TRAVERSING THE LANDSCAPES OF THE MIND
“Among Indian painters today Ram Kumar is perhaps the only one who has no imitators and no followers, for both his themes and his method are simple. They are so simple and sincere that imitation is practically impossible.”1
Though these lines were penned in 1955 by the well-known art critic Richard Bartholomew describing Ram Kumar’s work at the time, they ring just as true today. Over the six decades that the painter has practised his craft in search of a singular visual vocabulary, there is a sincerity and integrity that shines through in his paintings. In his unassuming and gentle way Kumar has carved out for himself a unique position in the canon of modern Indian painting.
Born in 1924 in Simla, surrounded by the verdant Himalayan foothills, Kumar moved to the plains to further his education. Though he did his Masters in Economics from St.Stephen’s College in Delhi, a chance visit to an art exhibition was to change the course of his life forever. Fascinated by what he saw, he enrolled at the Sharda Ukil School of Art and studied under the artist Sailoz Mookherjea. While he did take up a full-time job at a bank, he quit it in 1948 to devote himself to a life in art. He also persuaded his father to buy him a one-way boat ticket to Paris, then considered the centre of the art world.
In Paris, Kumar had the good fortune to study under the artists Fernand Léger and Andre Lhote. Léger had participated in the Cubist movement, spearheaded by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, which—in a revolutionary break from European tradition—was a completely new approach to representing reality. Formally it involved the deconstruction of the outer world into fragmented planes. In keeping with the movement, Léger had developed his own unique style referred to as “tubism” since it involved depicting the human body as a mass of tubes or cylinders. Some of these influences would naturally percolate into the works of the young, impressionable Ram Kumar, though to his credit, he developed a visual style distinct from Léger’s.
Europe at the time was still recovering from the horrors of World War II and was gradually repairing both its social and economic fabric. Kumar came under the sway of the pacifist movement and even joined the French Communist Party. Here he encountered poets, writers and philosophers such as Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon and Roger Garaudy. Though he did not become a die-hard communist, he would develop a deep interest in the human condition, which played out in his figurative works in the 1950s. Titles of paintings such as Death of a Worker, Torture of Work, Starvation and Beggars are some indicators of his preoccupations at the time.
Ram Kumar had also witnessed the traumatic partition of the Subcontinent as India shrugged off the yoke of British dominion in its quest for independence. He was not unaffected by the communal violence between the Hindus and Muslims as the nation states of Pakistan and India were forged. Delhi too was home to thousands of refugees that poured in after being displaced from their homes across the border. Kumar encountered several of them in Karol Bagh, the locality in Delhi where he lived, painfully rebuilding their lives. Besides, several members of the artist group, Delhi Shilpi Chakra, to which Ram Kumar was affiliated, had moved from Lahore to Delhi in the wake of Partition. In cathartic gestures, they too would give expression to their first-hand experiences of trauma and suffering. In keeping with the group’s motto of “Art illuminates life”, its manifesto declared, “The group recognizes that art as an activity must not be divorced from life; that the art of a nation must express the soul of its people and ally with the process of progress. The group recognizes that artists have come together to work hard towards the progress of art and through art help build up a virile national culture and a brighter life in the country.”2
Unsurprisingly then, Kumar’s protagonists, especially from the 1956 period, are solemn-faced men and women with large, droopy eyes, who appear as if the weight of the world has been placed on their shoulders. Attired in western wear, the men appear ill at ease in their suits. The colour palette is sombre with browns and blacks dominating, echoing not just the colours of the outer desolate landscape but also mirroring an inner melancholy and despair. Though grouped together, these silent figures come off as being alienated from each other and their environment. Cubist influences from his sojourn in Paris can clearly be seen in early works such as Workers Family and in the rendering of the houses and the winding hill roads in paintings such as Sad Town (1956). The elongated figures too, are evocative of the works of Paris-based artist Amadeo Modigliani.
