Being universal by being local'

Print edition : March 23, 2012

RAMKINKAR BAIJ IN his last years.-

Interview with K.S. Radhakrishnan, who curated a retrospective comprising 350 works of Ramkinkar Baij, now running at Delhi's NGMA.

THE National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi is hosting a major retrospective comprising 350 works of Ramkinker Baij (1906-1980) watercolours, drawings, sketches, oils, models and life-size photographs of monumental sculptures, which leap across time with a rare vitality. The exhibition, Ramkinkar Baij: A Retrospective, showcases the restless genius of an artist whose stature as the father figure of contemporary Indian sculpture, or sheer brilliance in a range of mediums, from art to theatre direction, has never been properly acknowledged.

Curated by the well-known sculptor K.S. Radhakrishnan, who was Ramkinkar's student at Santiniketan in the 1970s, the show (February 8-March 31) comprehensively documents the life and concerns of the master who was born in a humble family in Bankura, grew up soaking in local artistic traditions, and was brought before Rabindranath Tagore in Santiniketan by the nationalist journalist Ramananda Chatterjee to be put under the master Nandalal Bose's tutelage. For more than 50 years he made Santiniketan the creative ground for his strikingly new idiom in iconic works such as Lampstand, considered the first modern abstract sculpture in India, Santhal Family, Harvester and Mill Call.

The retrospective documents the pure passion of a rare artist who was enthralled by the creative process and by life and nature and showed deep empathy for the peasant and the working man and woman an artist who was rooted and rebellious, spontaneous and reflective; who flew against the conventions of his time to forge a language as rooted as it was universal. In a conversation, 56-year-old Radhakrishnan, who divides his time between Delhi and Santiniketan, spoke about the extraordinary journey of documenting the trajectory of a master many of whose works have gone missing over the years. Excerpts:

What does it mean to have a Ramkinkar Baij retrospective, his first ever comprehensive show, 32 years after his death and six years after his centenary?

In 2006, the artist's birth centenary year, the Ministry of Culture and the NGMA's advisory committee took a decision to have a Ramkinkar retrospective. They should have had the show that year but were not prepared for it. I was probably asked to curate the show because of my intimate personal association with Kinkar da as his last student at Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan, from 1974 to 1980 the last six years of his life and my first six years there as a student.

THE SCULPTOR K.S. Radhakrishnan, who was Ramkinkar Baij's student at Santiniketan in the 1970s. Here he is seen with a life-size poster of "Harvester", a 1943 sculpture by the master, at the NGMA.-PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY K.S. RADHAKRISHNAN

For a long time I had wanted to bring to the world's notice a master and teacher who has never been properly acknowledged as the father of modern Indian sculpture. Rather, people have had such misconceptions about him. After the show opened, a leading newspaper described him as a Santhal artist! By sculpting a Santhal family, one does not become a Santhal. Artists and scholars, too, have had their misconceptions about Ramkinkar.

"FAMINE". BAIJ'S WORK, says his student, was invariably triggered by a happening that made him enter a pictorial space from the real.-

Even a premier institution like the NGMA has recorded the artist's year of birth as 1910 and not 1906.

The eminent artist K.G Subramanyan, Ramkinkar's student in Santiniketan who became a prominent teacher at Kala Bhavan, has commented that a Ramkinkar retrospective is an art historian's despair. Why?

Anybody sitting with Kinkar da for an evening adda just had to say that he liked a particular painting and the artist would give it to him. He never lived with any of his work in his house. A few students managed to preserve some of his works, rescuing them from a decrepit house.

Another sculpture, "Coolie Mother".-

In fact, Ritwik Ghatak's incomplete documentary on Ramkinkar mentions that he would often use a painting to plug a leak in the roof, saying it was of some use at least. He never gave much thought to a painting's life after finishing it; the act of conceiving and making an image was what excited him. Often short of material, Kinkar da would paint over a painting, creating several layers of works. In any other country, excavating the hidden works would assume significance to plot an artist's journey, but not here.

