Ram Kumar’s major retrospective, as this exhibition happens to be, comes none too late. Not that it is time to sum up, for how can one ‘sum up’ the works of an artist who is alive, working, perpetually creative and full of unpredictable surprises. It is even more difficult, in the case of Ram Kumar, whose work is so totally merged with his life.
The difficulty becomes even more formidable, when one realizes, that though a major exhibition like this may represent the ‘various stages’ of one’s life’s work, essentially it is bound to be selective. It may serve as an occasion to look back on the choices an artist made in the past, but it tends to overlook the decisions half made in the dark and then abandoned on the road-side. Who can say that the ‘road not taken’ at the various crossings does not constitute as much a part of one’s journey as the one which leads him to the present point of arrival? The blank spaces left between the canvases somehow become a part of the ‘conversation’ that Ram’s paintings conduct with one another in a private symposium of their own.
A symposium - what could be a better term for Ram Kumar’s retrospective as it is presented here, a gathering together of diverse images coming from different periods of the past, finding a confluence at a single place and a point of time. And the cumulative impact of being exposed to all is so different from the sum-total of our piecemeal impressions which we carry with us from the past exhibitions. The quantitative pressure of their being together in close physical proximity in some mysterious way, not merely refines the quality of our response to individual paintings, but more importantly, it helps us to redefine our relation to the entire corpus of Ram Kumar’s work. What was intended to be a public retrospective becomes an occasion for private introspection. Looking back leads to looking within.
And what we look at really comes as a surprise, or a series of surprises. Surveying the paintings of different periods in their simultaneity, we suddenly realize that what is offered is not the unified history of artist’s progress, but multiple biographies of a vision woven in a single narrative, dim here, bright there, botched beginnings sometimes leading to sudden revelations.
The scattered memories of different periods - of forlorn figures, the desolate houses and truncated landscape - cross the boundary lines and fall in a pattern. What earlier seemed to be a fitful voyage of arbitrary transitions, trespasses, border crossings now seem to acquire a continuum, a destiny, a coherence. The point of coherence becomes a site of affirmation. An affirmation never stated, only revealed. Instead of the artist telling his own story, the story acquires a voice of its own. A discreet soft voice, open and eager enough to be exposed - and affected - by the ferments and fevers of the modern age, its cruel demands and ideological seductions, but determined enough to preserve its autonomy, never to be subsumed by them. Ram Kumar is one of the very few Indian artists, perhaps the only one, whose paintings of the last fifty years bear a testimony of ‘man’s estate’, his sufferings and his solitude, his longing for liberation and the ultimate acceptance of the world - as it is.
The last note of ‘acceptance’ is crucial to understand Ram’s work, not as a philosophical stance or a religious trait, but an integral attribute of his sensibility of whose first glimpses we find in his writings. For we must not forget that Ram Kumar had been a fiction writer before he turned to painting. He first tasted the joys of creativity in literature, one passion, which though over the years has been overshadowed by his painting, has never ceased to be a companion, to whom he has turned again and again to seek solace and sustenance. Ram’s Paris sojourn is memorable not only because of his apprenticeship to eminent painters like Andre Lhote and Leger, but also of the heady encounters he had with poets like Aragon and Eluard, whose books with their signatures he occasionally sent to me with such glowing excitement. I do not know to what great extent Ram was attracted to communism as an ‘ideology of liberation’ but paradoxical though it may seem today, it did become for him a source for self-liberation. It not only freed him from the inhibitions of his middle class existence- but in a deeper sense- it enabled him to find the artistic metaphor for the human condition that he had already so realistically realised in his early stories and the novel. Only through his voyage into communism, Europe, the mid-century existential ferment, Ram was able to win back his own selfhood.
