Sublime depths

Ram Kumar’s meditative landscapes yearned to capture the mystical and transcendental moods of man and nature

A quiet man, a quiet painter, and a painter of the remembrance of things past,” wrote Richard Bartholomew, way back in 1961.  “This is life for Ram Kumar.” In the same essay, the eminent art critic added: “Ram Kumar reminds me of poetry, his painting is poetry.  It is natural that as writer and thinker, he should, from time to time, rediscover completely the world of poetry.” The veteran artist who passed away recently (on April 14, 2018) in Delhi, aged 94, remained active till the very end with the same “creative vigour, emphatic clarity and splendid craftsmanship” as Bartholomew had recognised more than 55 years ago.

Ram Kumar’s life story was one of many twists and turns. Born in 1924 in Shimla, he graduated in Economics from St Stephen’s College, Delhi, and seemed well set for a career in banking. However, he accidentally got bitten by the art bug; one thing led to another and before long, he was on a ship with next to nothing in his pocket and one-way ticket to Paris. Once there, he was privileged to befriend several important artists, and work with the famous Cubist painter Andre Lhote (1885 -1962) and figurative master Fernand Leger (1881 -1955). Drawn by socialist ideals, he also became a member of the Communist Party, “where I learnt a lot from people such as Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard.” 

Colours of pain

When he returned to India in 1952, he was greeted by a country which was still reeling under the throes of Partition. He responded by painting portraits that conveyed the suffering of his fellow countrymen. “What I was painting reflected what I saw around me — there was so much pain, trauma and misery. There were changes in the newly independent India. In Delhi, we had so many refugees from Pakistan. There was a camp in Karol Bagh where I was a volunteer.” The figurative paintings he made during this phase were “more of the urban predicament, fuelled by socialist realism.” (One of his paintings from that period titled Vagabond (oil on canvas / 1956) fetched $1.16 million at a Christie’s auction in 2008.)

In 1960, Ram Kumar visited Banaras for the first time — a trip that would make a deep impact on his career and life. It was fellow artist M F Husain (1915-2011), almost a decade senior in age, who lured him to the holy city for a sketching expedition. “It was in the middle of winter,” Ram Kumar would recall decades later. “And we had reached late at night. The dimly lit lanes were deserted and gave an impression of a ghostly deserted city... It seemed 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…It was an inner, spiritual experience; it dramatically changed the way I looked at the world.” 

And as he wandered along the ghats in a vast sea of humanity, “I saw faces like masks bearing marks of suffering and pain, similar to the blocks, doors and windows jutting out of dilapidated old houses, palaces, temples, the labyrinths of lanes and by-lanes of the old city, hundreds of boats — I almost saw a new world, very strange, yet very familiar, very much my own.”

The Banaras trip prompted a definitive shift from the erstwhile figurative mode of representation.  Ram Kumar would recall how his attempt to depict the experience through portraits just did not work. “No one human being could completely depict the anguish I saw there (in Banaras). As I painted, landscapes took over… My paintings became a bit abstract and tried to show that agony and human suffering through abstract forms.” 

Muse, the places

Over the years, Ram Kumar’s non-figurative images embracing the holy city’s many moods and memories, architectural structures, and river-front reflections made him one of the most admired and respected artists in the country. His subsequent visit to Ladakh, where he saw magical formations of mountains and deserts, strengthened his approach towards a more non-representative form, because “I could see no meaning in painting street scenes as streets, trees as trees and rivers as rivers.” Widely shown and eagerly collected, Ram Kumar’s paintings brought him many awards and laurels including the prestigious Kalidas Samman from Madhya Pradesh State Government (1986); Padma Shri (1972) and Padma Bhushan (2002).

All through his life, Ram Kumar was known to have shown an almost ‘saintly indifference’ towards fame and popular acclaim. With passage of time, his work became more and more philosophical and meditative, yearning to capture the mystical, transcendental and sublime moods of man and nature. “When one is young, the work is dominated by content, by ideas. 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 mystics found.”

Although by nature reserved, Ram Kumar maintained a close and cultured relationship with several fellow artists of his era. Among them was another introverted artist and celebrated abstractionist Vasudeo Gaitonde (1924 - 2001). In the mid-1980s, when Gaitonde had an accident, it affected his spinal cord and neck so badly that he couldn’t paint for eight years. Ram Kumar and his wife reportedly not only took care of him but also made it a point to send food dabbas to him daily as he recuperated. He also arranged various grants for Gaitonde and wrote a compelling commendation, which got him (Gaitonde) the Kalidas Sammelan Award in 1990.

Ram Kumar himself bought a Gaitonde painting at an exhibition in Delhi in the mid-1970s. For more than 40 years, he proudly hung this painting in his home. When this untitled painting was finally put up for auction at Christie’s in 2016, it sold for a whopping $ 2,014,635, exceeding its estimate by three times!

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