A darkness pervades many of Kumar’s small paintings created in the 1950s. Colour appears to have leeched out of the works with blacks, whites and greys predominating. It is as if the artist was intent on exploring black in all its shades, nuances and complexities, as a musician would a note on his instrument. But not just colour, even the people appear to have vanished from these works. Instead, we have barely discernible architectural forms that emerge from the gloom – a bridge, a temple dome or perhaps even a cluster of houses. Bartholomew, who was a great friend of Kumar’s and has written extensively on his work, has referred to this time as the Sanjauli period of 1957 – 59. “Next in the succeeding phase when the dramatis personae have melted into thin air, Ram painted semi-representational landscapes in which the architecture was recognizable but the foreground and background were abstract formations. This is the Sanjauli— early Benaras period. In neither case was the divorce from reality total.”3
However, the melancholic sentiment is not confined to early works and rears its head again in the work from 1975, which shows two figures, one seated and the other standing. The former appears to be sunk in a reverie, perhaps even in a world of pain, while the latter gives the impression of consoling him. Again, mood is conveyed by colour with the black, brown and grey strokes serving to accentuate the feeling of quiet despair.
In contrast, in the figurative works rendered more recently in 2012 and 2014, the pall of gloom of the early years appears to have lifted. Not to say that the figures exhibit any signs of joy or revelry. Far from it! But the deep despair evident in the earlier years appears to have given way to a feeling of quiet contemplation. The elongated Modigliani-like faces are still there and the men and women though physically close to each other still appear distant, having withdrawn into their own shells and inner worlds. But unlike the figuration of his early years, here Kumar has dispensed with delineating his protagonists’ facial features in detail. Dabs of paint serve as downcast eyes and mouth and there is almost a childlike-naiveté to these works, were it not for the more sophisticated use of colour and textures. In keeping with his style, Kumar’s men and women dominate the foreground, with fractured slabs of colour serving to create the background. There are no markers of location, nothing to reveal where the figures are situated. Only the brushstrokes in varying shades of blue in one of the works indicate that they are outdoors, under the infinite canopy of the sky.
Ram Kumar was not alone in his move to a more abstract visual language in the late 1950s. M F Husain had earlier broken up his images, creating a new pictorial vocabulary. Like Ram Kumar, Gaitonde and Bendre in the late ’50s also attempted a partial abstraction in their works. Apart from them, a number of other painters such as Biren De, K G Subramanyan and Sankho Chaudhuri took to adopting abstraction either partially or wholly. Tracing the evolution of the major painters in India, Richard Bartholomew made an insightful observation: while in 1947 all the Indian painters were figurative in style, by the early ’60s a majority of them had turned to abstraction. Besides Ram Kumar they were Mohan Samant, V S Gaitonde, Krishen Khanna, Syed Haidar Raza, Kanwal Krishna, Satish Gujral, Avinash Chandra and Krishna Reddy. Delving into the reasons for this metamorphosis, Bartholomew believed that for these artists the figure functioned as a sort of symbol. However, having exhausted its possibilities they did not feel the need for such symbolic expressionism any longer. This holds true for Ram Kumar as well, who would banish the figures from his works for several decades.
Though affiliated with the Shilpi Chakra, Kumar was also good friends with members of the Progressive Artists’ Group, among them Raza and Husain. A trip to Varanasi with Husain in the winter of 1960 would create a significant shift in his work. He had wanted to experience the city first-hand and sketch it. Before journeying to Varanasi, Kumar’s associations of the city were of the river Ganga, old age, widows and death, having read about it in Sarat Chandra’s novels as a school boy in Simla. Upon arriving at dusk, the deserted streets gave him the impression of being in a ghostly deserted city inhabited only by the dead and haunted by their souls.
