Different Strokes
Last Updated 15 October 2010, 15:07 IST

One of the most admired and respected artists in the country, Ram Kumar received the coveted Padma Bhushan this year. The 86-year artist is not new to awards and accolades. Among others, he has won the Padma Shri (1972);  Prem Chand Puraskar from Government of Uttar Pradesh for his collection of short stories, Meri Priya Kahaniyan (1972); and Kalidas Samman from Madhya Pradesh State Government (1986).  His younger brother Nirmal Verma (1929 - 2005) -  a recipient of Jnanpith award in 1999 – also received Padma Bhushan (2002).

Born in 1924 in Shimla to a large middle class family of eight brothers and sisters, Ram Kumar had an unplanned entry into the world of art. When he was into his early 20s, he came across an art exhibition quite by chance. Impressed by what he saw, he immediately enrolled himself for evening art classes. At the Sarada Unkil School of Art in Delhi, he received art instructions from Sailoz Mukherjee (1908 – 60) who not only taught art but also engaged students in stimulating discussions.

Ram Kumar took up a couple of jobs, first as a bank employee in Shimla and then as a journalist trainee in Hindi daily, Hindustan, but gave them up within months. His meeting with S H Raza in 1948 not only enthused him further in art but also ended in a life-long friendship with him. 1949 turned out to be a defining period for Ram Kumar.

Just 25, he held his first solo show of paintings at YMCA hall in Shimla which was inaugurated by General K M Cariappa. Four of his paintings were bought by Dr Zakir Husain, then Vice Chancellor of Jamia Milia University.

The same year, he sailed to Paris which was to be his home for the next three years. Despite financial hardships, it was also an inspiring period as Ram Kumar came under the tutelage of the famous French artists, André Lhote (1885 – 1962) and Henri Léger (1881 – 1955). He also met celebrated poets including Pablo Neruda, Paul Eluard and George Amado.

Ram Kumar became a member of the French Communist Party, and faced a police raid on his apartment. The Indian Embassy in Paris intervened, paid for the return boat fare and facilitated the artist’s return to India in 1952.

Varanasi calling

Ram Kumar’s paintings were initially inspired by social realism. On return from Paris, he painted anonymous people - with sad, lonely, cheerless faces - seemingly trapped in an unfriendly, unwelcoming milieu. His images were those of seclusion, estrangement and dreadful human conditions. “There is an irony I see in the situation around me. There is a sense of alienation and that too in crowded cities, where people are all around you.”
Ram Kumar visited Banaras (Varanasi) for the first time in early 1960s with M F Husain whom he had befriended on his return to India.  “It was in the middle of winter,” he recalls. “And I had reached late at night. The dimly lit lanes were deserted and gave an impression of a ghostly deserted city... I thought the city was only inhabited by the dead and their dead souls. It looked like a haunted place and still remains the same. The main purpose of coming to Banaras was to feel its depth and intensity. I had to see and feel the city in terms of lines and forms with a new visual experience.” 

In Varanasi, he saw milling crowds lined up on the ghats. He saw faith, and also anguish. But, when he started painting, there were no human forms or figures on his canvas. “Even though I tried to paint human beings to depict this experience, I just could not do so. No one human being could completely depict the anguish I saw there. As I painted, landscapes took over.”

Varanasi would beckon him again and again. He saw in it not only a city but also a culture and a civilisation in decline. He perceived in it a sense of hopelessness; he found its ambiguity intriguing, “the way it belongs to the dead and the living.” As he progressed, his paintings tended more and more towards abstraction.

It was Varanasi with its intriguingly abstracted landscapes and dilapidated structures that catapulted Ram Kumar as one of the most evocative painters of his generation. His unique rendering of the holy city brought him accolades and appreciation.

“Ram Kumar's landscapes lift one out of the toil of the moment into the timeless world of formless memories,” wrote Jagdish Swaminathan (1928 – 1994) himself an accomplished artist.

 “What he paints is not what the eye sees in the ancient city; rather it is the response of the soul to the visual impacts. This impact has released the cityscapes of the artist’s inner world, a world built into the emotional, psychological complex of the artist’s personality, the only true world. In these canvases he resurrects the images which have distilled into the subconscious, acquiring an authenticity and incorruptibility not of immediate experience.”

A recluse by choice


Ram Kumar’s works have been showcased in many landmark exhibitions, group shows and international Biennales. They regularly feature in international auctions, often fetching huge prices. In March 2008, his Vagabond (1952) was sold for $1.1 million at a Christie's sale in New York.  Last year an untitled work (Benares/1963) went for $98,500 beating the estimate of $80,000.

In July this year, his In the City (1958) discovered in a private house in Devon (by someone who was unaware of its value) was put on auction in Cornwall, UK. The estimate of about £50,000 notwithstanding, the painting sold for a whopping £170,000 within four minutes.

Success rests lightly on the octogenarian who remains simple, unassuming and reclusive. “Ram Kumar hides himself in paintings,” wrote journalist and literary critic Sham Lal (1912- 2007). “It is a presence so shy and unobtrusive as to come very near to an absence. He has no desire to shock or seduce the eye…The sense of quiet that pervades his work invites contemplation, not a gaze.”

(Published 15 October 2010, 15:03 IST)

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