Ram Kumar - the key voice of Indian modernist art no more

Apr 15, 2018, 07:15 IST | Benita Fernando

Painting was a private affair for him, he just wasn't interested in price comparisons: Dadiba Pundole on Ram Kumar

Ram Kumar
Ram Kumar

A seminal voice of Indian modernist art, Ram Kumar passed away yesterday in New Delhi. He was 94. The Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri awardee was born in 1924 in Shimla, and studied Economics at St Stephen's College, New Delhi. He took up a full-time job at a bank, only to quit in 1948 to pursue his passion in art. He left for Paris to study painting under French Cubist, Andre Lhote, and painter Fernand Leger.

Known best for his abstract melancholic landscapes, Kumar was among the first generation of post-colonial artists. Though he was a part of Delhi's Silpi Chakra Group, Kumar also came to be associated with the Bombay Progressive Artists' Group, particularly MF Husain and SH Raza, and had several exhibitions in Mumbai.

Kumar in his 40s at MF Husain's studio. Pic/Jehangir nicholson art foundation
Kumar in his 40s at MF Husain's studio. Pic/Jehangir nicholson art foundation

Critic Meera Menezes notes, "Kumar forged a unique visual vocabulary, which set him apart from his peers. He was deeply interested in the human condition, and his early figurative works were reflective of the misery he perceived around him. Though his early landscapes were austere and perhaps even sullen, they soon gave way to a more cheerful palette. Ram Kumar developed a unique style of abstraction, rendering his landscapes as jagged planes of colours."

Untitled (Benaras), circa 1960s, by Kumar. Pic/Saffronart
Untitled (Benaras), circa 1960s, by Kumar. Pic/Saffronart

Kumar has been described by many as a reclusive artist, and also wrote extensively in Hindi and English, including novels and a travelogue. He was cremated at the Nigambodh Ghat, New Delhi, yesterday.

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The private artist

Everything that Ram Kumar contributed to Indian modernist art, he did so through his work. It wasn't a verbal contribution.
When he expressed his interest to study painting, his father paid for his passage to Paris, requesting that he not ask for more. It was in Paris that Kumar met SH Raza, at whose studio he stayed and they went on to become very good friends. During the Paris years in the 1950s, Kumar's concerns were with humanity, and the Left leanings of that city in those years clearly influenced him. He came from a middle-class background, and the fact that he was studying in Paris — he probably found an irony in that existence.

A visit to Banaras in 1959 with MF Husain completely changed his approach towards his art. He moved from figurative works to cityscapes. Husain and he would go out sketching early each day, with Kumar returning in the afternoon, and Husain later in the day. Husain would find Kumar expanding his morning jottings into more formal works using ink and wax, a technique Husain introduced him to.

It took him a few years to internalise the Banaras experience, and there is a dark mood to those paintings. In fact, Richard Armstrong, the director of the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation, who encountered a painting of that period said, "This seems to be a very smoky city." Armstrong didn't even know that the work was by Kumar or that the place was Banaras, but could see that the artist had captured the essence of the city.

Even though subtle, one can distinctly identify different phases in the artist's work. He internalised the landscape he viewed and transformed it on canvas or paper. These were mindscapes rather than landscapes. Growing up and living in landlocked areas, such as Shimla and Delhi, hills and rivers dominated his paintings. A visit to Ladakh manifested large bleak vistas. However, in the early 90s, when he made a trip to Pattaya and later to New Zealand, where his son lived, the ocean entered his works.

On starting a new body of work, Ram Kumar restricted himself to a predetermined set of colours — whether or not it was successful can often be debated, but that is not the point. We don't speak about that enough — that he didn't introduce colours arbitrarily into his works and restricted himself to that set of colours even as he sought solutions to problems on canvas. He never succumbed to the temptation of introducing new colours.

Having said this, painting was an extremely private affair for Kumar; he just wasn't interested in superficial compliments or price comparisons with his contemporaries.

Once in a few years, he would come to Mumbai. It was Husain who introduced him to my father, Kali Pundole. When his exhibitions would be held at Pundole Art Gallery, he didn't see much point in showing up for them, so much so that my father would have to urge him to come by and meet his Bombay friends. He was a quiet person, speaking only when necessary, and only when he felt there was something to be conveyed. He worked silently and communicated in silence.
Dadiba Pundole is a Mumbai-based gallerist
As told to Benita Fernando

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