I am yet to meet another man like Ram Kumar who was aware yet unaware of his greatness, who was reticent yet eloquent, and who was gentle yet firm. He would often let his sentences trail away into thin air, and yet one felt that he was speaking with absolute conviction. When he breathed his last at the age of 94 on April 14, he had lived a full life and had become rather frail. His life was a saga of valiant struggle and sterling success and for the past many decades he was counted among top Indian artists whose works were passionately coveted and assiduously sought by connoisseurs and art galleries all over the world. One can get some idea about his success as a painter from the fact that his paintings had started fetching prices that ranged in tens of millions of rupees.
When I moved to Jangpura Extension in 1982, Ram Kumar was living in the same locality on Mathura Road. I had become acquainted with him through our common friend Prayag Shukla, who even those days was considered one of the foremost art critics in Hindi. I did not understand art much but I had already read many of Ram Kumar’s Hindi short stories and had become a great admirer of his writing. His stories had an earthy flavour that was very much different from the dreamy and lyrical style of his younger brother Nirmal Verma’s short stories.
Pursuing both passions
While Verma, who later became a recipient of the prestigious Jnanpith award, was a widely acknowledged master of the art of short story writing, Ram Kumar was in a class of his own. During 1982-1990, I met him often and always felt very happy and relaxed while walking back from his house.
Ram Kumar first made his name as a short story writer and not as a painter.
He came to painting by chance and for several decades managed to pursue both writing and painting with great ease and success. However, there came a point when he decided to devote himself fully to only one of them and he opted for painting. Had he continued to write short stories, he would have undoubtedly become one of the most critically acclaimed and widely admired writers in Hindi. In 1943, when Ram Kumar was studying for his M.A. degree at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi University, he happened to see a board advertising the Sarada Ukil Art School while taking a stroll in New Delhi’s Connaught Circus. On a sudden impulse, he decided to enrol there. By that time, he had already become reasonably well known as a young and upcoming Hindi short story writer. In one of my many conversations with him, I asked him the reason for joining the School.
“I think,” he said, “that somehow I was fascinated by this new world of colours in a sort of romantic way. I never thought that I would become a professional painter. But in no time I realised that it was a medium eminently suited to me. And I said to myself, let me pursue this and see the results.”
Honesty compelled him to add that the financial returns of painting were far greater than those of writing. “In those days one could sell a painting for ₹300 whereas it was difficult to get even ₹25 for a short story. I was living with my parents then and did not have to pay for food and lodging. So it was quite possible to survive for two to three months on that ₹300. Had I stuck to writing as a means of livelihood, I would have had to become either a journalist or a teacher.”
In 1949, Ram Kumar borrowed some money from his father and went to Paris to study painting under Andre Lhote and Fernand Leger. Here he came into contact with many Leftist intellectuals and attended cell meetings of the French Communist Party. During his three-year stay, he made acquaintance with famous writers like Paul Eluard and Louis Aragon and was understandably drawn to Marxism.
“I had been somewhat inclined towards leftism, even before I left India,” Ram Kumar once told me. However, he found leftists a little too loud for his taste and decided to follow his teacher Fernand Leger’s advice. Leger, while commenting on his fresh paintings, said, “Don’t be so loud in your painting. Otherwise it will be like a poster.”
Ram Kumar began with figurative work but later turned towards abstraction. He is one of the most authentic abstract painters India has produced. His Banaras series is especially mentioned in this context. In the early phase of his career, he was associated with the Mumbai-based Progressive Artists’ Group and Delhi-based Shilipchakra.
As a writer, his oeuvre consists of several collections of short stories such as “Samudra”, “Husna Bibi aur Anya Kahaniyan”, “Ghar Bane Ghar Toote”, “Shilalekh “aur Anya Kahaniyan” and “Ek Chehra”, novels like “Der-Saber” and memoirs such as “Europe ke Sketch”.
(The author is a senior