A man who lived his life gifting away his work, used bedsheets or gunny cloth for lack of money to buy canvases, never prepared his surfaces well or bought appropriate colours, does pose a problem for an art historian.

"SANTHAL FAMILY". IT was done in 1938, when, says Radhakrishnan, the trend was to do viceroys' busts and static statues in the Western realistic tradition. Baij was then 32.-

Two years after Ramkinkar's death, the then NGMA director, L.P. Sihare, approached Kala Bhavan; a chunk of the master's collection came into the NGMA collection and benefited by its restoration efforts. At the same time, the works that had gone had gone. It was crucial to work out the missing links.

Your curatorial effort seems to have been more of an investigation.

"SPRING". A GEOMETRIC oil on canvas.-

He was so prolific, yet one is hard put to trace his works. Kinkar da would make something even at a small Nandan Mela in Santiniketan, which went for Rs.50. I bought a lithograph, Night Drummer a Santhal drummer walking past a lamp post at one such mela in 1976. Even those pieces are not available today.

"GOLDEN CROP". ALSO an oil painting.-

A year before he passed away, Ramkinkar gave me his etching plate, drawings and books. On a point of principle, I gave them to Kala Bhavan. Those too are missing. Kala Bhavan has about 70 pieces in its collection at present.

So when you started on the project, you had no idea of the extent of Ramkinkar's work?

That is why it was so important to embark on a journey of documenting his lifetime of work.

"GANDHI, DANDI MARCH". Despite its name, the sculpture depicts Gandhi at Noakhali in 1947. The skull at his foot stands for the violence he walked into. The larger version of the work executed in concrete is at Santiniketan. This is the original model and is from the NGMA collection.-

What was your starting point?

I started with the NGMA collection, which was recorded in a handwritten list containing merely titles, without any images. I started creating a database scanning every work and every page of Ramkinkar's sketch books, most of which have never been exhibited. The idea was to photograph for documentation and also for publication purposes.

Since many of the remembered works at Santiniketan were missing, I started asking the people Kinkar da had associated with for leads. K.G. Subramanyan put me in touch with Nirmala Patwardhan in Pune, who directed me to her film-maker son Anand Patwardhan, who gave more names. It was virtually a house-to-house search.

"FRUIT GATHERERS". A sculpture.-

Since such a scenario can give rise to fakes, the idea was to publish a detailed volume on Ramkinkar's work, recording a missing work by mentioning it alongside its photograph. Even now I can't claim to have documented most of his works.

From where did you get the images of missing works?

That, too, was a project. I got some images from the collection of the well-known Bengali writer Samaresh Basu, who wrote a serialised story loosely based on Ramkinkar's life for Anandabazar Patrika. To authenticate the artist's work from photographs would have been tricky for some other curator, but as a student of Ramkinkar familiar with his strokes, I managed to do so.

THE MODEL OF Yakshi that Baij made when he got the contract to sculpt a Yaksha-Yakshi pair to be placed before the Reserve Bank of India in New Delhi.-

What about photographs of Ramkinkar himself?

Ramkinkar was a colourful individual involved with theatre and singing. People wanted to meet him, photograph him. I contacted people such as Baroda-based printmaker and photographer Jyoti Bhatt, who had come to Santiniketan in 1977, among others. Ramkinkar's neighbour gave me a CD recording of an interview his father had conducted with the artist. It included a song by him.

After a few drinks, Ramkinkar would often sing loudly. Everybody would say, Today is not a good day to go there, he is in great spirits and unstoppable! The song was played at the show's opening. Simultaneously, I started work on a documentary from existing material such as Ghatak and Harisadhan Dasgupta's films.

BAIJ WORKING ON a bust of Rabindranath Tagore.-

What was Ramkinkar's conception of himself?

What does a saint think about his sainthood? He looked at the world as an insider and was never alienated from it. Ramkinkar only worked on what he knew, not on what he wanted to know.

In what manner?

