“When I paint, I don’t think about any specific elements - be they spiritual or supernatural elements of nature. They are paintings pure, simple, plain, painted colour propositions emerging from one’s past experiences.”

Ram Kumar.

While looking at a work of art, particularly a painting, which bears no resemblance to the physical reality in its representation of objects or forms, the viewer is often puzzled and vexed by the question “what is the artist trying to convey or represent?” Perhaps this is the question that will surge in the viewer mind when confronted by works of Ram Kumar; a Delhi based senior artist and writer; a veteran in the field of abstraction. His canvasses are both absolute and quasi abstracts.

The question that begs is what is abstraction? In the visual art it was an avant-garde phenomenon of the 20th century in Western art, in which representational or mimetic subject matter was jettisoned. The artist either sought to abstract from observable forms of life as Cezanne did, or like cubists began making patterns of shapes, volumes, colour and line that was self referential and autonomous with a ‘significant silence’, that is not making any reference to content nor providing social and cultural context. Abstraction as it developed in Europe in the first two decades of the 20th century laid emphasis on ‘expression of feeling’ [Wassily Kandinsky] and ‘expression of humanity’s spiritual nature’ [Piet Mondrian] discarding references to optical and corporeal world.

The distinguished body of artists who could claim a place of ‘pioneering’ epithet in their engagement with abstraction as a visual language in the tract of India’s unfolding national modernity, and who had privileged ideas, that admitted the ring of adventurism and groundbreaking efforts were Ram Kumar, V.S. Gaitonde, Ambadas and J. Swaminathan. They had initiated their careers in the late 40s.

Ram Kumar [1924], in this show of his recent abstracts conveys a sense of equilibrium and stability arising out of his persona as the one who has journeyed through this idiom for over more than 50 years. His compositional formats are either horizontal or vertical with emphatic spatial coloured plains. Within the post-colonial milieu of the 1960’s, his process in the evolution as an abstractionist was a gradual process, which in many ways marked a posture of difference amongst his contemporaries. His pioneering efforts towards abstraction were not the result of a sudden leap towards this change of his visual language. He went through a phase of figuration in the early 1950’s when in Paris he was exposed to existential ideas through associations and encounters with intellectuals and poets and was politically associated with the radical political groups as well.

On his return he chose themes of social injustice and alienation, committed through a personal vision, marked by passionate and de-concretized figuration that had echoes of gloom and desperation. He had represented these in a cubist vocabulary, wherein the sharp contoured edges and conscious distortion of the figures gestured towards an angst and a tension within the artist. He soon moved away from these melancholic evocations towards landscapes, abstracting the structured ghats of Benares in a visionary manner through the configuration of shades and textures. These were tactical moves by Ram Kumar marking his progress towards a process that catapulted him from his affinity to figurative mode and social topos to a trajectory which he visualized through the energy of colours, communicated metaphorically. His abstraction evolved over four decades and continues presently too. Negotiating through the metaphors of city and landscapes, home and world, Ram Kumar’s artistic philosophical journey bears the traces of it in his compositions.

It mandates to contextualize Ram Kumar’s abstraction within this post-colonial milieu especially in the late 1950s and the decade of 60s. During the 1950s abstraction as a language was a force to reckon within Indian modernism, but the burden of evacuating the facile resemblance and character of international abstraction [abstract expressionism and post-painterly abstraction] from the consciousness of Indian artists fell on these pioneers. They had to work through their culture to evolve abstraction so that they would assume a posture of difference. This essentially could be argued through the Greenbergian notion of aesthetic theory privileging formal elements of line, shape and colour, rather than the representational elements involved with narrative, iconography or iconology. The ideology postulated by Clement Greenberg was to maintain the purity of the painting by jettisoning any social, political or cultural reality and this remained central to his evolution of the formal aesthetics. Thus unlike the Greenbergian tradition, that sought to propagate the essence of irreducibility of two dimensional planes, reinforcing the objecthood of the canvass, the Indian artists sought to employ the language of abstraction by sourcing and abstracting imagery from within their culture to adopt this different posture. This was a challenge that also lead largely to focus on theories of ‘Indianness’ and identify with the international milieu, particularly for India categorized as a third world nation. And Ram Kumar was one among such artists who engaged with the language of abstraction by articulating the physical and spiritual core of the city of Varanasi. Said the artist, “Benares is important for me both as an artist and as a human being, the first paintings came at point when I wanted to develop elements in figurative painting and go beyond it, my first visit to the city evoked an emotional reaction as it had particular association. But such romantic ideas were dispelled when I came face to face with reality. There was so much pain and sorrow of humanity. As an artist it became a challenge to portray this agony and suffering, its intensity required the use of symbol motifs, so my Benares is of a representative sort.” [in an interview with Seema Bawa]. Through a reductive process of gradual elimination, he engaged purely with colours and its kaleidoscopic values; creating textures through thick or layered application of the pigments, thus resurrecting the aura of Benares, ubiquitous for its depth as well as spirituality. The inherent duality evidenced in his art namely of life and death, home and city nature and culture, Ram Kumar is subjectively interfacing with his social and political milieu which serves to become the fodder for his artistic mill.

Reminiscing about his experiences of Benares, Ram Kumar says, “The main purpose of my visit to Varanasi was to feel its depth and intensity. When I first went there, I thought the city was only inhabited by the dead and their lifeless souls. It seemed like a haunted place to me and still remains the same.” At the heart of his abstracts are his poignantconcerns for humanity sensitively felt in empathetic manner as well as experiences with communion with nature. This explains his engagement with natural environment when every manifestation of nature finds an expression in his works be it the dense forests, the snowy landscapes of Ladakh, the mountains, the crevices, rocky terrains, hillsides, deserts, fields and rivers. When these are translated through the lens of his tools and materials they assume a universal quality and not descriptive of a peculiar geographical locale.

In this recent show, the series of works, created by the artist has ‘significant form’ [Clive Bell] which translates as metaphors of nature or as ruralscapes and urbanscapes. His compositions have an enigmatic quality in the way forms gestalt particularly from colours as well as the defined areas of coloured spaces that are monumentally static which underpins the majesty of nature and hence his abstract works. But this evocative enigma reinforces the violent dimensions of nature as it is possible to visualize a deadly gorge, gushing threatening mountain streams, the icy slippery pinnacles which has neither the benevolence nor the grace of subliminal nature. Thus assuming an architectonic character loosely or tightly structures and organized with free, floating, brush work or palette knife strokes; built up with thick or thin layers of acrylics. The planes of vivid and vibrant juxtaposed colours carry on a quiet and dignified dialogue. The poetic subtlety of layered colours creates their own distinct ambience as they emerge from under these planes to mark their presence. An encounter with his works creates visual titillation as the surfaces are marked by definitive textures that besides being sensuous are alluring, inviting the viewer to a closer scrutiny. This leads to an interactive interfacing with his suggestive textures or subtle layering of shades and tones that softly and gently nudge the viewer to a dialogue. Architectural evocation implies his loose slapping of the white pigments that recreates myriad play of imagery reminiscent of certain architectural patterns and forms.

His colours are equally powerful in their manipulation and juxtaposition, constructing the idea of a strong colourist. Varying from dark and gloomy greys and blacks to vibrant energetic reds, oranges, yellows and ochres to subliminal greens and spiritual purples. His moods and emotions are invariably mediated through colours while the textures are significant silences of his inner tensions and angst. As one journeys through his canvases with chromatic colours which remain as vivid and vibrant as the man who first ventured into abstraction almost five decades ago it is possible to read in them the pilgrim’s journey. I particularly use the word pilgrim to gesture towards those moments of his empirical and spiritual journey as would be undertaken by a man with a purpose. The purpose for Ram Kumar was translating nature through the elemental lens of art and cities/tirth as Varanasi in its subliminal and finite avatars.

Ms. Ashrafi S. Bhagat, Ph.D., is the Former Head and Associate Professor of the Department of Fine Arts, Stella Maris College, [Autonomous] Chennai. She is an Independent Art Historian and an Art Critic. She has to her credit a research paper titled Lineage of Abstraction within the Madras Art Movement published in the book “The New Art History: Studies in Indian Art” [eds.] Shivaji Pannikkar, Parul Mukherjee, Deepty Achar, New Delhi, 2003]. A book “Sculptural Configurations: Retrospective Progressive”. Published by Oxford University Press Aprill 2003, monographs on the Madras artist Santhanaraja published by Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, June 2006, K.C.S. Paniker, Kerala Lalithkala Akademi 2011, P. Perumal published by Apparao Galleries and Dakshin Chitra, Chennai, 2011 and R. Vardarajan by Ashvita Gallery, Chennai, 2012. She contributes on modern and contemporary art in various journals and magazines. She was invited by the MARG journal, to be Guest Editor for a special edition on South titles “Contemporary Art in South Asia” published in December 2010.

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