Some artists are born to proclaim freedom, Ramkinkar was such a one. He cannot be classified and refuses to be labelled because of his many sided genius, Ramkinkar was born at a time when artists belonged to schools, but he being with a school and yet outside it can be called an individualist par excellence. Though he belongs to his time, his environment, his culture, he transcended it, indeed he made this culture wider than he found it, enriching it with his personal vision and style. In contemporary sculpture in particular he infused a new vitality turning away from the spiritless academism of his day.
Ramkinkar was born of humble parents in Bankura, Bengal in 1906. He was orphaned while yet a child and so had no option but to start working at an early age. He joined a folk theatre group (jatra) for whom he painted their screens and stage props. Here perhaps Ramkinkar received his first experience in the practice of using paint. Perhaps also this type of work gave him the opportunity and space to paint boldly, emotionally or even theatrically. Ramkinkar’s talent and originality were noticed quite fortunately by Ramananda Chatterjee, a distinguished writer and editor of Modern Review. And on his recommendation the young boy was admitted to Santiniketan to study art.
In the 1920s art teaching in Kala Bhavan was probably tentative and fluid, for it was a formative period when the new educational ideas of the poet were being put into practice. The atmosphere was one of freedom and experiment, the student learnt not so much the laws but conventions of art but rather to rely on himself, to make of art the expression and fulfilment of his own nature. Life in Santiniketan in those early years was concerned with basic needs and principles. The students who had the privilege of being there were part of an educational experiment, they were exposed to nature and science and art, growing up in nature and making experience a source of knowledge and life itself a kind of creative action. Ramkinkar’s character is of major importance in understanding his art. His nature was passionate, uninhibited and informed by a primitive strength. He loved life in an earthy way, savouring its seasons and moods, pursuing his aims with boundless energy. Ramkinkar was a man of nature and the soil, his apprenticeship to art and to sophisticated intellectual companionship did nothing to dim his ardour and for the raw and elemental. The romanticism of the period suited his bohemian manner, a bohemianism that was natural and which sprung from a native folk vitality.
Ramkinkar’s energy was one that ran in many channels. Firstly he loved nature deeply, the great outdoors was his real home. He spent many hours wandering in the rugged sunlit landscape dotted with Santhal villages. The scenes of his experience, the pastoral people, their dogs and animals, the dry rivers and scrub trees became the themes and of his best works. Ramkinkar had a natural love for music and drama. Besides Rabindra Sangeet he often sang the songs of the Bauls in a style of full-throated abandon. He sang because he was moved to sing, tasting and feeling the words and the tune. He sang as if he had discovered these songs that expressed his soul’s pain. He also loved drama, and often pondered on plays. Now and again he produced plays giving them an original rendering. For the students these dramatic presentations were a new experience, unusual both from the choice of the play and its production. A celebrated example was his ‘Hajabarolo’, a fantasy by Sukumar Roy Choudhury known for its Alice in Wonderland qualities. All these activities point to the versatility of the artist and his ceaseless desire to create.
Ramkinkar’s studies in art led him to practice both sculpture and painting. In his early years he learnt the style of the Bengal school, but was soon able to liberate himself from its limitations and evolve a personal manner. His own style had within it strains of both impressionism and expressionism. I use these terms not as influences borrowed from the West, but as qualities of his art drawn from direct experience. Ramkinkar’s contribution as a painter is overlooked because of his major contribution to sculpture. It is necessary to emphasise therefore that his work as a painter is also of significance because it pointed out new directions in its time and was clearly different from the nostalgic and decorative styles then generally in vogue. Though practiced in tempera and wash Ramkinkar was one of the earliest painters not trained in the Western academism to use water colours and oils. In both these media, he invented his own manner. Lastly he was adept at drawing, many of his sketches are based on life around Santiniketan, a life observed with care and drawn with great verve and brevity.
Ramkinkar’s important paintings date from the 1930s. His output maybe divided into three fairly clearly defined categories. Firstly portraits, secondly landscapes mostly in water colour and thirdly compositions in oils.
After Abanindranath Tagore who was also a great portrait painter, Ramkinkar was the only painter of the Neo-Indian style interested in portraiture. Most of these works are in oils and are studies of particular reasons, who modelled for him and not of eminent dignitaries who commissioned work. Ramkinkar was not interested in merely making a likeness of the person, that is his portraits are not realistic though based on reality, rather one may consider them to be interpretation of the sitter. This interpretation is based on the visual characteristics which are emphasised and distorted and on a delineation of the personality of the model. Thus we have the portrait becoming an interpretive painting. Ramkinkar had not studied the academic method of using oils therefore he uses oil colour simply as paint. The backgrounds of his portraits are generally built up of impasto strokes and the figure itself knit together in the same way but with a strong linear rhythm. It is rather characteristic that his portraits are all of full length figures and not head studies or portrait busts. Ramkinkar’s palette and handling are rich, the surface treatment is one which reveals the activity and zest of the artist, again he displays a grasp of form in spite of his portrait of Soma Joshi usually called “Lady with Dog” and “Vinodini”.