But let me return to his writings, which perhaps were not only the strongest shaping force of his ‘selfhood’ but they also served as a base and a launching ground for his early flights into painting. After his return from Paris, Ram had the opportunity of being in close proximity of the refugee colonies of Karol Bagh, the slums and the makeshift tenements for the people, who had fled from their homes in Pakistan after partition. It was a starting experience which had little in common with the intellectual camaraderie of the Parisian cafes. It was at this time he wrote his first novel; long out of print ‘Ghar Bane, Ghar Toote’, a grim tale of homeless squatters, unredeeming in its despair, all the more touching because it was told in a simple, straightforward manner, unembellished by any cheap flashes of revolutionary optimism. Although it had some of the naïve touches of a first novel, for Ram Kumar it was to prove the most cataclysmic experience. It enabled him to have a close look at the uprootedness of man, what Simone Weil was to call the chief ‘’spiritual affliction’’ of our times.
Now, if for a moment, we return to his paintings of this period, what is known as Ram Kumar’s ‘figurative phase’ we are struck by a shock of recognition’. But it is a recognition of a different sort, where the memory traces left in our minds by his stories and the first novel, gather together in a different pattern and then get re-formed in the language of the visual image. Ram’s figures and the urban cityscape in which they are situated make us reminiscent of something that we have seen before. It is as if the muted characters of his novel, the refugees, leave the shelter of the written page and get transmuted into the shadowy squatters of his paintings. It is in this near surreal borderland between the two, where Ram the painter meets the writer in him. The ‘meeting’ was not to last very long, for as the years passed, the two drifted apart and Ram Kumar increasingly became a ‘painterly painter’ rather than a narrator of words.
But even at this stage the difference between the two was very marked. The movement of human emotion, subdued though it is, is still very prominent in his stories. When it comes to his paintings, it gets completely frozen. The connections of family, ofcommonhouse-hold, of the shared memories of childhood, which give a certain melancholic warmth to his stories seem to be suddenly snapped in his paintings. The forlorn figures huddled in the foreground not only appear to be estranged from their environment, but what is more disturbing, they seem to be strangers to one another. It is not the sympathy and the compassion they inspire in us, not even despair, for despair with all its darkness, still belongs to the repertory of human emotions. What it invokes in us is - terror, which cannot be named, because it is unnameable. If Ram Kumar’s figures look so bereft, it is because they are bereft of all emotions, entirely de-emotionalised; frozen in their immobility to freeze us from within. Not that there is any wilful distortion or dismemberment of figures in Ram Kumar’s paintings. With all his stylization one can recognise the human contours of the bodies, their gaunt faces and staring eyes, they even have a certain kind of wan beauty. And yet in their spirit and essence they look like some disfigured victims of an accident, an accident of catastrophic proportions about which we know nothing and of which, they the victims themselves are unaware.
Hence the beginnings of what is popularly known the ‘phase of alienation’ in Ram Kumar’s paintings. Ironically, the term alienation is used for Ram Kumar differently depending upon the ideological baggage the critics bring with them to his paintings. And how ill-fitting and weather-beaten the baggage looks half a century later when we look back on Ram Kumar’s work of that period. Not that the critics are entirely to blame, for Ram Kumar’s political learnings of the past as well as the deceptive ‘realism’ of his writings led many of them on false trails. Instead of facing the imperspicuous terror which these paintings evoked, they tried to circumvent it by fitting it in some sort of ‘socio-historical’ perspective and in the process, as it were, washing their hands off from it. In art, as in life, what appears on the surface could be traced back to its origin, personal or historical, but if the ‘tracing back’ does not throw light on the secret embodied in what one has become, a full blown life, a finished work of art, what Goethe called the ‘secret of manifest’ then all explanations seen futile, leaving our hands as empty as before.
It is true that the emotionally loaded symbols of solitude and desolation of this period do generate in us a kind of benumbed and bewildered response, which comes closest to the existential anguish, a feeling further confirmed, what we noticed earlier, by the utter ossification of human-emotions. It seems as if the figures are not so much alienated from the outside - society, history, other human beings - but from themselves, a state of ‘in-built’ within them. But can we really term it ‘existential’ as we understand in the European context?
