Remembering Ramkinkar Baij, the legendary sculptor who laughed at critics and leaking roofs alike
Master sculptor Ramkinkar Baij was mentored in Shantiniketan by Nandalal Bose and Rabindranath Tagore. Born on 26 May, 1906 in Bengal's Bankura district, Ramkinkar's art was fearless, unapologetic.
The seminal Indian sculptor, Ramkinkar Baij, was born in Bengal's Bankura district 1906
He was spotted painting political posters by journalist Ramananda Chatterjee, who then inducted him to Kala Bhavan in 1925
Filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak shot a documentary on Ramkinkar in 1975. It remained incomplete as Ghatak passed away only months later.
A kurta frayed at the edges, Chinese straw hat on his grey curls, fingers gliding impatiently over a sheet of paper in his hands: Ramkinkar Baij was 69 when filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak — fascinated by the seminal sculptor-painter — followed him around for four days in 1975, hoping to make a film. Ghatak’s death the next year meant the film was never finished, but remnants of their interaction still live on.
In a conversation recorded by Ghatak, Baij — or Kinkar da, as he was known to close associates — says, of leaving home to pursue art at Shantiniketan: “I could barely stomach that life. It’s not just about earning two square meals a day, it’s a lot more.”
Kinkar da was born into a barber’s family in Bengal’s Bankura district on 26 May 1906. The "crazy" (as Ghatak calls Baij in his documentary), disobedient genius was one of four siblings. He was spotted by Ramananda Chatterjee, editor of the Calcutta-based magazine Modern Review, making striking posters for the Non-Cooperation Movement. Shortly after, in 1925, Chatterjee inducted a teenage Ramkinkar into Shantiniketan's Kala Bhavan, where he worked under the tutelage of the legendary Nandalal Bose, and Rabindranath Tagore himself.
"When you observe something, grab it like a tiger by the nape of the neck. And then, never look back. Those were his (Tagore's) last words to me," the artist says, enacting the words to Ghatak.
And he honoured the bard’s diktat till his last breath. Never one to care about others’ opinions, fame, or money, Baij's being was all about his art. From sculptures to oil paintings, portraits to miniatures, the artist could master any medium with unfathomable ease.
While his entire body of work is foundational to modern Indian sculpture, 'Santhal Family' (1938) and 'Mill Call' (1956) stand out as specifically telling of the man himself.
In 'Santhal family', the then 32-year-old artist infused life into the structures of an east Indian tribal family marching forward, their possessions on their heads. The artwork came at a time when commissioned busts and portraits of viceroys were the norm. Later, in 'Mill Call', the artist again depicted a Santhal family, rushing to work after hearing the mill siren. In both instances, his subjects — made of stone — seem to be in motion, breathing as though they were flesh and blood.
These works are testament to Baij’s artistic sensibilities — Indian, but also generously accommodating of the Western aesthetics of Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism and Surrealism. His protagonists, however, were almost always Indian.
"He would often look at the work of his contemporaries and say, ‘They all look like statues. How long will they stand still? Why aren't they moving?’ For him, his work, much like his life, was all about movement," renowned sculptor and Baij’s protégé KS Radhakrishnan explains. For his mentor, inspiration was hidden in everyday life — in the tunes of a Bhatiali song, in the lilt of the flowing Khoai river, in the rustle of fallen leaves.
Baij had already retired by the time Radhakrishnan started at Kala Bhavan. "It was Sarbari Roy Choudhury, who was heading the sculpture department in 1974, who urged me to befriend Kinkar da,” Radhakrishnan recalls. “But it wasn't easy to walk up to him and strike a conversation. He was enigmatic, always in his zone.”
Roy Choudhury had a secret tip though, for getting through to Kinkar da: "Water lilies!" Radhakrishnan says. "Sarbari da asked me to visit him with a bunch of these, saying the trick might just work. I turned up at his door with a freshly picked bunch. When he saw me, we didn't exchange a word. He just asked me to come in."
Baij's complete disregard for validation didn’t fare too well with authorities. In 1979, his Tagore bust in Balatonfüred, Hungary, was in the eye of a political storm, when a Bengal minister, Jatin Chakraborty, threatened to have it uninstalled on the grounds that the inward looking, armless bust “barely resembled” the icon. (In 2017, BJP leader Siddhartha Bhattacharya raised similar allegations against Baij's sculpture of Mahatma Gandhi in Guwahati.)
Baij dismissed the Tagore bust controversy — which occurred mere months before he breathed his last — by saying, "Let them destroy it. Who cares? I never asked them to install it."
Baij’s famous ‘Buffalo/Fish’ sculpture at Shantiniketan’s Birla Girls’ Hostel has an equally irreverent origin story: When the commissioning authorities expressed reservations over the sexually evocative figures of water nymphs being installed in a place of study, the artist changed the tiles of his sculpture to resemble a buffalo with a fish-tail splashing water (bearing an obvious sexual connotation) — a sly dig at his would-be censors.
This is why Baij stood out in the crowd — he thwarted the rules flamboyantly, but only after he had quietly mastered them.
His art was incendiary, like art is meant to be.
"He drew straight from life. But what he saw in the field, and what he created in his studio were very different. As you see in his work 'Harvesting' — it has no heads; it's only arms and legs symmetrically aligned, thrashing stacks of paddy. He independently recreated what he saw," Radhakrishnan says.
Baij forced the Indian eye to appreciate beauty beyond the British aesthetics of anatomical realism. He sculpted with concrete and pebbles, discarding unaffordable plaster of Paris, and moulded them with armature. The artist painted on bedsheets too, as canvases were mostly beyond his means.
"Whatever little money I get from my pension, I use that to buy food. I hang my oil paintings upside-down from the roof to stop the rain from leaking into the house. It's oil, so the water won't damage them," Baij explains to Ritwik Ghatak on camera, as he nonchalantly slides one of his paintings under the roof to stop a drip.
"Now, the canvases had to be taken down and sent off for the exhibition. So what do I replace them with?" he asks, breaking into a laugh.
When Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru commissioned Baij to sculpt the Hindu mythological figures of Yaksha and Yakshi (which now stand guard at the gates of the Reserve Bank of India in the capital), the artist decided to carve them out of sandstone found in Himachal's Kullu Valley.
After three rounds of generous monetary grants that were spent solely on transporting the stone to Delhi via special train wagons, Baij was barely convinced with the piece. It was only on the advice of Rajkumar Jaitley, a former student, that Baij decided to finally end the project.
Baij's initial struggle with his identity is evident from the various names he used to author his early artworks. While some bore his original surname, Pramanik, an artwork from the 1920s carried the signature of Ramprasad Das. And perhaps it was while on his quest for the self that Ramkinkar's reactive approach to his surroundings transformed into art, which stood in stark contrast to the delicate nature of his celebrated peer Benode Behari Mukherjee's works.
In 2012, six years after Baij’s birth centenary, Radhakrishnan hosted an exhibition on the maverick artist’s works at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi. Fellow artists and students of Baij, A Ramachandran and R Siva Kumar (who currently heads Kala Bhavan), helped curate the event.
"It really was long due — for Ramkinkar to be reaching out to people. People say all kinds of things about him. The retrospective show was to tell everyone who he really was," Radhakrishnan says.
The exhibition displayed a collection of 350 artworks, which included his oil painting of a Santhal family, a bronze sculpture of a famine-stricken mother and child, and borrowed pieces from private collections, such as his painting 'Girl With a Dog'. His controversial sculpture, 'Sacrifice', depicting three men carrying a human-headed goat for offering on Kali Puja, was also a part of the retrospective. However, a substantial part of his repertoire had to be left out owing to either logistical handicaps, or because they were in shambles after severe neglect.
"If people can remember Gandhi and Nehru, they can remember Ramkinkar Baij too. He was a great man," A Ramachandran says. He believes that the world needs many more years to "truly realise how profound Ramkinkar’s contribution to Indian art was".
Ramachandran narrates how Baij would ask his students to go out and sketch, and says, “He was very conscious of the underlying spirit of every object. Western art is not the only method of approach. Ramkinkar really believed in the Indian traditions — he had copied many Indian sculptures too.”
Baij’s art, like its creator, was unapologetic about its roots and colours. He "disturb(ed) political establishments as his monumental works celebrate human drama," says Soujit Das, professor at Kolkata's Government Art College, and an alumnus of Kala Bhavan. "One should revisit Ramkinkar’s work to understand how dissent has been intrinsic to his expression," he adds.
As artists in India struggle to keep this spirit of dissent alive, they are often met with aggressive pushback. They seem "too scared to express themselves," Radhakrishnan observes.
Indeed. Perhaps, as Baij knew, the trick lies in laughing at leaking roofs and critics alike.
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