There is a line in Coetzee’s introduction to Patrick White’s novel, The Vivisector - “White’s visionaries in general think intuitively rather than abstractly; if his painters can be said to think at all, they think in paint” - which is equally applicable to the nonagenarian artist, Ram Kumar. To continue with Coetzee: “the movement of the hand is the way in which the painter thinks”.
Ascetic Ram Kumar was poles apart from the figurative expressionist artist who is the protagonist of White’s novel, but the movement of his hand dictated both his drawings and paintings, as they do with most artists. In Ram Kumar’s case, it was particularly so, as his hands were as capable of cerebration as his mind. Ram Kumar: Drawings from 60s, a recent exhibition of a collection of his pen-and-ink and brush drawings executed between 1961 and 1963 at Aakriti Art Gallery, provided further evidence of this artist allowing his pen and brush a certain degree of automation, the kind of freedom a pencil reputedly enjoys on a planchette.
The triple perforations on one side of each sheet of paper are proof of these drawings being executed in a notebook, which he must have carried around with him for making hasty sketches as these were perhaps meant to be an aide mémoire.
When it comes to an artist whose reputation is as solidly grounded as Ram Kumar’s, it is widely known that these works belong to his celebrated “Varanasi phase”, whose visual economy and austerity both in structural and tonal terms, albeit in infinite avatars, never really abandoned him. Ram Kumar had left behind his figurative phase when, like many of his contemporaries, he dwelled on a gritty, occasionally sleazy, urbanized landscape inhabited by people often uprooted from their villages. Indeed, they bore traces of the West of his memories (Ram Kumar was trained by Léger) and the great Modernists (think of the Chagall livestock), but he never resorted to the sentimentality of Amrita Sher-Gil’s Gauguinesque Indians in their frozen attitudes. As in his short stories there was always an element of truth - of those times, at least. He did not have to “discover” India. He was rooted there.
In a recent interview, the artist said: “Figurative was figurative. There was no element of abstraction. There was no distraction to enhance the quality of figure. The figure itself was sufficient. It did not include any outside element.”
These drawings were different. Perhaps it would not be an exaggeration to say that in these drawings under review he had allowed his imagination free rein, freer than in the more rigid and tightly-interlocked structures of his paintings. In his flights of imagination, he conjured up fantastical structures with the ease of a Prospero.
Although these drawings are typical of those times when Indian artists were coming to terms with the challenges posed by the West, it would be difficult to sum up Ram Kumar’s jottings in a few words, for they suggest more than they represent, if they represent anything in particular. They are the essence of ideas whose beginnings owed little to geography. They are ideas visualized. In a very obvious way, they suggest the ghats of Varanasi, on which are built the claims of the spirituality of his works. Spirituality which comes for a high price indeed in today’s art market.
But their strength lies in their architectural rigour, which he employs with the same kind of skill that any artisan displays when he constructs anything, from a village hut to a crude bamboo bridge across a runnel or even a grand palace. But it is not an ability that one acquires by skill alone. His fecund imagination is the wellspring of these vivid airy forms. One discovers in them the patchwork of paddy fields, as in Ganesh Haloi’s work. At times they are suggestive of Piranesi’s vaulting structures. Viewers may discover in them the complex hatchings of a phrenologist with an artistic bent of mind. Those architectonic forms he executed with paint and brush also come close to Lalu Prasad Shaw’s very strong calligraphic prints, and dare one say, even to Mondrian. But even in his day and time - long, long before globalization was even conceived of - was it possible for an artist to begin on a clean slate? And should not an artist keep an open mind? The choices one makes are one’s responsibility and like his coevals he was never afraid to show his Indian roots. Ironically, many of his tribe are today.
Although these strengths are typical of those times when Indian artists were coming to terms with the challenges posed by the West, it would be difficult to sum up Ram Kumar’s jottings in a few words, for they suggest more than they represent, if they represent anything in particular. They are the essence of ideas beginnings owed little to geography. They are ideas visualized. In a very obvious way, they suggest the ghats of Varanasi, on which are built the claims of spirituality of his works. Spirituality which comes for a price indeed in today’s art market.
Published in The Telegraph, 2014