Art News & Views

Ram Kumar: A transition from figurative to abstract

Ram Kumar is an artist of rare talent and sensitivity. He is one of the great pioneers of Indian art with his special choice of the abstract art form. By creating a new visual language Kumar communicates his artistic abundance, wrought with power and energy. Kumar displays a maturity that emanates from his confidence to explore and sustain a genre of nonfigurative art. His work imbues a sense of contemplation as they unfold a divine and tranquil world.

Born in the picturesque surroundings of Simla in 1923, Kumar's first act of creativity was writing short stories in Hindi. However his passion for art won over his desire to be a writer.  While studying for his Masters in Economics at St Stephen's college in Delhi, Kumar joined evening classes of Sarada Ukil School of Art where his professor, the artist Sailoz Mukherjee, introduced him to still life painting with live models.

His zest for art took him around the world. In those days Paris was considered the Mecca for artists. Greatly inspired by Raza, Kumar convinced his father to pay for a one way ticket to Paris. He enjoyed the vibrancy of the city and remained there from 1949-1952. He learnt French and imbibed the aesthetics and elegance of his environment.

For the first year he studied under Andre Lhote and later joined Fernand Leger's classes. He also became a member of the Communist party, and considered his time spent with radicalist intellectuals like Louis Aragon, Roger Garaudy and Paul Eluard most rewarding.

He claims his Paris experience was vital to his artistic freedom and growth. It gave him an opportunity to view paintings of world masters in the museums. Moreover, artists like Picasso and Matisse were living in France and he got to see their exhibitions.

Kumar's early paintings were figurative. He portrayed the urban middle class man incarcerated in the confines of his urban environment. There is a sense of dejection that comes through in the intense gaze of the characters of “Vagabonds” painted in 1957.  

In “Woman” he shows a woman wearing a vacant look in the eyes, lost in the gloomy surroundings of isolated and empty street and houses.  A series of paintings in the 1950s powerfully depict Kumar's absorption with the killing vibes of urbanisation. The men and women he depicts (especially the women) look pleasing without, despairing within. One would well believe that his canvases abound in this period with lost souls.

Kumar's suffering entities were either the product of the industrial revolution or the poor refugees who had fled Pakistan during partition and were now his neighbours in Karol Bagh in Delhi. Kumar had heard their stories and some of the paintings reflect his sensitive hand moved by the sad dilemma of his fellow beings. They seemed like characters straight out of his well known novel Ghar Bane Ghar Toote.

Kumar subsequently made a transition from figurative to abstract art through a slow process. The roof tops and landscapes that were backgrounds in his figurative paintings soon became the main focus as he banished the people into oblivion. He began abstract art after 1959 with landscapes that were soon to become his trade mark like “The Greek Landscape” painted in 1961 after he visited Greece. Inspired by the blue sky and white houses, the piece is further enhanced by muted colours with a glow of soft purple.

Abstract art had captured the imagination of both the literary writer and artist in Kumar. He shed the company of figures and settled principally for the expressions of the abstract form.

His new art form acquired inspiration from all the cities he visited like Venice, Prague Rome, Moscow, Baghdad and Byzantium. But it was the city of Benaras that deeply impacted on him. The Hindu holy city was very important to him although he was bewildered when he saw it for the first time. It was a city where he thought life and death had no meaning. It was both a visual and a psychological experience. This is probably the reason why Ram Kumar has repeatedly gone back to the traditional magic and mystery of this great shore. He was moved by the sorrow of the widows, the funeral pyres and the elimination of humanity. Here was a river that absorbed the ashes of the dead. The dead bodies waiting for their turn for liberation narrowed the demarcating line between life and death. He went there first with M.F. Husain and Sripat Rai. Husain and Kumar took their paints and went their ways all day, came back and showed their paintings to each other at night. Every sight was like a new composition, a still life artistically organised to be interpreted in colours. It was not merely the outward appearances that were fascinating, but an inner life, very deep and profound, left an everlasting impression on his artistic sensibility. In Varanasi (now called Benaras) he captured the city washed in the golden evening sun between the cobalt blue sky and the river below. In another canvas from the Varanasi 1990-94 he painted little houses one on top of the other in shades of white and brown grey that evoke dismal memories of the plight of the widows dressed in white who come to this city to die. His latest Benaras in blue and white depicts the atmosphere and sentiments of the city with a meditative silence and acceptance that have replaced the turmoil first seen in his earlier Benaras series.

At least with Benaras there is a familiarity with the location that can help you align with sights and sounds of the place to create your own reality.

But the painting of Ladakh is a journey into space, into infinity. Expect nothing more than the sweeping white and brown brush of Kumar heading mystically upwards to the galaxy, while behind it there is the darkness of space. After Ladakh it was Kumaon and Shivalik Hills that captivated him. He frequently retreats to Andretta to paint as he enjoys the solitude of the mountains.

Vadehra Art Gallery showcases two of Ram Kumar's representative works with acrylic on paper and oils on canvas. In both he uses the palette knife. He claims his acrylics give him a greater opportunity to experiment.

Kumar's intangible art continues to mesmerise his viewers. It is an art form created through a mental debate with the artist's experiences, brought to life with line and colour. By communicating their abstract splendour the artist has added new vistas to the viewer's imagination. However, the artist has always remained firm on his ground like the small trees that remain rooted to the earth, while the fountain of colour flows all around in his landscapes.

“Type of the wise who soar, but never roam;

True to the kindred points of Heaven and Home!”

“To a Skylark” by William Wordsworth.

By Uma Prakash    





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