(First read at the Ram Kumar Memorial, New Delhi, April 25, 2018)
Dear Ram Kumarji,
Perhaps there is no suitable protocol for the posthumous letter. While you were alive I occasionally wrote on your solo exhibitions - except perhaps the last few -that had been mounted over the last 30 odd years. Yet when we spoke it was perfunctorily. I was inhibited perhaps by the formality of the gallery, or the reserve that your well known introversion engendered. As it is, your work itself scarcely invited comment, in its steady small incremental shifts.
Yet now in your passing things seem to have fallen into an irresistible pattern, like the pieces of a slow motion giant jigsaw. The town of Simla, which you would have known twenty or thirty years before I did; and then Varanasi, an adult engagement, as surely an encounter with death and its understanding should be. Across time, these were shared experiences, of your life and my own, two significant terrestrial fragments, both a decisive presence, that I can perhaps dwell upon. Also your letters to Krishen Khanna, written in the period of the 1960s to the 1980s never to be read by any other than him, but to which I became privy, and must now constitute part of my letter to you.
With your passing now, the question arises, what was the pressing motivation that kept the paintings coming in such a steady spate? In your studio below the stairs in Bharti Artists Colony as we saw you, the light emitted from a narrow roshan daan barely equal to lighting your luminous landscapes. In such a state, day after day and year after year, you at your easel, and your drawing board. Can we then think of painting as a rite of passage, of a state of constant endeavour of not arriving? In your letters to Krishen Khanna you wrote of the enervating heat of Delhi, of the days you lay on your bed, prostrate with exhaustion. You also wrote of your delight of the memory of Simla of Davico’s, its gaiety and its music of youthful energies. But walking through the mountains, you know how they repel human embrace, how they play with one’s mind about what might lie after the next bend in the path. How the fragrance of the pines, the iridescent green on the moss, the vertigo inducing sheer drop of the ‘khud’, the mountain drop, overwhelm the senses. The mountains are a private solitary pursuit. What you appear to have carried away from them is a grand melancholy, a productive space that sustained you.
For a while, on your return from Paris, you were seized with the melancholia of the human condition. Your paintings were of the protesting proletariat, refugee families and their naked children that had fled across Punjab to Delhi with the Partition of 1947. Your sad faced men and women in barren cities anticipate the despair that will come a little later of the betrayed promise of the nation, in the films of Ray, Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt. Nirmal Varma wrote in the late 1990s that you are the only Indian artist of the last 50 years whose paintings bear a testimony of “man’s estate, his sufferings and his solitude”. Pushed to the edge of the frame, the cluster of bodies compelled resolution. Your enigmatic response was to still the dialogue, silence the questions.
This effacement and abstraction, in the sense of taking out, negating, of course has been attributed to your visits to Benaras. In the 1960s these visits were very close in time to the wars with China and Pakistan, the death of Nehru, the efflorescence of the Hindi Nayi Kahani of which your middle class figures and their beaten down lives were such a part. In Benaras, Husain had commented on his own energetic exploration of the ghats, while you were quite still in your contemplation of the city. If we are, even for a moment to imagine how you constructed the Benaras paintings then your preferred location may have been Ram Nagar. The unholy banks opposite the holy city, the secular right face of the river. Your gaze seems to have wanted to embrace the entire face of the ghats. While Mondrian organized New York in order and symmetry, you compressed the relentless energy of Varanasi, its smouldering ghats into a vast unpeopled cluster. Looking onto Varanasi, its riverine churn and its relentless humanity, you chose a process of erasure. In some of your paintings of the 1950s and then in the 1990s, the faces of the figures are partially erased. If we seek other such contexts, Husain’s faces famously vacated of features, the scratched out face of the Prophet in Persian miniature painting, and now the current instance of Guru Nanak’s face represented only as a blur, or as light in a contemporary film are other instances of effacing. Having occluded the human form, you then showed over the next 60 years, no interest in reclaiming it. After Benaras, your works deny the object world. They escape time by eluding the lure of the material evidence and detritus of our age.
Your brother Nirmal Varma speaks of your negation of the human figure not as abandonment but absence. The critic and your principal interpreter Richard Bartholomew offered a spectrum of explanations all of which are possibly correct. He described the disappearance of the figure as the condition of exorcism, disappearance and most importantly, of exile. A condition of exile both from Simla and Varanasi perhaps. In Varanasi, only the seven kilometres between the Varuna and Asi are pure, the residence of Shiva and his ganas, the rest of the city is unexceptional even polluted, rendering a state of double exile if you like. Yet what you saw most closely were the galis, winding and claustrophobic. Where we go to seek enlightenment and lose our way, the steps slick with the sweat of the river, the uneven temples mosques ghats and houses that seem to sit in a condition of permanent unsettlement.
If then we are to understand Simla and Varanasi both as a condition of negation what seems to emerge is the endless journey between the two. I am trying to think of examples. Perhaps the udasis of Nanak which are the long journeys to which he committed. What Nanak wrote in the Third Udasi may well approximate the abstract principles of your landscape:
“There were no planes; higher middle or lower
Neither hell nor heaven, nor any hour of death,
No suffering, no bliss, no birth, no death,
No entry, no exit.”
Perhaps this also approximates Shiva’s vairagya, the ascetic’s way, devoid of all seductions. Or simply the existential enquiry that so pervaded the intellectual climate of Europe in the 1950s and to which you responded. Whatever the cause, it lays the ground for abstraction that is the grist of your painterly imagination. In these decades of continually refining your painting what you offered perhaps was a pause, a moment of contemplation, or refuge, from our limited lives. Because there is no closure in your painting, we recognize that it is a brief pause onlybecausethepresentiment of the journey ahead is never far. Sham Lal suggested that you hid in your paintings, that like Samuel Beckett you approximated the state of “nothing to express .... no desire to express, with the obligation to express.”
Looking on at your paintings, in the silence that you sought, the overwhelming sense is strangely liberating.