The existential anguish, religious or atheistic, is borne out of the encounter with - absence. Absence of God in the world or the world in the throes of absence of meaning. In whatever way it is interpreted, it is felt in human terms, an experienced absence, as if something which was a part of the being has suddenly been ruptured, forgotten, gone for ever. It is that feeling of ‘homelessness’, to which Heideggar’s words apply so exactly “ We come too late for the Gods and too early for being”. Hence the grief, the desolation, the orphaned feeling of loss and being lost. Ram Kumar, as an artist, is not shocked or aggrieved by this absence, for he takes it as something naturally given, not as a human deprivation but as a state of being. If it is a product of some catastrophe then it took place at some primordial time in an ice-age hidden under a cloud of oblivion. It is not the anguish of absence which Ram Kumar is trying to ‘represent’ in his paintings, but while painting the figures, he is also painting the nothingness, which lies in the heart of their beings. If the Marxist critics failed to unlock the secret of being in Ram’s paintings, then its nothingness, its ‘non-being’ also remained undecipherable to his existentialist interpreters
Meanwhile, something was happening very quietly, almost imperceptively in Ram Kumar’s paintings. The figure, which played so important role in the entire drama of Ram’s odyssey, was already beating a retreat, slowly, hesitantly, receding into the margins almost merging with the dark greys and browns of the horizons. And what till then only vaguely lurked in the background - the shadowy out-lines of dilapidated houses, a floating glimpse of the city - roofs, the vertical thrust of an electric-pole suddenly surged forward, pushing the figures on to the edges, occupying the central stage, as it were. As in certain symphonic compositions, muffled strains of some musical phrase, almost half heard in the prelude, suddenly appears with a crescendo in the concluding part, taking it over entirely, while the other notes slowly fade away, so also in Ram Kumar’s paintings, what earlier appeared to be the vague motifs lurking in the background now occupy the entire space pushing the figures over the edge and then eliminating them completely. In one of the last paintings of this phase one is totally bewitched - and deeply moved by the hollow forlorn eyes of a teenaged girl, already half-hidden in the margins, staring at us so hungrily like one of those stray cats on the roadside, who look back at us with their glowering eyes before disappearing into the darkness for ever. Was it meant to be the farewell gesture, before the figure unobtrusively but finally departs from his paintings?
It is significant that at this stage when Ram Kumar takes a decisive step into what is known as the non-figurative world of abstraction, he also bids farewell to the literary moorings and its expressionistic entourage. Without negating the writer in him, he begins to travel light as a painter. Poetry is still there, with all its lyrical ardour and dramatic intensity, but it now acquires a kind of austere brilliance, a certain ascetic purity which can be vividly seen in his Varanasi paintings. But more than its technical innovations, the so-called abstract phase was an attempt to resolve a deeper problem which seemed to trouble Ram Kumar at this fateful juncture.
Whenever, during recent years, Ram Kumar has been asked by the interviewers to explain what led him to abandon the human figure in his paintings, his answers have been varied and sometimes contradictory. Not that Ram cannot be articulate (in his own way) about his paintings, but the answer to this crucial question could not be verbalized; it could, at best, be explained in very general terms, or simply be ‘stated’ through his paintings. I think, it has something to do, not with some fortuitous fascination for ‘abstraction’ for its own sake, but a very real discomfort with the human figure itself.
Human figure, denuded of human emotion issomekind of an anomaly. It is denial of the self. If Ram Kumar had defined this ‘denial’ in any existential sense, he would have taken entirely a different route. Ram Kumar’s intentions were far too amorphous and ambiguous. While not explicitly denying the existence of the ‘self’ he refused to circumscribe to the anthropological scale of the human body. By releasing it from its human confines, he as an artist acquired a kind of freedom he never had before, freedom to universalize the aggrieved feeling of orphanhood, of loneliness, of alienation, as in human body, it should find an anchorage, a location in some objective image. Ram Kumar found it in the image of the city - landscape, a discovery which in its manifold metamorphoses was to have such far-flung consequences in his alter evolution. The landscapes that he began to paint were ‘abstract’ only in the sense that they indicated the absence of human-figure, at the same time they were concrete and palpable enough to have the ‘city’ as its central motif.