Ramkinkar’s landscapes are generally water colour studies of the open and undulating Birbhum terrain. Here again his use of watercolour is unconventional, in an early style the strokes of the brush are clearly visible and the colours separate rather than merging. Some of these works have a slightly Cezannesque feel because of the treatment. The dry river bed of the Kopai, the rugged red terrain dotted with stiff palms and the more lush light and shadows of the sal forests around Santiniketan are familiar and constant themes. A second treatment is wet with colours merging. Here theartistspickout details and forms with calligraphic brush lines.
Ramkinkar’s original compositions in oil break new ground. Many of them were on advance of contemporary work for in them we notice and emphasis on the abstract values of form and colour rather than an illustrative subject matter. Ramkinkar was one of the earliest Indian artists to arrive at abstraction both in painting and sculpture.
Some of his oils have an impressionist feel and are executed with a characteristic spontaneity. His large painting “On the way to Konarak” is of this type, is of this type, it is a painting of a village cart going at full speed away from the viewer. On it are seated some figures, the woman in orange and red. The background is covered only with a haze of silver dust. The artist’s aim was to capture the momentary effect of speed. Other impressionistic paintings are his composition Santal Couple or - Girl with Goats. In the Santal Couple are broad clear brush strokes of dark brown and bright yellow become an abstract design. In Girl with Boots the entire painting is in blue, a young girl is pulling back against two goats who press forward across the canvas. The landscape or space is filled with diagonal strokes which help to repeat the movement.
In another kind of composition Ramkinkar is more formal. A good example is Toilet where he paints an older woman assisting a younger one to arrange her hair. The theme is one common enough in the period, yet Ramkinkar treats it is a new way, avoiding sentiment and emphasising shapes and volumes and the movement of lines. The painting is very stable and has restrained colours, some dark and others light.
It is rather characteristic that Ramkinkar became a sculptor. Sculpture as an art was more difficult than painting in a period which indulged in romantic and delicate styles. It would seem that Ramkinkar’s rather exuberant spirit settled for a medium that was more solid and difficult to grapple with. The fact that there was anybody to learn from did not deter him from adventuring on a lonely path. Painting with its illusions, its colour, its imagery was comparatively easy, its lyricism was a continuation of the poetic and literary feeling of the period. Sculpture was far less seductive, one may say it was alyrical. In it the artist has to come to terms with such qualities as weight and measure, dimension and strength. Its search is for permanence, a physical permanence that can only achieved by a mastery of means and materials. Much more clearly than painting, it is not an imitation of life but the creation of a new order. It is characteristic of Ramkinkar that he laboured for years to handle the crude and simple materials he could command. It is only after two decades that he was able to build up a body of work that possessed vitality and style, individuality and permanence.
Ramkinkar had the opportunity to study with some progressive European sculptors who visited Santiniketan and taught there briefly in the 1920s. The first instructor in sculpture was an Austrian, Liza Von Pott. Later another lady Madame Millward, who had been a student of the great Bourdelle, also took sculpture classes and later still an Englishman called Bateman. Though these teachers introduced some modern techniques they did not impose the burden of Neoclassic conventions and academism. Also their activity was necessarily limited by lack of funds and facilities.
Teaching sculpture at Santiniketan enabled Ramkinar to work there without worrying about his daily bread. The teachers gathered there because of a certain idealism rather than for monetary gains. In Kala Bhavan there were no hard and fast rules about the nature and aims of art, thus his sculpture could be experimental and he ventured to do what others did not dare, indeed his art was created simply to satisfy his own intuitions. Over the years he worked at portraits, monumental reliefs for architecture, small abstract works and large open air figurative monuments. These open air compositions and the portraits taken together are the most significant part of his sculpture. Ramkinkar’s works have a dual nature, firstly a structural core which is interior and organic and shows itself in the organisation of forms. And secondly an expressionistic quality which is baroque, buoyant and flowering. There is a certain joyousness in his work which one becomes aware of if one compares his pieces to the solemn or even sad studies of his contemporaries. There is great affirmation of life, of youth, of nature. For him art was not merely work but play. One feels this delight in the running movement of his contours; through all his figures and groups one feels the breath of open spaces, of sap, of blossoming. His surfaces with their multitudinous thrusts, rugged texture and crevices are not related to in the slick products of the arts schools but to the elemental surfaces of nature. The light falls on them not to be reflected but to be absorbed as it would be on a thick jungle of leaves or on rocks of red laterite.
An artist’s working days are never over. In fact the rich labour of the past becomes a heritage giving him power, freedom and confidence. And one who has always been creative continues this creativity to the end of the world becoming an endless stone house of forms.
Ramkinkar has received much respect and affection, as an artist he is a legend, and his work is a perennial inspiration. Perhaps he has not received much official recognition, nor set much store by such honours. He is now a Fellow of the Lalit Kala Akademi and the Fellowhsip was conferred on him on August 6th 1976 in Santiniketan. In honouring Ramkinkar therefore we really celebrate his contribution to modern Indian art. He has revitalised Indian sculpture giving it new dimensions and through his work helped to enlarge and enrich the vision of his times.
Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary