Ram Kumar

Unassuming genius

Print edition : May 11, 2018

Ram Kumar at home in New Delhi. A file picture. Photo: S. Subramanium

The illustrious painter Ram Kumar (1924-2018) brought the angst of the displaced common man to the canvas, and his minimalist work later lent itself to myriad interpretations.

SOME two decades ago, when this correspondent went to meet the illustrious painter Ram Kumar at his east Delhi residence, several surprises lay in store for him. Having been brought up on notions of the greatness of M.F. Husain and Tyeb Mehta, Ram Kumar’s contemporaries, one expected a similar mix of swagger and fearlessness from Ram Kumar. He too, after all, hailed from a generation of progressive artists and writers. Yet, there was Ram Kumar, reclining on his divan, his cotton kurta-pyjama quite clearly crumpled, his spectacles in need of a quick wipe. Was he the famous Ram Kumar, I asked myself. Indeed, he was: modest, soft-spoken and endlessly polite. He was recovering from illness and looked pretty frail. In his ordinariness, though, lay his extraordinary quality.

His art, too, was an extension of the man—the focus was on the ordinary individual in the big bad world of cities, a world where anonymity reigned supreme. Often, his common man struggling to carve out a niche for himself in a city brought to mind the famous Urdu poet Shahryar’s lines: “Seene mein jalan, aankhon mein toofan sa kyun hai, is shehar mein har shaks pareshan sa kyun hai.” There were seemingly incoherent structures, loose, hanging wires overhead, often criss-crossing, and roads which had probably never been smooth. Amid them all stood the common man, forever at a crossroads. Back in the 1950s, this figurative work spoke a million words and probably shaped Ram Kumar into the man and the artist he was to become. Like Oscar Wilde’s artist, he too believed in revealing his art and concealing the artist.

Piece of brilliance

Ram Kumar became an illustrious artist because he was a wonderful sponge. Whatever he saw, he absorbed. Whenever he visited a place, he stored it in his memory. The early years spent in Shimla amid all the greenery and crystal clear waters meant that he was never short of hope; the time spent in Ladakh gave his canvas the expanse needed to transform a micro work to a macro piece of brilliance.

He went to Paris to study under the Cubist painter Fernand Leger and the figurative artist Andre Lhote, which was quite an achievement back then because Ram Kumar was not exactly flush with funds. Although he had begun his career as a banker, he switched to journalism in Delhi, but did not particularly relish it either. Having studied economics at Delhi University, he baffled everyone with his decision to leave the security of a bank job for the crests and troughs of an artist’s life. Yet, Ram Kumar convinced his family to part-finance his journey to Paris.

The French city shaped his mind, and Ram Kumar joined the Communist Party there. It was an ideology very close to his own value system: after all, his early art too was all about the common man, the vast, anonymous multitudes who sweated it out in adverse circumstances in cities. Urban angst moved him and reflected in his paintings. His common man, and indeed most of his early art, was all about the struggles of life that left a deep imprint on the mind and the faces of those at the centre of the fight. The figures were gaunt and the limbs were alternately tight or loose to convey a brooding intensity. If there was still some joy to be conveyed through his works, it was the joy of being sad, the song of melancholy.

Some two decades after he had brought the angst of the displaced common man to the canvas, illustrious film-makers such as Mrinal Sen and Shyam Benegal did the same on celluloid. Through a mix of art and cinema, the common man began to be seen. Ram Kumar expressed his feelings on the canvas and moved on, never hankering for the limelight. He never held launch parties even for his solo shows, nor did he employ public relations agents for media interviews.

Occasionally, when an art critic or follower went over to speak with him, he treated them with the familiarity of a next-door neighbour. Although he dumbed down his level of conversation to suit the conversationalist, he never did so as an artist. Occasionally, though, he was impatient with some inappropriate questions. He lived his life at peace and did not easily allow any attempt to bring him out of the self-developed shell. Even then, he would convey it all with a wave of the hand. No vitriol, just a quiet but clear indication that it was time to move on.

Ram Kumar’s art, initially shaped by the spirit of the progressives, gradually made a shift from the figurative to the domain of the abstract. If in the early years of his career, in the 1950s, he exhibited everything with fine detailing, his latter works were almost minimal. The artist’s intervention was kept to a minimum and the work lent itself readily and happily to myriad interpretations. As an art lover, you read what you wanted in his work.

If Paris exposed his mind to the world of the plebeians, Banaras, the timeless city, as opposed to the modern Varanasi, did not leave him or his art untouched. He was moved by the evening aarti, the endless cycle of death capturing life at the ghats, the town of bearded maulanas and pontiffs. Each temple bell that tolled, every azaan that the muezzin gave, impacted Ram Kumar the person and brought to life much of his art.

Indeed, Banaras became a recurring motif in much of his work. His Banaras series is both distant and throbbing with immediacy, the universality of belief being married to the specificity of the experience of the individual. The land of the Ganga gave his work an enviable profundity, even a single brushstroke imparting meaning to life.

As Ram Kumar completed his journey from the figurative to the abstract, each segment of his life came alive on his canvas: the glistening waters of the Himalayan rivers that he saw as a child helped recreate the magic on canvas, the beam of light that pierces across thick foliage in the foothills of the Himalaya made its way into his art.

It led many to believe that Ram Kumar’s art was nothing but an assimilation of life experiences. Art is but an expression of human emotion, capturing the moments of endless loneliness or the seconds of fleeting joy. In Ram Kumar’s case though, his canvas was not just a brooding expanse but one that kept a little corner for hope glistening all the time—now expressed through clear waters, now through a twig here or a ray of the morning sun there. The subtle lyricism of his paintings reminds one of a prayer: “Count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done!”

Ram Kumar was blessed with a rare talent. The brush in his hands became a tool of genius. A single, free-flowing stroke on a plain of blue imparted an altogether different meaning to art. Not many, even among the art fraternity, had that felicity. Ram Kumar did, yet he conducted himself with an astonishing quietude and modesty.

He was carving out a niche for himself at a time when the world was feting Husain and Mehta, but he never grumbled. He merely let his art speak. He kept the same discourse when his brother, the noted Hindi writer Nirmal Verma, came into the limelight.

Of course, he had his moments under the sun too—when he was honoured with the Padma Bhushan or when one of his works was sold for a million dollars at an auction. But Ram Kumar was not one to be swayed by success or failure. He did not permit himself exaggerated celebrations on winning honours or landing a financial bounty. But he did allow himself to be crestfallen when four of his works were stolen from his residence. To success or failure, he exhibited the same equanimity, which can probably be traced to his belief in communism and his ability to express it all through his art. Or perhaps it was an outcome of the time spent in the endless spaces of Ladakh or the timelessness of Banaras.

In the fitness of things though, as the last chapter of his life concluded when he breathed his last on April 14, his art will continue to speak for the displaced, the dispossessed and the deprived. The art transcends the artist, and even outlives him.