Take the subject of famine, which he handled extensively. News of the death of Jagan at the tea shop that he visited often opened up a new space in his mind, connecting it to the famine. Ramkinkar's work was invariably triggered by a happening that made him enter a pictorial space from the real. Interestingly, he made watercolours of women working in fields, taking straight from life. But the massive, larger-than-life sculpture Harvester installed at Santiniketan was made headless and geometrical, the strength of the arms holding paddy all too palpable. Here, departing from what he had seen, Ramkinkar moved into an artistic sculptural space where his memories expressed themselves differently. He moved in and out of these two spaces incredibly from the real to artistic sculptural space.

A YOUNGER BAIJ at work in his house at Santiniketan, taken by surprise by the camera.-

In what way was Ramkinkar radically different from his contemporaries?

He was surrounded by a Western mode of muscular, anatomical orientation of human forms and realism, be it D.P. Roy Chowdhury's Triumph of Labour or Dandi March at the Willingdon Crescent [in New Delhi]. But here was Kinkar da, drawing an ideal structure from tradition but interpreting it into a modern realism and establishing a language of his own.

"MILL CALL", 1956, installed in Santiniketan, depicts a working-class family setting off for work on hearing the mill siren. It was done in concrete and laterite pebbles: Baij would throw the concrete inside the armature, a technique he used for the last time in this sculpture.-

At the show one can spot his evolution, from Santhal Family, whose visual references were closer to things happening around [the artist], to the Harvester (1943), a model of which was sent to an international contest on the theme of the unknown political prisoner in 1952. While showing the peasant as the unknown political prisoner, he was making a larger ideological point in a global context. Ramkinkar's technique remained the same, but his visualisation changed.

Take the Mill Call (1956), a powerful representation of marching ahead, where you can sense the speed with which the women are walking, the child running behind. Even dust is given a form. The sheer sense of movement is incredible. Movement was a crucial focal point of Ramkinkar's oeuvre: movement that happened outside and within. He managed to connect both somehow. My reading of Kinkar da is that he never liked to keep a work hanging; he finished a painting in a couple of hours. I don't think he ever reworked a watercolour the following day. Even the models for his sculptures were finished in one go. Speed was the most interesting characteristic of Ramkinkar's approach, combining spontaneity and fluency with reflection. It was visible in his subjects: field workers, fruit gatherers, knife sharpener, among others, all of which are on view.

STUDY OF A horse. Baij's watercolours reflect his preoccupation with nature and the animal world.-

As a student what was your experience with him?

Already a big figure, his presence was strongly felt even when he was not around, because of the monumental concrete sculptures on the campus: Sujata, Buddha, Gandhi, Santhal Family, Harvester, Mill Call, among others. His works were big lessons for us. When he came in it was like a lion entering the campus. As he entered the studio we would file out silently. After a few hours he would come out and say, Done, done. My job during the making of Sacrifice was to make a mould, take the clay out and put cement in.

How were the big works made?

Since they were too big to be cast, they were made directly. Ramkinkar would throw laterite pebbles and cement mortar directly on an armature. This ruggedness gave the sculptures an earthy look. Because of the dimensions, the structure was very important for him. A good understanding of the inherent anatomy of a sculpture was a must.


Why did Ramkinkar choose cement?

For the huge works he wanted to make, open-air sculpture was the only way. Cement was the only material that would survive outside. He wanted the sculptures to be on the ground, not on a base, so that they would merge with the landscape. Look at Sujata, elongated like the trees and emerging from the ground similarly, carrying food for Buddha seated on the campus.

Though, today, we see cement and concrete as getting away from nature.

Yes, but the context was different then. Like his sculptures, Ramkinkar too wanted to be outdoors. Bare torso, hat on head and carving with a sense of unimpaired freedom was typical Ramkinkar. He liked to express his feelings freely, too. Once he told a well-known Kolkata-based theatre director holding a workshop at Santiniketan that he was not handling a scene properly. The director slapped him and in turn was beaten up by students who said they wanted Ramkinkar, not him.


