The King and the Little Man: K.G. Subramanyan’s Illustrated Fable About How Power Blinds Us to Reality

A gentle prod to remember the “forgotten song”, in a world filled with noise.

 

K.G. Subramanyan was one of the most diverse artists of his time, traversing an entire breadth of human engagements through his work – from scholarly forays in academics, to the child-like crafting of picture books. In his collection of witty and satirical children’s books, the self-proclaimed “artist activist” powerfully combines folklore with a subtle critique of contemporary society, affirming Tolkien’s assertion that there is no such thing as writing, and – by extension – drawing “for children” alone. Originally published through screen printing, these books are now available at delightfully inexpensive prices online.

Amidst this assorted collection lies “The King and the Little Man”, a story about an old country wherein resided a King. The King sought to impress his subjects in every way possible and manipulate them into thinking about him all the time.

 

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Indeed, the people were quite taken in by the grandeur of his high-seated throne and the shiny paraphernalia that surrounded him. But in the king’s country there lived a little man who was different from the rest.

 

… while most people talked about themselves,
he talked about other things.

Like the snows on the mountains
or the butterflies in the morning sun
or the starshine at midnight.

And he sang about them.

That came to people as a breath of fresh air.
Leading them to see a little further than themselves.
Leading them to feel they were part of a larger world.

 

But then one day, seeing how people had torn their eyes away from him on his throne and were mesmerised instead by the the power of the snow-capped mountains which the little man pointed them towards, the king was crestfallen. He wanted people to think about him always. And not of “other things”. So he found himself a Queen who, in a humorous turn of fate, turns out to be a proud product of the Harvard Business School (this curious anachronism weaves itself into the folk-tale, hinting rather mischievously at the contemporary relevance of the narrative). She was to help him devise a stratagem to keep the subjects mesmerised by him and his power alone.

 

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The King’s elite and educated Queen advises him that they must ensure that they are seen and heard everywhere, from the papers to the radio. They must be plastered “in tantalizing poses” all over billboards that are “big enough to hide mountains”, so that people cannot look away from them.

 

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And so soon the little man – who had pointed them towards larger things – was forgotten, and people danced and swooned instead to the noise of the King and Queen. As a reminder of how the things around us shape our mental landscapes profoundly, the story goes on. The people became deaf to anything else. They came to see the mediocrity, that was constructed and presented to them, as being the total picture.

 

But they missed something, somewhere.
Though they were not sure what.

Then, one day,
the power lines failed.

The radios were silent.
The neon lights were dead.

 

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And from the dark town
they heard the little man croon a song
that they had not quite forgotten.

 

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“The King and the Little Man” – first published in 1974 – is a joy to behold in its entirety. Its poignant portrayal of how outward displays of prestige drown out the sounds of our collective spirits – which are immeasurably entwined with the spirit of things larger than ourselves – holds up an evermore pertinent mirror today for society. To relish further some wonderful allegorical insights into the human condition through the penetrative and imaginative mind of the luminary artist, visit the collection of illustrated books by K.G. Subramanyan.

 

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Niharika Sanyal

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