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Lounge Tribute: Ram Kumar, the artist of stillness

One of the last great moderns of Indian art, Ram Kumar, who died last week, stayed relatively out of the public eye

Ram Kumar. Photo: Vadehra Art Gallery
Ram Kumar. Photo: Vadehra Art Gallery

The name of Ram Kumar, in spite of his luminous presence in the pantheon of modern Indian art, doesn’t ring a bell as readily in the public consciousness as does the mention of his contemporaries—M.F. Husain, Tyeb Mehta, S.H. Raza and F.N. Souza. The painter, who died on 14 April at the age of 93, spent much of his long and prolific life away from the public eye, in spite of living in Delhi, immersed in the abstract canvases he pursued for the better part of his career. Distant from the clamour of auction houses and art galleries (where his paintings did, over the years, fetch crores of rupees), unseeking of the limelight Husain or Raza occupied with a natural panache, flaunting their mercurial styles and iconoclasm to the world, Ram Kumar is remembered chiefly for his reticence and an almost meditative engagement with his craft.

Arun Vadehra, founder of the Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi, who knew him for decades, used the word sadhana (worship) to describe Kumar’s relationship with his art. “Although he was generous to a fault, one had the impression that he was best left alone," he says on the phone. “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.’"

To look at Ram Kumar’s work, especially the abstract oil paintings he is commonly remembered for, is to be confronted with his staggering interiority. A row of buildings along a street, a sweeping view of the ghats in Varanasi, a mountainous vista dappled with snow or spliced by a gorge: Intimations of reality pervade his “abstract" idiom; physical and metaphysical geographies intersect to create a unique visual register. Faced with such bold, confident expression, it’s hard to believe Ram Kumar didn’t set out on the path to become an artist from the start.

On the contrary, after a decidedly middle-class upbringing in Shimla and an MA in economics, he seemed headed into a pragmatic day job, when, by a stroke of luck, he enrolled for evening art classes under Sailoz Mukherjea, mentor to a generation of modern Indian masters. By 1949, with a scholarship of Rs100 from the French embassy and a loan from his father, Ram Kumar had taken off for Paris to invest in a formal education in the arts. Like his contemporary T.S. Eliot, he wasn’t destined to remain a bank clerk.

Already known as a short-story writer in Hindi—it was his younger brother, Nirmal Verma, who would don the literary mantle in the family though—Ram Kumar picked up the brush with equal ease. His early paintings were infused with the heady air of Parisian life after World War II. He embraced communism, followed by cubism, a path well-trodden by several Indian artists who spent time in the city in the 1940s and 1950s: Raza, Souza, Paritosh Sen, few were immune to the spell of that bohemia called Paris. Yet, in spite of his induction into the field by legends like Fernand Léger and André Lhote, and the spectre of Pablo Picasso looming everywhere, Ram Kumar outgrew his early phase, represented by portraits after the style of Amadeo Modigliani, over the next decade. Like Raza, who was a friend and comrade, he found his voice only after he had turned his gaze away from the trappings of Western life, back to the dusty terrain of India’s north, which he had left behind.

“Ram Kumar’s painterly development could be conceived of as a pilgrimage, given the orderliness with which its stages have succeeded one another," wrote curator and art historian Ranjit Hoskote, who has also written a book on the artist, in an article in 2002. “And yet, through the decades, this pilgrimage has been broken at several, and sometimes surprising, way stations of experiment." Perhaps the most significant such rupture came in Ram Kumar’s life in 1960, when he spent a few days in Varanasi with Husain and Sripat Rai, celebrated Hindi writer Munshi Premchand’s son. Staying at the ancient haveli belonging to the writer’s family, the young men walked around during the day, observing life as it unfolded by the Ganga, following age-old rituals and rhythms. At the end of the sojourn, the layer of European modernism that coated their sight began to peel away, yielding another glimpse of truth, which found the most spectacular expression in Ram Kumar’s paintings from these years, and in the decades that followed.

It was an effect India would have on numerous artists weaned on Western modernism—British painter Howard Hodgkin, for instance, rediscovered colour and form in a renewed vivacity after he had spent some time here and created some of his signature paintings in response to India’s sensory medley.

An untitled 2015 acrylic painting by Ram Kumar. Photo: Vadehra Art Gallery

As Ram Kumar looked away from Europe, at the alleys and lanes that lay closer home, the latter revealed themselves in a new light—literally in delicate hues of grey and dusky brown seldom seen in Indian art before him. In a singular synthesis of the East and West, the crumbling, earthen buildings along the ghats of Varanasi assembled in a line with geometric elegance and became visible through a haze reminiscent of the landscapes of J.M.W. Turner. The muted tones and austere forms in Ram Kumar’s work reminded Italian film-maker Roberto Rossellini of Franz Kafka’s stories—and fittingly so.

Like Kafka’s prose, there was a liminal quality to Ram Kumar’s experiments with colours. He knew how to stretch the scope of a handful of tones and wring the most meaning out of them, rather than indulge in a saturnalia of bright colours. For contemporary viewers, the key to unlocking his difficult, often intransigent, painterly style is to learn to dwell in Ram Kumar’s capacity for understatement. Just as the brevity of Kafka’s parables forces us to spend more time than we anticipate, Ram Kumar’s laconic canvases show us their sublime depths only when the eye has contemplated them in long and careful stillness.

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