The artist today is often tempted to add to the noise of the time by proclaiming all too loudly his presence in his work. Ram Kumar, on the other hand, hides himself in his paintings. It is a presence so shy and unobstrusive as to come very near to an absence.
Ram Kumar has no desire to shock or seduce the eye which makes so much of abstract art slide into the sensational or the decorative. The ascetic streak in his mental make-up will not permit any such indulgence. The sense of quiet that pervades his work invites contemplation, not a gaze.The search for a personal idiom lands many contemporary artists in a private language which bars all strangers entry into their world. Ram Kumar's work never suffers from a breakdown of communication. Some of his paintings indeed demand a silent communion and, in moments of felicity, we are even able to converse with them.
As a young artist, Ram Kumar was captivated by, or rather obsessed with, the human face because of the ease and intensity with which it registers the drama of life. The sad, desperate, lonely, hopeless or lost faces, which fill the canvases of his early period, render with pathos his view of the human condition. The human condition is no overblown phrase in this context. It is pertinent because what Ram Kumar tries to do in this early work is something more profound than merely pointing to what can be cured by acts of social engineering This is why these can be understood only as human, not social documents.
There is no trace of seething rage nor any hint of a protest here. These men do not even need to speak to us. Their mere looks are enough to tell us all we want to know about them, all that has made them what they are. What then made Ram Kumar bid goodbye to all these men at a certain point? Why did the human face disappear from his paintings in the mid-sixties? To ascribe the change to the lure of the abstract is too facile an answer. The change can be understood only in terms of a new challenge.
It is easy to express a tragic vision of life in portraits of lonely and lost faces. It is more difficult to listen to the sad music of things and capture it in images, particularly when the human figure is no longer there to give the artist whatever emotional support he may need. The significance of the change-it will be wrong to ca ll it a break-in Ram Kumar's work can be seen in a work of 1965 which carries the title Varanasi. The title is a mere decoy. There is no suggestion of piety in the picture and no intimation of the holy river which flows through the city. A tumbledown house here takes the place of a ravaged human face. It is the same sad music but with a new depth. This is not merely where painting comes very near to music but also where music itself draws very close to silence.
The word 'tragic' is perhaps a bit out of place in the context of Ram Kumar's work. It has a western ring and carries suggestions of pity and terror, of the inscrutable workings of fate and of the price men have to pay for their hubris. To the Indian way of thinking, what makes life so sorry a business is rather the void at the heart of things. The feeling this engenders is not so much of personal misfortune as of metaphysical anguish.
When I meditate on Ram Kumar's work, I wonder how Nagarjuna, the great Buddhist philosopher, would have reacted to it. Would he have recognised in this artist a kindred spirit, not arguing about sunyata but showing in his images the falsity of appearances behind all the beguiling arrangements of coloured surfaces and lines and the interplay of being and nothingness behind all the glitz and glitter of things?
Ram Kumar himself will perhaps feel that his all too fragile works may give way under the weight of such philosophical burden. But then he has always been most reluctant, for reasons which are easy to understand, to translate the language of his painting into words. He knows that paintings will have no rightful place in the scheme of things if all that they had to say could be stated as well in words. This is why it is so hazardous for critics to try to interpret an artist's work in a language other than his own. It is not a question of sensibility, of understanding of logic of colour and form or even of conceding the error of the view that the artist's job is to hold a mirror to outer or inner reality. The very use of words as a tool of analysing the plastic arts is apt to involve a certain element of caprice.
Whatever the risk, the itch to speak or w rite about things which cannot be said in words is part of the human condition. It is only rarely that a work of art puts us at a loss for words and impels us to take refuge in silence This is what Ram Kumar's work on which he worked for some years and which carries the title The Wind does. All we can do face to face with this picture is wonder whether what it shows is a treeless expanse swept by a gale or a storm-swept inner landscape of the mind. The answer does not really matter. The meaning of the work lies in the verve with which the artist brings the outer and inner realities together.This may not indeed be a fusion of two disparate realities. It may be, for all we know, a new reality in its own right, providing a visual experience which touches us deeply because, in some mysterious w ay, it conjures up a new world. Or could it be merely a new composition of coloured surfaces rid of any traces of the familiar furniture of our past and present? Or perhaps the voice of the sage of sunyata addressing us in a language not of negative dialectics but of fragments shored against our ruin?