He would spend the remaining days wandering around the ghats, taking in the sea of humanity swirling around him, the pain and suffering writ large upon their faces. Especially on the steps of the Manikarnika Ghat, where the dead were cremated, he was struck by how death and life co-existed cheek by jowl. The wails of the relatives, comingling with the smoke of the funeral pyres on the banks of the silently flowing Ganga were to impress themselves indelibly on his imagination. He was equally ensnared by the warren of streets thronged by pilgrims from all over the country, the temples, palaces, the ramshackle old houses, and the boats anchored to the ghats. Talking about his encounter with the city he remarked, “Every sight was like a new composition, a life artistically organized to be interpreted in colors. It was not merely outward appearances which were fascinating but they were vibrant with an inner life of their own, very deep and profound, which left an everlasting impression on my artistic sensibility. I could feel a new visual language emerging from the depth of an experience.”4
This new visual vocabulary is clearly evident in the works that Kumar did after his trip to Varanasi. Despite the hordes thronging its streets and ghats, the human figure is surprisingly conspicuous in its absence. The artist appears to have passed on the baton of essaying the human condition from human figures to architectural forms—the man-made structures now stand in for man himself. The temple city with its haphazard skyline too lends itself ideally to working out Kumar’s Cubist influences. The myriad temple domes and spires, the jumble and maze of the streets, the countless steps leading to the river present themselves naturally to fracturing, multiple perspectives—from the bird’s eye view to the low-angle shot. Squares and triangles of dull, muted colour convey the impression of human settlements fighting and jostling for every square inch of space. The only open expanses are the preserve of the river and the sky.
These early Benaras paintings rendered in thick impasto have a greyish, muddy pallor to them. The dextrous use of colour conveys the feeling of a dark and dank city swaddled in river mists and smoke. This Benaras as Kumar paints it is no city of joy, this is a city of the dead and the dying.
However, it was not just the cityscape that would engage Kumar. He would continue to escape to the mountains, either to Sanjauli in the Simla hills or to Ranikhet in the Kumaon. Writing to his friend the artist Raza from Dakley in Ranikhet in 1961 he wrote, “I joined Sripat two months ago in this remote corner of the Himalayas where nothing except the eternal silence of the mountains echo day and night. It is an ideal place for work without any distractions except nature – that heavenly sunlight with shimmering snow visible from the window of my room.”5 The hills were a balm for the soul, the splendid isolation a far cry from the teeming ghats of Benaras. If Kashi offered one kind of spirituality, then the mountains proffered another—a chance to withdraw and meditate.
Yet the greyish mist that enveloped the temple city apparently snaked its way into the landscape as well. It was as if the artist could not yet throw off its oppressive weight. The process had to be gradual. He would also continue to toggle between expressionism and abstraction, just as he would oscillate between the city and the landscape. Writing about this period in his work, Bartholomew pointed out that “The years from 1960-64 comprised a predominantly grey period, the sternest and the most austere in his career. Using the encaustic process Ram even delved into shades of black. Greys derived from blues and browns set off the facets of the textures, the drifts, the engulfed landforms, the isthmus shapes and the general theme of the fecund but desolate landscape.”6 There is no doubt that the writer in Ram Kumar influenced the painter in him and the artist in turn, the literary self. These austere landscapes recall T S Eliot’s The Waste Land, which left a lasting impression on him, as evident in the title of one of his paintings.
Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think 7
The sullenness of the landscapes would however give way to a more cheery palette after a visit to Kashmir in the mid 1960s. Pinks and mauves inserted themselves into Kumar’s paintings, lending them a quiet lyricism. These works were semi-representational, offering glimpses of houses, waterways and streets. His creative fires would also be stoked by his many travels. He journeyed not just to the US on the J D Rockefeller III Fund Travelling Fellowship but also to the mountainous terrains of Machu Picchu and Ladakh.
But soon even architectonic elements would be phased out as if Kumar no longer had any need for them as props. Instead, he would look to nature for inspiration and transform his contemplation of the landscape into an irregular patchwork quilt of colour. There was no longer any attempt to portray a realistic representation of what he observed. Instead, the outer landscape would transform itself into the inner mindscape, which in turn would manifest itself on canvas and paper. The moods and sensations that were evoked in him by his meditation on the outer world would play out as colours and textures. In the unique style of planar abstraction that he developed, slabs of colour show jagged edges and lines are more subservient to the planes. Top angle views offer large and sweeping vistas that accentuate the movement of these horizontal bars.
