A photographic study of the sculptures of an eminent modern artist belonging to the Bengal School of Art
C. Uday Bhaskar
RAMKINKAR VAIJ — Sculptures: Devi Prasad; Tulika Books, 35 A/1, Shahpur Jat, New Delhi-110049. Rs. 1995.
Ramkinkar Vaij (1906-80) is one of the great “moderns” of contemporary India art and despite his originality, versatility and the impressive body of work he created in his life, paradoxically he remains one of the least documented. This book is a modest but valuable contribution to redress this inadequacy and both Devi Prasad and Tulika are to be complimented for the empathy and editorial rigor with which this volume has been produced.
Vaij or Kinkarda, as he is better known, was nurtured in Visva Bharati, the university founded by Rabindranath Tagore, and his entry into the annals of contemporary Indian art is a remarkable story by itself. Born into a family of barbers — and hence ostracised as per the prevailing socio-cultural norms of the period — his natural talent for drawing was recognised by Ramananda Chatterjee, the then editor of The Modern Review in Calcutta who encouraged the young Ramkinkar to join Kala Bhavan at Santiniketan in 1925.
Santiniketan was the cradle of the Bengal School of Art and Ramkinkar was tutored by the legendary Nandalal Bose, and very soon the student surpassed his teacher in sheer virtuosity and verve. It is alleged that Nandalal, the master-moshai on seeing the first formal body of paintings and watercolours asked his student: “What more is there for you to learn?” And as Devi Prasad recalls, when Abanindranath Tagore noticed the untutored art of Ramkinkar, he described him “as ‘A je paka bans’ or a mature bamboo — a Bengali phrase that expresses admiration for a high degree of expertise and maturity.”
Very soon Kinkarda established himself as a sculptor of extraordinary calibre and joined Nandalal Bose and Benodebihari to become part of the distinguished trio of Kala Bhavan and is acknowledged as one of the earliest modern artists of contemporary Indian art along with Gaganendranath Tagore and Amrita Shergil.
Devi Prasad, who is a distinguished potter and ceramic artist himself and an alumnus of Viswa Bharati, went back to his alma mater in 1978 as a visiting professor, and during that period the idea of this volume took root. Resurrecting a latent desire from his own student days to make a photographic study of Kinkarda’s considerable body of sculptures that lay scattered all over Santiniketan, Prasad laboured diligently and turned his work “into a homage to Kinkarda, one of my greatest gurus.” And this is the leitmotif of the book — affectionate recall by the grateful “shishya” through the sumptuous visuals that constitute the main body, supplemented by a slim text that is more in the nature of explanatory notes to individual pieces of compelling and powerful sculpture. This is not a comprehensive biography of Kinkarda — which is long overdue — and dwells only on the sculptural oeuvre. Ramkinkar’s drawings, paintings, posters, hoardings, watercolours and theatrical productions which are equally rewarding have not been included in Prasad’s tribute.
Labour of love
Ramkinkar ranks as the most pre-eminent modern artist, of incomparable stature, in Indian sculpture and his rendition of the Bengal famine is illustrative. A few of these photographs have been included in the present volume and the use of mass, volume, curvature and void by breaking free of the traditional sculptural canons of the time to evoke the heart-rending human tragedy that befell Bengal is poignant and pithy. The contrast with the sheer joyous abandon of the Fruit Gatherers provides the other end of the emotional spectrum. Prasad relies on a few excerpts taken from essays on Ramkinkar written by friends and associates and K.G. Subramanyan’s recall is insightful and apt. Drawing attention to the centrality of rhythmic structure in Kinkarda’s work, K.G. observes: “Individual as Ramkinkar’s painting is, and full of variety, his sculpture is even more distinctive. It makes him, without controversy, the first major figure in modern Indian sculpture…Ramkinkar was probably the first sculptor on the Indian art scene whom you can designate a ‘creative sculptor’; he sculpted for his own pleasure.” And what a paean this has been for the small constituency that was able to savour Kinkarda’s creativity. Prasad’s work is a labour of love and we must be grateful for his perseverance. But a minor quibble. The contrast of the photographs could have been better teased out with today’s technology and the cross-referencing of individual sculptures more comprehensive. Hopefully this splendid volume will spur more detailed and critical comment about one of India’s greatest but sadly forgotten artists.