sorts. I decided it was meant to be. I took that as my challenge!
Dhanya: When I tell somebody that I like art, I find a lot of criticism about its simplicity and nothingness. I feel many share this opinion that any other hobby, say singing. Have you ever come across this?
Subhashini: I think that was the struggle I was talking about. Even when I was studying modern artists I came across works I could not relate to. I would start appreciating it only when I get it. I would also think like that. There is however an entire reason why someone does what they do. That changes the whole meaning of art. These days when you have to be good in art, there are many ways to express yourself. You can create installations, you can write. Those are art as well. The way in which you express yourself becomes the art.
I realized that you could never judge anyone’s work. It is their way of expressing their emotions. It’s not the end of the journey. It is like a fingerprint. It is just yours.
Dhanya: For all the people who are reading this what is your message?
Subhashini: I would say that if you are really interested in what you do, you should never worry about what other people say. You should gain the strength to carry on. I know it is hard. If you are really passionate, you should be at it. Minimum of 10 minutes everyday is also good. That will give you the best results. And when you feel the reward in any small way it would make you happy!
Life can get stressful. If you have a passion to turn to, it will keep you going! My friend Mr Vijay Kumar, is in the shipping business. While that is his job, his passion is Indian sculptures. He talks about sculptures on his blog and inspires people around the world. I think that is what passion can do!
Thank you Subhashini, for that! Art is indeed a fingerprint – to each his own. We hope you have a great time painting! We will keep at our passions too. What else is the purpose of Real Leaders, eh?
Real Leaders Team,
Dhanya, EB and your truly..