The variegated colours of these irregular planes are suggestive of tracts of sea and sand, of rocky mountains and flat fields, of barren, parched earth and fecund vegetation. It is left to colour and brush strokes to transmit the moods and sensations that the various topographical elements convey. Perhaps they even represent the more unseen but perceived elements in the phenomenal world—the warm sunshine, a cooling breeze, the dampness of mists or hot, gusty winds. Ochres, rusts, yellows, greens, mauves and ultramarine blues are orchestrated together to produce complex colour symphonies, which induce alternate feelings of both movement and stillness.
At the end of the 1980s and the early 1990s, architectural forms insinuate their way into Ram Kumar’s works. His sketches of cities once again record and reveal his spontaneous reactions to their architectural peculiarities. Familiar forms such as domes and pillars are resurrected and cityscapes slowly emerge again. Surprisingly, elements from the landscape, such as trees, insert themselves into the labyrinth of streets, offering relief with their bright flashes of green. Varanasi reappears but it is a Varanasi different from his depictions three decades ago. It is not the grey, muck-encrusted town, which spoke of the anguish of the people crowding its streets or of an ancient civilization with its dilapidated homes sinking into the mud. Instead, the bright skies and waters of the Ganga reclaim their space, as they do their blueness, after being relegated to the outer recesses or edged out of the frame in Kumar’s early works. The all too familiar visual syntax that Ram Kumar has assiduously developed over the decades is still there in his drawings, oils and acrylics—the complex, multiple angles and perspectives and the haphazard, lopsided buildings, jostling for space—but the feeling of gloom and doom no longer haunts these paintings. A brightening of the palette with the use of lighter shades of browns and greys on the houses once again amply demonstrates the power of colour in projecting mood and sentiment.
In the past two decades, representational forms have also made an appearance in Kumar’s landscapes, rupturing their abstract vistas. While some lie embedded in his colour fields and need to be slowly and painstakingly excavated, others, such as depictions of trees with their slender trunks and canopies of leaves, pop out. Do these semi-abstracts signal then a gradual return of the real? Will other banished protagonists perhaps stage a re-appearance, this time casting off their mantle of despair and indulging in a celebration of life instead? After six decades Ram Kumar still keeps us guessing about how the landscapes of his mind will unfold.
– MEERA MENEZES, October 2016
1. Richard Bartholomew, Hindustan Times Weekly, 23 October 1955. Reproduced in Rati Bartholomew and Pablo Bartholomew eds., Richard Bartholomew: The Art Critic, Noida: BART, 2012, p. 313
2. Pran Nath Mago, Delhi Shilpi Chakra, www.criticalcollective.in, online
3. Richard Bartholomew, “The Abstract Principle in the Paintings of Ram Kumar,” Lalit Kala Contemporary, Nos. 19 and 22, 1975-76. Reproduced in Rati Bartholomew and Pablo Bartholomew eds., Richard Bartholomew: The Art Critic, Noida: BART, 2012, p. 542
4. As quoted by artist, Gagan Gill ed., Ram Kumar: A Journey Within, New Delhi: Vadehra Art Gallery, 1996, p. 89
5. Ashok Vajpeyi ed., Geysers: Letters between Syed Haider Raza and his friends, New Delhi: Vadehra Art Gallery and The Raza Foundation, 2014
6. Richard Bartholomew, “The Abstract Principle in the Paintings of Ram Kumar,” Lalit Kala Contemporary, Nos. 19 and 22, 1975-76. Reproduced in Rati Bartholomew and Pablo Bartholomew eds., Richard Bartholomew: The Art Critic, Noida: BART, 2012, p. 539
7. T S Eliot, The Waste Land, www.poetryfoundation.org, online