Nor was it a matter of pure chance that this motif was to find its co-relative in the ‘eternal city’ of Varanasi, the city of light. Ram Kumar’s urban landscapes started to come out of the tortuous crevasses of greys and browns and begin to catch the sudden flashes of white. Were those the fleeting glimpses of the ‘sacred’ in the holy city of Varanasi through which Ram wished to redeem the accursed world of his earlier paintings? Even the box-like buildings, though bare and aloof, had a lighter touch, fragile and tremulous, like the glimmering reflections on the river. And yet with all their virgin chastity, they looked so terribly bare, emptied of all life. The houses, as they ascended upward toward the sky, seemed like so many tiers of steps of an amphitheatre, but instead of spectators, we see there, among the crevasses of shadows only the vacant eyes of the window blinking over the haze of the river. It is not strange, that after banishing the human-figure from his paintings, Ram Kumar chose precisely to paint Varanasi, a city teeming with a mass of people, its pilgrims and its priests, its sadhus, sanyasis and mendicants? Where are they? Why does Ram Kumar’s Kashi give such a shamshan-like look, scattered spots of greyish whites after the funeral pyre is extinct?
The answer lies in Ram’s choice of Kashi itself. Kashi is not merely another city. It is the city of Shiva, the city of liberation and death, it is as Dianna Eck so perceptively points out, an occasion of liberation. If Ram Kumar’s quest brought him to Kashi, it is precisely because in it he found both the site of death, death of human-figure, as well as an occasion of liberation. “From wisdom alone come liberation” say the scriptures. It is when the veils of ignorance are lifted that the ‘nature of reality’ is revealed. For an artist, as for Ram Kumar, sometimes the real is revealed in a negative way, though the realization of what is unreal. And what could be more unreal than to divide reality between its ‘abstract’ and ‘representational’ forms? Even more delusive is the attempt to identify the ‘human’ with the representational and non-human with the abstraction. Where else the wisdom of the multi-faceted nature of ‘reality’ could be gained except in the city of Shiva, who himself has many faces? To reduce it to one fragment of reality or the other leads as much to the devaluation of what is divine as to the debasement of what is human. If much of the modern abstract art seems so sterile today, it is because in the process of liberating the ‘reality’ from its human- context, it also divested it from its divine connection, what Kandinsky was to call the “spiritual in art”. It is the presence of ‘beyond’ in the Hindu concepts of nirgun and nirakar which made them so metaphysically potent, so different from the western approach to abstraction. It gave that insight into the ‘invisible’ which makes even the so-called abstract motifs in a traditional iconography so deeply numinous, illumined with meaning.
I make this brief digression so that we could approach the ‘abstractions’ of Ram Kumar which he painted during his post-Varanasi phase (and which continue, with slight shifts and difference, to this day) with a fresh insight. All the more so because the elements of sacred, spiritual and divine are so closely related to our associations with Varanasi. Paradoxically, it is not in his Varanasi paintings, that these elements are particularly visible as if the memories of the slum tenements and desolate houses that he had brought with him from his previous period still haunted him, and tied him to the ground. Varanasi may be the ‘eternal city’ but it remains a city all the same, a product of history and culture renewed and ravaged by time. Ram Kumar renounced the human figure, but still clung to the remnants of this culture, which he painted, even in its ruins, with such lyrical passion. But ‘lyricism’ is not enough, if it is won at the price of purity. In order to make a final break-through, it should be resisted like the last temptation. Like a dedicated ascetic, Ram Kumar had to undergo the final rite of purification by renouncing not only the human-body which he had done earlier, but also its habitation on the earth, the city, and make a decisive leap into - what? Surely that, which has not yet been encroached upon or polluted by man. And what could it be other than nature itself?
