The books great strength is the authors familiarity with Ramkinkar Baijs work and his friendship with him.
The exhibition Ramkinkar Baij Retrospective, held in New Delhi early this year, has since travelled to Mumbai and is now on in Bangalore. This huge show, comprising Baijs 350 works drawings, lithographs, etchings, water colours, oils, sculptures and mackettes (small models) of his last monumental work of sculpture at the entrance to the Reserve Bank of India on Parliament Street in New Delhi brings back memories of a great Indian artist.
My Days with Ramkinkar Baij by Somendranath Bandyopadhyay, who taught Bengali language and literature at Vishwa Bharati University, is an excellent example of a biography of an artist. It was written in Bengali and has now been translated into English by Bhaswati Ghosh. This volume in English has been published in collaboration with the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi and is meant to function as an accompanying text to the Ramkinkar Baij Retrospective, curated by his student, the well-known sculptor K.S. Radhakrishnan, and organised by Prof. Rajeev Lochan, artist and the dynamic director of the NGMA.
Somendranath Bandyopadhyay has dedicated his book to the memory of Benodebehari Mukhopadhyay, Ramkinkars friend and a great artist like him. The books great strength is the authors familiarity with his subjects work and his friendship with him.
Ramkinkar Baij, known as Kinkarda to friends and admirers, was by all accounts an open, spontaneous person. Those who knew him and understood his eccentricities discovered a wealth of wisdom in him, revealed usually through witty, humorous anecdotes. He was the eternal outsider, even in a place like Santiniketan, founded by the prescient poet and thinker Rabindranath Tagore. More than anyone else, Tagore encouraged the 19-year-old Ramkinkar when he arrived there in 1925, thanks to Ramananda Chattopadhyay, editor of Modern Review, who discovered the lads potential on a trip to Bankura in West Bengal.
Much as Ramkinkars teacher, the venerable Nandalal Bose, came to love and admire his work, overcoming his initial hostility towards his students independent-minded ways, much as his confrere Benodebehari came to appreciate the genius in him, most of the people in Santiniketan either feared or despised him. They feared him because they were not blessed with his creative gifts, and they despised him for being a completely free spirit despite his poverty. He, in fact, did not give a hoot about money.
The book has a wealth of information and many anecdotes that reveal Ramkinkar the man and the artist. It is really the upshot of a series of conversations that the author had with Ramkinkar over a period of time.
Ramkinkar says of Stella Kramrisch, the famous Hungarian art historian and Indologist: Rabindranath had brought her here [Santiniketan]. To get updates on Western art. Not just updates, she also introduced me to a lot of works. I still remember all those paintings. Aha, what beautiful prints! We now understand how Ramkinkar came to familiarise himself with the great masterpieces of the West. His knowledge of modern art in Europe, however, increased only after the end of the Second World War in 1945, when books on Cubism, Fauvism, Surrealism and other trends started trickling into India.
Ramkinkar remembers: Stella once said to me, Kinkar, take up a mountain. Cut through it, and make a sculpture. She didnt make such a bad suggestion. Really that has many advantages in the context of lack of resources. This approach eliminates the cost of materials. You just need a hammer and a chisel. But where do I find a mountain in Santiniketan, hey. The joke became a reality when Jawaharlal Nehru, independent Indias first Prime Minister, commissioned Ramkinkar Baij to make two monumental sculptures of Yaksha and Yakshi, brother and sister in Hindu mythology, to stand guard just outside the Reserve Bank of India in New Delhi. Ramkinkar travelled far and wide across India and finally settled for the sandstone found at Baijnath in the Kullu Valley of Himachal Pradesh. The transportation of the stone became a saga in itself.
A fairly generous budget was finished transporting the stone to Delhi where work was to begin. The stone had to be cut in a certain way, and the shapes of the open railway wagons had to be modified in order to carry the material to Delhi. Two more generous monetary grants were not enough to finish the work to Ramkinkar Baijs satisfaction. The several plaster of Paris models he had made of Yaksha and Yakshi were all superb, surging with protean energy. The finished sculptures were imposing and impressive but lacked a certain elemental feel that gave his best work a timeless quality. Rajkumar Jaitly, his former student and the last manager of this project there were a few earlier, including Pranav Deb Verma (actually Burman), his friend and classmate Dhiren Deb Vermas son told him quite clearly that no more money would be coming from the government and it would be impossible to return to Santiniketan or pay the carvers if he did not stop immediately.Constant struggle
Ramkinkars career in the post-Tagore phase the poet passed away at the age of 80 in 1941 was one of constant struggle. He was doing a triangular relief called Birth of Fire on top of the stage at Bichitra (or Rabindra Bhavan), a research centre and museum at Santiniketan, when the authorities descended on him and told him it was exam time and the hall would be needed. When he said he would resume work after the examinations, he was told that it would not be possible to let him continue. He told Bandyopadhyay: Its so difficult to work. They cant help someone work; they can only obstruct and ruin it. I regret it. An idea so dear to me could not be realised. I had tried to light a fire by collecting hay. And they just poured water on it. The end of Birth of Fire, I feel like crying and laughing. Tragi-comic. Lifes like that.
