Curatorial interventions throw light into the mind of Ramkinkar Baij whose extensive body of work is on display at NGMA

The ongoing retrospective of Ramkinkar Baij at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) is everything that one could hope for in an exhibition. Spanning two floors, the exhibition covers a whole body of work by the artist as curated by his student, sculptor K.S. Radhakrishnan.

“I have divided the retrospective into different subcategories. These include delineating the life and times of the artist through his works; contextualising the previously scattered works within the discourse of modern art history; tracing the trajectory of works that had moved from the artist’s studio to various collections; finding linkages of his works with the larger discourse of art history of his contemporary times, and so on,” writes Radhakrishnan in his curator’s note. This also means that the exhibition does not clearly follow a chronological format.

The exhibition features sculptures, paintings and sketches from various bodies of work at various junctures in Ramkinkar’s life, at the same time throwing light onto what brought about this need for his creative outpouring, which was influenced by his long association with Santiniketan.

Going through the exhibition the viewer almost constantly finds watercolour landscapes at places like Shillong, Kulu and Kharagpur. Ramkinkar does not really focus on details; instead he captures the structure, the form and the essence of it.

The first curatorial intervention that one finds is in his practice (“study”) sketches and resultant watercolours of animals and birds (he seems fascinated by elephants, horses, buffaloes, even cats). Ramkinkar captures, quite equanimously, the structure of the animal as a celebration of what is, without a sense of glorification. Although his earliest series in the exhibition is “Mithuna” (from the 1930s), one constantly sees an engagement with humanity, represented through the numerous paintings (largely in oil) of the peasant, the labourer and the farmer.

These paintings (like “Threshing”, “The Golden Crop”, “Ploughing”) are characterised by its rich, layered imagery and a lyrical, unadulterated love. Sometimes the representations become equally unadulterated reactions to the issues faced by this body of humanity (in the country and the world). These strong reactions are quite evident in the works like “Famine” and “Atomika” (his reaction to the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombing).

In many ways, one of the pinnacles of his engagement with the peasant is the path-breaking monumental sculpture of the “Santhal Family”. This is probably one of his most famous sculptures including “Harvester” and “Fountain” (whose blow-ups have been displayed among his paintings, sketches and smaller-sized sculptures), which dot the grounds of Santiniketan. The Santhal family (as a community) and their environs constantly appear in his other paintings as well

Another crucial curatorial intervention brings together the body of work that resulted, in one way or another, the sculptures at New Delhi’s Reserve Bank of India, of the “Yaksha” and “Yakshi”. These are preceded by several study sketches and portraits of nude figures, a few inspired by Radha Rani, with whom he lived. These works are followed by several study sketches and smaller-sized sculptures under the Yaksha-Yakshi body of work, including their portrayal as “dwarapalakas” on the front walls of a Santiniketan building before the final sculpture.

Here again the curator speaks of how the “skill” of the “documentation of various postures of the human form” helped in his work with the Yaksha-Yakshi theme.

The exhibition also features his profiles, sculptures or paintings, largely of those who were close to him or impacted him. The list in this exhibition includes Abanindranath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore, Pramod Ganguli, M.K. Gandhi, and Binodini, his student and muse who features in several works.

The exhibition also features photographic blow-ups, digital prints, video installations and text, goading the viewer into a deeper understanding of the master artist, considered one of the harbingers of modern sculpture in India. But the modernity in his work becomes only a medium for his spontaneous yet thoughtful artistic passion, his creativity and his love.

“Ramkinkar Baij: A Retrospective” will be on view at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Manikyavelu Mansion, 49 Palace Road, until August 14 . For details, call 22342338.

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