In 1975, I watched Ritwik Ghatak film Kinkar da. One day, despite everything being ready, not a single shot was filmed. Both Ghatak and Kinkar da were drunk and were seen lying on the road in the evening. The traffic reverentially moved to another route! Ramkinkar was the man of the place.

In his space Ramkinkar was the subject of intense adoration. How is he seen today in art history?

For a long time people knew of him as a sculptor, but they did not see his radical idiom in a larger context. That is getting established now. As a 32-year-old Ramkinkar made an integral structural composition of man, woman, child and dog (Santhal Family, 1938) at a time when the trend veered to viceroys' busts and static statues in the Western realistic tradition. I would place him alongside Western masters such as Rodin. Today, many people know Kinkar da for his visible Yaksha and Yakshi figures outside the Reserve Bank of India on Delhi's Parliament Street. Yet Ramkinkar was not happy with them since they ended up too rigid. By placing in the show a series of the sketches and models Kinkar da prepared before executing the final sculpture, I have tried to highlight the creative journey, which was always more important to him.

"CAT FAMILY", A lithograph of three cats.-

What does this creative process say about Ramkinkar?

The sketches, watercolours and models all show how rooted and simultaneously experimental Ramkinkar was. He studied temple sculptures and, unlike his Santiniketan contemporaries, also started looking at real nudes. In Calcutta College, students would copy from Roman heads. We never did that.

An environment was created for us to learn. One is always drawn to nature and people become part of it. We learnt from people posing for us in the nude so we could understand realism. To distort and create one's own language one had to learn what to distort from. Few of Kinkar da's 1930s contemporaries drew from life as regards nudes; he did some really interesting erotic sketches.

There is one room full of sculpted and painted portraits, including that of the artist's muse, Binodini.

AN OIL OF Binodini. Widely known as the artist's muse, she was his student and belonged to the royal family of Manipur. He did a series on her. Binodini went on to become a well-known writer and social activist in Manipur.-

Ramkinkar drew portraits of individuals with whom his association became personal, such as his classmates or students, unlike his contemporaries who either made portraits of important people or for commissions. He never went for a physical likeness, being more interested in interpreting a person's personality. At the same time you could recognise the individual.

In the 1980s, when the then West Bengal Culture Minister Jatin Chakraborty unveiled Ramkinkar's portrait of Tagore in Budapest, he remarked that it did not look like Tagore and should probably be replaced. When people like Satyajit Ray swiftly responded, the matter was laid to rest. Santiniketan has had a tradition of doing portraits from life and nature because of Ramkinkar. His view was: if it is already there why make a copy? For him, the person making the portrait and the one whose portrait was being made both had to come together in the structure. He made hundreds of portraits, but most of them are missing.

How did Ramkinkar look at tradition?

He visited places such as Ajanta, Ellora and Amravati. Understanding the qualities of idealised figures helped him develop his own style. The elongated man in Santhal Family was almost drawn straight from Amravati. The earlier Yakshi models were close to the Didarganj Yakshi, [on the basis of which ] he reflected on distortions and stable posture alike. Kinkar da's respect and understanding for pre-classical and classical art helped him evolve a language that was established over a period of time.

"GIRL WITH A dog", an oil. The girl is Soma Joshi, one of Baij's students, who was very fond of dogs.-

A language that was totally different from that of Santiniketan as well.

That is where Ramkinkar rebelled. He made Bengal-school wash paintings but realised that it was not his style; he wanted to experience earthy ruggedness. Crudeness was important to his expression, for sometimes art can get into really alienated space. Santiniketan's permissive atmosphere helped him to shape his individuality and the retrospective has attempted to highlight that.

I wanted to highlight his presence in the show and so decided to use several rare photographs of his at the entrance. We all know what [Pablo] Picasso looked like or even Satyajit Ray, whose life was behind the camera. After this show people will know what Ramkinkar looked like. It is very important to me that the world knows what he looked like, what he was India's first modernist sculptor who believed in being universal by being local. Ramkinkar Baij was not part of any school of art; he was his own school.

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