His woes continued. When asked to do a sculpture in honour of womanhood in front of the Birla Girls Hostel in Santiniketan, Ramkinkar did an exquisite model, in ceramic, of a fountain whose configuration rhythmically included bathing nymphs. A hue and cry was raised by some people that it could fatally arouse the sexual instincts of the young women who came to seek purity and refinement in education at Gurudevs ashram! At first hurt and puzzled by the benighted attitude of the authorities concerned, Ramkinkar decided to turn it into a hilarious private joke only those close to him a few friends and students were privy to. Using the same technique of joining up separate tiles, he brought in a buffalo instead of the bathing nymphs or mermaids, and added to it the tail of a fish. Water splashed all over the animal. One would have to be remarkably obtuse not to notice the implied sexuality.
Bandyopadhyay describes it thus: Two moving figures are constantly encircling a pillar. As if to maintain rhythm with their movement, the revolving pillar too seems to rise up in a coiled fashion. And if the fountain water could cascade, it too would join this rhythm. The writer says, The artists accomplishment lies in generating this blend of a stationary sculpture with a moving surge.
It is astonishing to see how quickly he mastered any medium he touched. Ramkinkar had already painted in oils before he arrived at Santiniketan, and was possibly the first of Nandalal Boses students to do so. Oil paint was only a medium for him, and he decided he could use it whichever way he liked. In 1932, he did a portrait of Soma Joshi, a young girl from the Garhwal Hills. He called it Doll. Soma, indeed, looks like a doll in it. Her chubbiness is accentuated by the rounded, rhythmic strokes he uses to paint her, especially her face and arms, but her dog, at the bottom of the composition, looks like a cut-out. The background is painted quite flat, as a nod to the training he had received in Indian miniature painting under Nandalal Bose. This painting heralded the arrival of a 26-year-old original on the Indian art scene and gave hints about his antecedents as a sculptor.
As a young man, he painted water colours in the modern Western idiom as if he had been doing it all his life. Stella Kramrisch may have showed him reproductions of Old Masters, but it is unlikely that he was familiar with Paul Cezannes water colours in the 1930s, or even the late 1930s. He came to know of 20th century Western art only after the Second World War, that is, after 1945. He used Cezannes technique of leaving slivers of white space on the paper while doing a landscape in order to make it more dynamic. Many of Ramkinkars watercolours are almost abstract, but they do not become alluring patterns. They give in an oblique, subtle way the flavour of a place, its ambience. Even in his most concrete or representational works in a given medium, he is able to substantiate, without ever trying to, what the great film-maker Jean Renoir, son of the illustrious French artist Pierre Auguste Renoir, said: Ultimately all [great] art is abstract. All of Ramkinkars works, even the most naturalistic ones, are in the best sense of the word abstract that is, they catch the essence of a landscape, an animal, a human figure or face, and give these a resonance that stays in the mind for long, like a memorable piece of music.
Bandyopadhyays book is very Bengali in the sense that it highlights the humanist ethos of the Santiniketan ashram. Rabindranath Tagore, a devotee of the Upanishads and the healthy, creative option it offered in the place of ritualistic Hinduism, became sadly aware, late in life, that those who ran Santiniketan had let its ideals harden into a kind of ritualism. It is clear that the writer adores Ramkinkar Baij, but he adores him in a restrained, civilised, brahminical way. He does not write a warts and all biography. One misses Ramkinkars legendary ribaldry.
The authors long-standing friendship with Ramkinkar Baij had made the artist speak with a rare candour on very many things, including life and art. There can be no doubt that Santiniketan treated Ramkinkar very badly over a period of time, probably because like almost all institutions in India, it too had been taken over by mediocre people who were wildly jealous of his creativity and the sense of freedom it brought to his life and work. They were also contemptuous of him for not having money and not attempting to make any. It did not matter to them that he was among the finest sculptors of the 20th century, East or West, or a marvellous painter and graphic artist. The same people were equally contemptuous of the other genius from Santiniketan, Benodebehari Mukhopadhyay, who, for all his artistic achievements, had failed as a worldly man.
A few quibbles about an excellent book. More attention should have been paid in preparing the index. The translation tries hard to maintain the flavour of the Bengali original but becomes a bit fruity at times. Ramkinkar Baij lives in our hearts and minds through this book.