The 1969 painting which sports the label Ruins provokes the same sort of questions. Are these mere remains of what was once a solid structure of stone? Or are these the wreckage of a dream and of a hope which was once alive but is now dead? Or, are these, viewed against the background of recent events, the ruins of an ideology which once pre-empted the future of mankind?
In a large painting of 1992, Ram Kumar claims to be looking for lost times. We cannot be too sure whether he is not in fact searching for a lost future. The canvas does more than bring together odds and ends of memories which are all that remain of the past-wrecks of buildings which once served as places of work or homes in which people dreamt about the future, unrecognisable bits and pieces of objects which were once whole and even a flog which perhaps served as the symbol of a cause to fight for.The work is, however, apt to lose some of its resonance if it is taken literally. Here, as in other pictures, the artist is not transcribing a piece of reality. He is rather meditating on the passage of time and transcribing his reflections into a language quite different from that of words.
The times may be out of joint and thingsmay be faIling apart in actual life. But in the painting, the disparate elementssomehow manageto hold together. This is what gives coherence to the mental landscape in the picture. And this is also what makes the visual experience the painting affords not only credible but also meaningful. Taken to the extreme, and perhaps reflecting more faithfully the negative dialectics of Nagarjuna without his having even heard of this philosopher, is Samuel Beckett's view of art that "there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express with the obligation to express".
Ram Kumar is, however, no fanatic. Nor is he the one to take his awareness of the limits of art to so despairing a conclusion, As he will say, even Beckett concedes the obligation to express when there is in fact nothing to express. What Ram Kumar himself manages to express in his works is enough to make us curious about the source of his strength. It is to be found in the care he takes not to impose his vision on us. This is why he eschews all drama. With age, his work has indeed acquired a new calm. This is what also prevents him from theorising about his work.
The question whether theory in the arts is the eye of practice or a mere rationalisation of every new direction taken by innovative artists can be debated endlessly. The point is that theories date sooner than the works of art they seek to explain. Only recently someone has pointed to propositions one of which concerns "the refusal of composition, of balancing, as an essentially archaic device" while the other refers to "the paring down of the work towards a unity which is no longer the sum of parts". As the concerned critic rightly argues, this makes for "a different order of validation which is premised on the association of composition and the like into a European, and hence outmoded, dualistic sensibility, that is to say, ultimately, with a tradition of Cartesian rationalisation".
Ram Kumar broke away with this kind of rationalisation quite early in his career as an artist when he outgrew the influence of Fernand Leger under whom he had studied in Paris while yet in his twenties.The strength of his later work, the sense of serenity that presides over it, is the result of a return to the roots. Those who think of it as escapism are the sort of people who are too involved with the current confusions and surface agitations, and too taken up with the increasing din of the market place, to have any feeling left for the still centre of things.
This is not to say that it is possible for the artist today, however true he may be to the truth to his vision, to escape altogether the dark side of the times in which he lives. This is particularly so today when the work of art has become a commodity and the artist feels alienated from his society and watches helplessly as his work is integrated into a culture shaped by the demands of the market. That is why every genuine work of art today is found to carry a mark of anxiety on this score if we only care to look for it.
We do not know how Ram Kumar feels about all this as he looks back on his creative work. Having known him for long, I, for one, will not be surprised if he is overwhelmed at times by the feeling that he has not been able to say all he wants to, like any artist who is painfully aware of the limitations of language, whatever the medium.
If we prick up our ears, we may perhaps hear Ram Kumar echoing the words of the poet who has warned us that There is / At best, only a limited value/In the knowledge derived from experience, / The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies'/ For the pattern is in every moment / And every moment is a new and shocking/Valuation of all we have been.
From the exhibition catalogue published by Vadehra Art Gallery (1997).