Life studies to abstraction: 60 years of Ram Kumar on canvas

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS
Wednesday, December 15, 2010

NEW DELHI - The art of Ram Kumar, the pioneering master of modernism in 20th century Indian art, defies conventional grammar in the quest for silence and spirituality in cities like Varanasi and Ladakh.

“The journey that began 60 years ago is still continuing without detours,” the 86-year-old artist said.

“I am carrying forward my work without any change,” Ram Kumar told IANS at the Lalit Kala Akademi Tuesday evening at the inauguration of a retrospective exhibition of his art spanning 60 years of his career from 1950 to 2010.

Hosting 75 medium and large format works in oil and acrylic, the retrospective chronologically divided his works into three segments.

Ram Kumar’s artistic odyssey began on a simple - almost mundane - note as a social realist.

“I started on a piece of paper doing still life and moved over the decades through various phases to abstraction,” the artist said.

The sections are dedicated to the artist’s Sad Town series, figurative studies, travel landscapes, black-and-white drawings and the new abstract interpretations of old colour-scapes that he paints till this day.

Ram Kumar’s signature is his Sad Town series - a dark body of work depicting the dismal state of India’s mega towns battling unemployment, rising prices, migration from villages and the general confusion that marked the late 1950s when the country is in between an industrial transition.

A dozen odd works capture this figurative phase in which lanky man, animals and cities - the inmates of his Sad Towns - huddle in anguish and despair. One such composition, Vagabonds, painted in 1957 evokes fear with its prediction of human enslavement and consequent doom.

The Sad Towns give to light, colours, flat textures and spatial reliefs in his Varanasi and Ladakh landscapes - where the colours were thicker, paler and luminescent with an inner light.

However, the Varanasi snapshots are lonely - retaining their sad and meditative quality while Ladakh is portrayed in hints of high peaks, mysterious valleys and bodies of water in thick swathes of colours.

“I have grown detached. I want to find the same peace of mind that mystics found,” Kumar accounted for the subtle change in style.

The later group of untitled works painted in the decade beginning 2000 was mostly abstract expressions in contrasting play of colours and stray forms that captured the green soul of the exotic places and monuments that he had visited in youth to draw sustenance for his art.

“Ram Kumar’s landscapes are lonely. As isolated, as fragile. And they are filled as equally and as eloquently with an illusion of time,” noted art critic Richard Bartholomew said.

As an artist, Ram Kumar found Varanasi visually and psychologically satisfying. “I have visited Varanasi at least 10 times. Each trip lasted for eight to 10 days,” Ram Kumar said.

The artist’s first journey to Varanasi is a slice of art history. In the beginning of 1960s, Ram Kumar arrived in Benares (Varanasi) not alone. M.F. Husain was with him.

Husain recalls: “Two painters, two brushes. One brush played with the waves of the restless Ganga, the other was still like a centuries-old meditative trance of the Benares ghat.”

At dusk they would both watch - “Ram and Husain - from the windows of writer Prem Chand’s haveli - the cows returning home”, Husain remembers.

“Dust like a sheet of muslin rising from behind them, following them to the walls of the room in the middle of the night as if a graphic etching of Prem Chand’s ‘Godaan’ on the white washed walls. Husain could not stay at Benaras for more than 15 days, but Ram went on talking to Benares for years,” Husain says in a recollection of his association with Ram Kumar.

The writer still travels. “This year, I went to Egypt - not to paint but as a tourist,” he said.

Born in 1924 in Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, Ram Kumar studied Economics at St Stephen’s College and trained in art at the Sarda Ukil School of Art under Sailoz Mukherjee in the capital. Later he worked for a bank in Shimla and as a journalist in a Hindi daily before giving up his odd jobs for full-time art.

The retrospective presented by the Vadehra Art Gallery will close Dec

will not be displayed