Ram Kumar passes away: Remembering the quiet artist who refused to give into convention

In French director Laurent Bregeat’s 2010 film titled Ram Kumar: Nostalgic Longing, Kumar says of a work in progress: "This is just an exercise in trying to find out something…important."

Kumar breathed his last on the morning of 14 April. One of the few remaining Indian modernists who shaped the country's art in its formative years after Independence, he leaves behind a legacy as resolute and iconic as himself. He was known to be reserved and quiet.

It is no wonder then that it is tough to locate interviews or put together information on Kumar, as opposed to many other artists in India. He took pride in his invisibility. It wasn’t inaccessibility, mind you. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t talk about art or talk at all — it was just that he refused to toot his own horn, instead dedicating all the energy he had to churning out work after work.

Of the Bombay Progressive movement, he is perhaps the member who is spoken about the least, given how he kept largely to himself. That said, Kumar’s contribution to transforming Indian art into something solid, muscular and rich with ideas was crucial.

Ram Kumar passes away: Remembering the quiet artist who refused to give into convention

Ram Kumar, photographed by Richard Bartholomew. Twitter/@ParomaMukherjee

Kumar was born in 1924 in the hill town of Shimla. Like many other artists, including painter Jagdish Swaminathan and writer Nirmal Verma, he brought with himself the wisdom of the slow, secluded world of the hills. By 1948, while being employed at a bank in Delhi, he was already struck by the idea of pursuing art as a vocation. Frequenting exhibitions or chancing upon collections here and there touched young Kumar’s heart. During this time, he met Sayed Haider Raza, another member of the Progressive school with whom he would enjoy a long friendship. By 1949, he quit his job, and after borrowing money from his father, landed in Paris to learn and work with Cubist Andre Lohte.

As was true of a number of Indian artists who travelled abroad after Independence, Kumar's political concerns expanded. There was quite simply a lot more to the world than what met the eye. It only educated one about oneself. When he joined the Communist Party in France, he was merely trying to find his own ideological bearings, until he realised that it was these bearings that had to be shifted. Kumar, who began drawing and painting figures, soon moved to the abstract. And in the realm of the abstract he found his voice, his stroke and his language. But this language neither let him fit in entirely with the Progressives, nor with BC Sanyal’s Delhi Shilpi Chakra, with which he was associated too.

In Parts of a World: Reflections on the Art of Ram Kumar, art critic Ranjit Hoskote writes, "If Ram Kumar’s art has been a journey from city to landscape, from the grihasta’s social obligations to the sanyasin’s peripatetic freedom, it has also been an art of looking back, an art of reminiscence." Kumar, like many modernists, found inspiration on the ghats of Benaras. In the quest to internationalise yet remain Indic and local, Kumar wedded the aesthetic with the colour. Instead of channeling political ideas or deriving entirely from mythology, Kumar circled in on a more perplexing subject — that of the human, and of the places he calls home.

Kumar lived in a number of places: in the hills of Shimla, in Karol Bagh, which was also home to the likes of Krishen Khanna and Rajesh Mehra. What glorious times they must have been! To add to the swerve in his stroke, Kumar was also a writer, and started out as one. In Nirmal Verma, his younger brother, he had someone with whom he could not only discuss his work but also someone who could ably and (sometimes) openly critique it. Kumar’s withdrawal from the world of the media and socio-political discussions gave him the time to dedicate his movement, his many homes, and his life to the canvas. In his paintings, you see a man who reminiscences about his origins and his home, while he contemplated the imminence of another shift.

Though largely quiet, he did at times provide support to the sinking ship that was the art world. In the years that MF Husain was both haunted and hunted by the Hindu right wing, Kumar calmly expressed his support. He also had a landmark showing alongside Husain in 1967 — a decade that perhaps saw more churning than any other in the history of Indian art. That said, the reticence with which Kumar carried out his works and remained true to finding that important something is still exemplary.

Though inspired by the Cubists, Kumar’s switch to abstraction at a time when nobody understood it in the 50s was brave. Braver still was his refusal to give into the modern day auctioneering of pathos, of the work being dictated by galleries, or letting his quality be determined by the aura it created among his peers. Kumar relied on his inner self entirely, and inwards he journeyed. He now joins some of his closest friends in the after-life. What a beautiful place it must be to move on to!

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Updated Date: Apr 18, 2018 16:05:42 IST

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