Ram Kumar, master of abstract art, passes away

Progressive stalwart: Ram Kumar in a photo dated December 14, 2010.

Progressive stalwart: Ram Kumar in a photo dated December 14, 2010.   | Photo Credit: S. Subramanium

His delicately disturbing landscapes held a poetic intensity

Artist, writer extraordinaire and gentleman of the Indian art scene, Ram Kumar was a tranquil genius, a quiescent being and practitioner of abstract landscapes. In his passing away on Saturday, India loses one of the best names in the Progressives firmament.

Through his works on canvas and paper, he enacted the innermost angst-filled dramas of his culture, while maintaining the individuality, and sublime sobriety of his artistic sensibility.

In a long and prolific life, Ram Kumar was one of India’s most respected and widely celebrated blue chip artists. Born in Shimla, he studied at the Sarada Ukil School of Art in New Delhi. An Economics major from St. Stephen’s College, he left on a ship for Paris in 1950 and studied art at the ateliers of Andre Lhote and Fernand Leger.

This friendship bloomed in the deeper diktats of communism and Ram Kumar joined the Communist Party. A soft corner for those who were discriminated against became the hallmark of his compassion, which became a metaphor of melancholia.

At a historic select retrospective of 60 years of work at the Lalit Kala Akademi in 2010, the Vadehras had put up his early works showing gaunt sad faces, echoing with Modernist influences, in the traits of Amedeo Modigliani. His return from Paris saw him slowly turning towards abstraction of forms, colour and contours.

“When one is young and beginning, one’s work is dominated by content, by ideas,” he said, “but as one grows older, one turns to the language of painting itself. I have grown detached. I want to find the same peace that the mystics found.”

His work became decidedly abstract, subtle shifts, with jagged patchworks of monochromatic lines, blocks and crosshatched plains. Of great beauty was his ledger of drawings 1961-63 which was bound in a cloth cover. Ram Kumar also travelled to the United States and Mexico on a Rockefeller Scholarship.

A turning point came in 1960, when Ram Kumar visited Varanasi with M.F. Husain. Dark colours were banished and blues, greys and tawny yellows took over. The widows of Banares, the sorrow of humanity and the eternal echo of the life cycle of death and birth became a paean of a pilgrim.

The spectral city of Banares was born as a metaphor of architectural formalism that in reality was reflected by jagged planes of colour, barren topography and an abounding unbroken vastness. Spiritual truths that were silent, stoic and symbolist became the insignia of his quest.

In his show in 2000 at the Vadehras, he said: “Every sight was like a new composition, a still life artistically organised to be interpreted in colours. It was not merely outward appearances which were fascinating but they were vibrant with an inner life of their own, very deep and profound, which left an everlasting impression on my artistic sensibility. I could feel a new visual language emerging from the depths of an experience.”

Ghats of Banares

Banares became an obsession. “In the solitary silent mountains of Shimla, I became familiar for the first time with the name Kashi from the novels of Sarat Chandra when I was a small school boy. Somehow this fascinating, mysterious name was related to old age, widows, the river Ganga, and death. At that time, I had never dreamt that it would become so significant to me both as an artist as well as a human being, that its shadow would linger for such a long time.” One of his greatest works was The Boats (1968-69). A jade green and turquoise blend, it was equivocal: speaking of poetic intensity with metaphysical imagery. And yet it had an air of romanticism, albeit a quiet one. The isolation, the companionship of a few boats and the silence of the water, it was emblematic of the transcendence and ascetic quest of one of India’s greatest artists.

Ram Kumar had always been a landscape carrier because the landscape was an interior corollary of cultural blends. In some cases, as in subtle clear formations of pathways and houses it is desolate and stoic. In other drawings, a sense of resilience overflowed the margins when he used thin blue lines.

Scenes of his registration of images from Varanasi kept recurring. In 1998 when I spoke to him at length about drawings and his life in Paris and all that he learnt from Fernand Leger, Ram Kumar said: “I learned that drawings must always be strict and unsentimental, that was a great lesson. In those years, I watched how they embraced Cubist notions of fracturing objects into geometric shapes, but retained an interest in depicting the illusion of three-dimensionality.”

Artist Vasudeo S. Gaitonde’s Untitled (1975) work belonging to Ram Kumar sold at Christies in 2016 for $ 2,014,635 (about ₹13 crore) at the South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art Auction. Gaitonde and Ram Kumar first met in Bombay in the early 1950s through the artist and gallerist Bal Chhabda, who was a common friend. Although Ram Kumar was living in Delhi following his return from France, he frequently travelled to Bombay to exhibit his work at the Alliance Française, once even moving his family to the city for six months in 1954. Gaitonde, too, would travel to Delhi for his exhibitions at Kumar Art Gallery, and the two continued to meet, developing a close friendship based on mutual respect that would last till Gaitonde passed away in 2001.

The two artists met frequently, often along with others like Tyeb Mehta, Krishen Khanna and M.F. Husain.

In 1957, Gaitonde and Kumar collaborated with Husain and Mehta to establish the short-lived artists’ collective, Shilalekh, and produced a series of lithographs together so that their work could reach wider audiences. Ram Kumar’s writer and brother, the late Nirmal Verma described his works best: “History and memory become inseparable. There is something so ‘delicately disturbing’ in these paintings…” perhaps because “…they evoke what we remember, creating an equivalence between memory and image.”

(The writer is an art critic and curator)

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 6:51:27 AM |

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