Nature, at this later stage of Ram Kumar’s life, came both as a release from his past and a return to it. Born in the Himalayan hill station of Simla, Ram Kumar spent the early years of his childhood amidst the mountains. He returned to them many a time in his later life, though they are conspicuously absent in his paintings of that period. It was in his stories that they made a strong presence, not merely as a setting for background, but as an integral part of the fictional landscape. Also a nostalgic longing for a ‘past’ gone for ever. They also symbolised peace and inner security, as if by returning to them, one can salvage a spark of happiness from the ruins of one’s adulthood. Going back to mountains was a return to one’s home. But it was a different home, not the one, one had left. On the way, it had undergone a metamorphosis. As by abandoning the human image in his figurative paintings, Ram Kumar wanted to universalize the condition of alienation, so also now by ‘abstracting’ the image of mountains, he released them from the fixed memory of his childhood and thus eternalised them as something which is part of nature. If Ram Kumar’s abstractions still have a strange power to move us, it is because they are not built on denial or negation; they carry within them all stains and bruises of the preceding periods, their sense of grief and solitude, but now they have been somehow transcended; lifted on a different plane they are also seen in a different light, where even the whites and greys have a kindofluminosity, which we had never seen in any of his earlier period. And there are sudden patches of blue as unexpected and breath-taking as sometime one sees on the facades of old, greying monuments enveloped in mist. But more than anything else, it is the movement in his paintings which impresses us, as if all that was arrested and frozen up till now, has been ‘touched’ by some unknown god who releasing its bonds makes it free and lets it flow in its own momentum.
So if there is anything ‘spiritual’ in Ram Kumar’s post-Varanasi landscapes, it lies not in his acceptance of any metaphysical code or some super-natural belief, it lies in the spirit of acceptance itself, a word I used very early in this essay and with which I would like to conclude it. For acceptance had been a part of his temperament as a man as well as an integral part of his sensibility as an artist. Ram Kumar’s early voyage to Varanasi and late visit to Machu Pichu (1980) with its ancient ruins and Laddakh, with its bare mountains and Buddhist monasteries further enriched and deepened it. But in essence it was always there, revealing the flickerings of the innermost flame, a single vision. This rare quality of acceptance was imbued with a spirit of detachment. And it was not won easily, in a sudden flash, but was gradually crystallized, as the artist moved from one phase of life to another. It came, as we noticed earlier, through a series of renunciations, renunciation of what was merely accidental in his painting to be able to grasp its essential core, constantly moving from what appeared to be true to what is really true.
What seems to be heroic in the entire enterprise is that Ram Kumar never succumbed at any time to the easy temptation of using readymade symbols to ‘represent’ his search for what he felt to be true at the time. The utopian euphoria of his Paris days did not prevent him from seeing the ‘lower depths’ of human solitude. At the same time, while rejecting the chaff of false collectives, he preserved the grain of an insight into the ‘large, grandly meaningful whole’, which after a long lapse of time, illuminated his nature - landscapes. And even during this “transcendental” state of his paintings, he resisted the temptation of using any overtly religious symbols. Spiritual in Ram Kumar’s paintings lies not in painting the ‘sacred’, but in overcoming the dichotomies and displacements of the profane, man-made world. It is precisely in this ‘overcoming’ that Ram Kumar is able to ‘look beyond and look within’. What gave courage to Ram Kumar at one time to accept the reality of the world in its state of total alienation, it also now made him humble enough to accept it as the only source of redemption. With all the transcendental lyricism of his recent landscapes, Ram Kumar has never been attracted to the unearthy or other-worldly, his feet have always been planted in the terra firma, the palpable reality of the world. His ‘abstractions’ are not the flights into the ‘unknown’, but like a shifting beam of light they move, passing through the entire space of the painting, from one segment of reality to another, uncovering the hidden relations, between the sky, the rock, the river. The sacred resides not in the objects depicted, but in the relations discovered.
And so at last the retrospective comes to an end, and we move from the first work of the show (1949) to the last (1993), we feel as we have come to the very end of our pilgrimage. Ram Kumar’s voyage has not ended, but we have had our vision.
Later as we turn to the exit, the vision already getting a little blurred, we start wondering, what does it all lead to? These periods and phases, the arrivals and departures, these visions and revisions of an artist’s life, what does it all mean? And then suddenly as we go out in the dark night, we remember what Heraclites, that wise philosopher, forerunner of Socrates said so unforgetfully, “You could not discover the limits of soul even if travelled by every path in order to do so, such is the depth of its meaning”.
Published for Ram Kumar – A Retrospective, Jehangir Art Gallery
Published by Vadhera Art Gallery, 1994