It may be hard to believe that Ram Kumar, retiring and reclusive as he was all his life, belonged to that fiery bunch of trailblazers who came together to form the Progressive Artists’ Group in 1947. Initially known for his Hindi short stories (it was his brother, Nirmal Verma, who would end up as one of the greatest writers in the language), Ram Kumar had a humble start. After a degree in economics, he worked in a bank. He did not exude the flamboyance of M.F. Husain or the chutzpah of F.N. Souza, even after he went to Paris in 1949 on a scholarship. A deeply private individual, for much of his life Ram Kumar immersed himself in a visual language that was cryptic, abstract, even intransigent.
Yet, Ram Kumar also created hypnotic visions with soft hues and sharp lines, crumbling forms and intricate cross-hatching. His mastery lay as much in the art of concealment as in revelation. The upcoming exhibition of his sketches from the 1960s and '70s, going live on Art Basel OVR: 20C (an online viewing room bringing together artworks created between 1900 till 1999 from galleries across the world), is a reminder of a special genius—and also, perhaps, of the fact that it isn’t adequately celebrated to this day.
Presented by the New Delhi-based Vadehra Art Gallery, some of these drawings go back to a phase in Ram Kumar’s career that is referred to as his “grey period”. Made in a personal ledger, these 35 sketches (7”x11”) are executed through a mesh of intersecting lines and vertiginous planes. An air of pallor hangs over the drawings, deepening their melancholic intensity, but also teasing the eye. The viewer is left wondering about the mysterious forms, which appear to coalesce into faces and figures, but also crumble and recede, like a splash of water drying up on a surface.
The '60s were indeed a turning point for Ram Kumar. At the start of the decade, he spent a few days with two close friends, Husain and Sripat Rai, the Hindi writer and Munshi Premchand’s son, in Varanasi. It was in this most ancient of cities, where millions of Hindus still go to die and attain salvation, that Ram Kumar had an artistic epiphany. All the scenes he witnessed there—wisps of smoke rising from the last rites conducted on the ghats, the grey sky over the Ganges, the scramble for good karma by both the living and the dying—came together to inform his uniquely modernist idiom.
Be it the influence of Europeans stalwarts like Fernand Léger and André Lhote or the effect of Indian mysticism, Ram Kumar ended up crafting a style that held a mirror to deeply existential questions of being and nothingness. Each phase of his journey as an artist was marked by a set of deeply held beliefs, which led him to make choices that would affect his personal and professional circumstances. If he joined the French communist party and drank in the heady cocktail of European modernism in the 1950s, Ram Kumar also found his true metier after he returned to India, by turning his energies to pursuing his sadhana (worship) as an inward-looking artist.
Two years ago, after his death at the age of 93, Ram Kumar was remembered as much for his legacy as an artist as for his hermit-like persona. Arun Vadehra, founder of Vadehra Art Gallery, who knew Ram Kumar for decades, told Mint, “Although he was generous to a fault, one had the impression that he was best left alone. Husain used to joke to us, ‘I’m going to Ram Kumar’s house today, but don’t tell him, for then he will ask me to come tomorrow instead.’” Even though his name still does not have the popular currency of Husain, Souza and S.Z. Raza, Ram Kumar remains a titan among his artistic contemporaries, his reputation similar to that of his contemporary V.S. Gaitonde’s.
Thanks to a combination of record auction sales and retrospectives, great and unsung artists like Gaitonde and Nasreen Mohamedi have recently attained the kind of international celebrity that eluded them during their lifetime. It is only to be hoped that Ram Kumar’s posthumous reputation stays on the ascendance. “Whether it is Ram Kumar's 2008 record-breaking work at Christie’s (where a 1956 painting by him titled, Vagabond, sold for $1.1 million) or even his very early participation in the Venice Biennale (in 1958), he did enjoy great success even in his living years,” Roshini Vadehra of Vadehra Art Gallery says. “There are natural highs and lows as market trends develop, but the art community at large will always remember Ram Kumar as one of our greats.”
Ram Kumar: The Ascetic Line is on display at Art Basel OVR: 20c from 28-31 October.