The Arts

Ram Kumar, a Unique Soul in the Canon of Modern Indian Painting

A tribute to the artist who rendered his landscapes as jagged planes or patchwork quilts of colours.

“When one is young and beginning, one’s work is dominated by content, by ideas—but as one grows older, one turns to the language of a painting itself. I have grown detached—I want to find the same peace that the mystics found,”
∼ Noted artist Ram Kumar, over two decades ago.

One hopes this gentle and unassuming painter, who passed away on April 14, has finally found the peace he desired.

Not many know that the artist Ram Kumar, an acknowledged master of the Indian modern art, had a post graduate degree in Economics from St. Stephen’s College in Delhi. Nor was it widely known that he also wrote short stories. He was not one to talk much about himself, or indeed talk much at all. That deeper engagement with an inner-self reflected in his personality, and in his paintings, which were meditative and spiritual.

It was a chance visit to an art exhibition in the 1940s that was to change the course of his life forever. Captivated by what he saw, he enrolled at the Sarada Ukil School of Art and studied under the artist Sailoz Mookherjea. With his degree, a job in a bank was the obvious next step and though he did take up a full-time job at a bank, he quit it in 1948 to devote himself to a life in art, a risky decision at a time when it was almost impossible to make a living out of it. He persuaded his father to buy him a boat ticket to Paris, the Mecca of the art world.

In post-war Paris, Kumar had the good fortune to study under the artists Fernand Léger and André Lhote. Léger had participated in the Cubist movement, spearheaded by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, which was a completely new approach to representing reality. Europe at the time was still recovering from the horrors of the Second World War. Kumar came under the sway of the pacifist movement and even joined the French Communist Party. Though he did not turn a die-hard communist, it made him sensitive to the human condition.

Unsurprisingly then, Kumar’s protagonists, especially from the mid-fifties were solemn-faced men and women with large, droopy eyes, who appear oppressed and stricken. He often placed his figures in front of fragmented panes and wasted landscapes. The sombre colour palette mirrored not just the outer desolate landscape but also an inner melancholy and despair as evidenced in paintings such as Sorrow and Sad Town.

In India, Kumar had also witnessed the aftermath of the traumatic Partition of the sub-continent. Delhi was home to thousands of refugees painfully rebuilding their lives. Kumar encountered several of them in Karol Bagh, the locality in Delhi where he lived at the time. Among them were also artists such as B.C. Sanyal, Kanwal Krishna and Pran Nath Mago who had moved from Lahore to Delhi. They formed the Delhi Shilpi Chakra, to which Kumar became affiliated.

Kumar also became good friends with members of the Progressive Artists’ Group, among them Syed Haider Raza and Maqbool Fida Husain. This group of young artists wanted to chart a new direction in Indian art, breaking away from the past. In the winter of 1960, he took a trip to Varanasi with Husain to sketch it. Having read about the city, as a schoolboy in Shimla, in Sarat Chandra’s novels, in his mind he associated it with the river Ganga, old age and widows. On his arrival at dusk, the streets gave him the impression of a deserted city inhabited by the dead and haunted by their souls.

Ram, Husain, Tyeb and Sakina Mehta at ‘Let History Cut Across Me Without Me’ at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, 1993. Credit: Ram Rahman

Writing about his encounter he said, “Wandering along the ghats in a vast sea of humanity, I saw faces like masks bearing marks of suffering and pain, similar to the blocks, doors and windows jutting out of dilapidated old houses, palaces, temples, the labyrinths of lanes and by-lanes of the old city, hundreds of boats – I almost saw a new world, very strange, yet very familiar, very much my own.”

The trip to Varanasi marked a turning point in Kumar’s artistic journey as evident in the paintings that he did after his return. Despite the hordes thronging its streets and ghats, the human figure was surprisingly conspicuous in its absence in these works. These early Benaras paintings have a greyish, murky pallor to them and convey the impression of a dark and dank city swaddled in river mists and smoke.

However, it was not just the cityscape that would engage Kumar. He would continue to escape to the mountains, either to Sanjauli in the Shimla hills or to Ranikhet in the Kumaon. If Varanasi offered one kind of spirituality, then the mountains provided another. Just as he would alternate between the city and the landscape, he would oscillate (between expressionism and abstraction in his paintings.

With his distinctive painterly style of planar abstraction, Kumar carved out for himself a unique position in the canon of modern Indian painting. He rendered his landscapes as jagged planes or patchwork quilts of colours. These were suggestive of sea and sand, barren earth and lush vegetation and his orchestration of colours created feelings of both movement and stillness.

Besides painting, Kumar was also a writer crafting short stories in Hindi such as Termites (Deemak). Just as the writer influenced the painter in him, the artist in turn had a bearing on the literary self. Apart from literature, his creative fires were stoked by his many travels especially to Kashmir and Ladakh. He also journeyed to the US as a recipient of the J.D. Rockefeller III Fund Travelling Fellowship in 1970-71

Honours came to him regularly – he received the Padma Shri in 1972 and the Kalidas Samman from the government of Madhya Pradesh in 1986. He went out of his way to assist his friends. When his fellow painter and close friend Gaitonde was ailing and in dire need of financial assistance, he helped him get the Kalidas Samman in 1989-90. As a jury member, he wrote a compelling argument for why Gaitonde deserved the award, which came with a cash prize of one lakh rupees.

I remember visiting Kumar in his East Delhi residence one winter morning to interview him on my forthcoming book on Gaitonde. He was warm, welcoming and very supportive for he felt that there was hardly any documentation on one of India’s finest but fairly reclusive painters. He narrated several incidents but there was one that he singled out for mention: A woman journalist who came to interview Gaitonde wondered how he lived all alone with no one to talk to. Pointing to a tree near the house, Gaitonde is supposed to have quipped: “I talk to this tree. The tree is my neighbour. Whenever I feel lonely I talk to it.” Kumar said it was a ‘beautiful remark’; it probably tied in with his own refined sensibilities.

When Gaitonde finally passed away in 2001, Kumar was one of the few people, along with artists Krishen Khanna and Ramachandran, who went to the crematorium for the last rites. Since the group had never been there before, they had trouble not just reaching the crematorium but finding their way back too. Kumar, with his typical black humour, is supposed to have remarked, “Why go back at all? Our time is also coming up. Why do we have to bother everybody, hum sab yahin theher jayenge! (Let’s all just stay here).” I recalled his wry comment when I heard about his cremation at Nigambodh Ghat.

Meerz Menezes is an art writer and critic. Her book, Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde — Sonata of Solitude, was published by Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation in 2016.

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