Artists

Published by the National Gallery of Modern Art, 1990, pp. 5-9

Many decades ago, a teenager from the small town of Bankura in West Bengal, strayed into Santiniketan and became a part of its landscapes.

In more ways than the one, the prodigal never returned home. His roots found all the food they need in the dry, red rubble of Bolpur and produced a golden crop of images in sculpture and coloured sketch that was as the sun burn torso of its Santhals and the sunny smile of the maidens.

It was indeed lucky, both for him and Santiniketan that an eye, as discerning as that of Ramananda Chatterjee [1] fell on an idol in a potter’s colony and on a few screens painted by him for local play. He saw the spark of genius and brought the lad to Rabindranath to be groomed by Nandalal Bose.

Bolpur at that time was a village, and Santiniketan, a hamlet of a few mud huts. The life was simple. The focus was on the creative activities of Gurudev and master Moshai (Nandlal).

The exposure of a city youth initiated to the three R’s in a brick housed school to these colossal savants, and that of a boy from a remote village was bound to be different. Add to it an untameable precocity, however rustic the life style of this settlement, its inmates were mostly from the city, and Rabindranath was inspired by a highly sophisticated ideal.

Ramkinker remained somewhat of an alien. It is not given to all to leap over the barriers of a social environment and sub-cultures unseen and conform to anew group identity. Ramkinker had the grit to maintain his inherited identity, while accepting essentials of the new environment. He was robust enough to maintain his individuality in a different climate. His roots in the culture he sprang from were sturdy, and this remained a distinctive quality of his personality to the end - a son of the soil, amidst the elite.

To come up to the level of their literacy, he read whatever was talked about-but only if he liked it. Apart from the Tagore’s sumac and the mendicant baul songs, he developed a taste for classical European music, but his responses were refreshingly original. At stage he was full of Bernard Shaw’s and Nietzsche’s concept of skill. All these slowly estranged himself from his family and home. Occasionally he talked of his mother and probably went to see her a few times. After her death, even that tie was broken. Thereafter he belonged to the undulating “Khoai” -enchanted by the brightness of its red rubble - lost in the expense of the waste land; the clumps of palm trees and the humid settlement of the Santhals. What fascinated him the most was the world of Santhal damsels trudging back from the work in rhythmic formations, in the glimmer of a wooden torch, punctuated by snatches of a hypnotic chant.

Neither the life style of Ramkinker, nor his style of work or for that matter, the choice of his subjects confirmed to the norms of cultivated by Kala Bhavan of his times. Consequently the work into which he put an inhuman amount or commendation - not to speak of monetary compensation.

When Ramkinker started modelling, there was no teacher of Sculpture in Santiniketan. His art seems to have sprung spontaneously from handling clay. Not from knowledge, but from irrational sources of power. The lack of academic training was his advantage. He however, had the benefit of the visit by some progressive European sculpture who initiated him in a way to the charm of modelling clay. Liza Von Pot of Austria, and Madame Milward, a student of Bourdelle, who as visiting artist gave demonstration of making portraits in clay and showed moulding and casting to Plaster of Paris. The brief introduction worked the magic on Ramkinker. He was as if caught in a spell-the spark thus lighted a burned for ever! He stuck to the fascinating malleable medium and gave up his earlier pre-occupation of painting in the original style of the New Bengal School.

While a relentless effort was on for developing an Indian idiom that could relate to its previous forms, Ramkinker sought his own direction, without bothering about the past traditions. He wandered about often under a burning sun, making his sketches in water colour, forsaking the rigid lines that was being followed all around him. Instead of the wash technique, he used oil colours, dabbing Santhal wraps with packet colour from the local market thinned with linseed oil. He produced large figures with bold, broad strokes at a time when dainty miniatures were the hallmark of good taste.

Out of the alienation from the formalism practised at Santiniketan, emerged a very personal style which had so much to offer to posterity. Instead of drawing idealised and conceptual figures, he studies “life” around him, thus introducing a bold and virile realism. This reached a new peak in his famine series of sculpture and paintings in oil.

Oil paintings could be acceptable to the Art Schools of Calcutta, but it was a taboo at Santiniketan and indulgence in his medium was not without unpleasant awkwardness. No other artist had either the courage or the gumption to defy the unwritten canons of the school he officially served.

With the iconoclastic inclination neither Nandalal nor Rabindranath interfered personally. Despite their liberal attitude, the power elites which surrounds the “mandir”, the school, and the poet’s residence ‘Uttarayan’ never looked upon with favour, the mad ‘impetuosity’ of his work. All this Western oriented work in oil and experimentation could not be accepted by the art censors in Santiniketan. His oil paintings lay stacked in his cowshed for years. If someone liked a piece, he causally presented it to the admirer. The rest became food for white ants.

Not being particularly a socialite, he preferred to live on the periphery of the establishment and not in a house belongings to Vishva Bharati. He lived for many years in a thatched hut, abandoned by an untouchable sweeper during the mid 30’s. These were the most fruitful years of his life creative work. In this very hut, he painted the Santhal couple on silk with a shoe brush. It was probably his best picture, along with the one of a bullock cart with a silver background, which he had named ‘On the way to Konark’. The oil colour period also started there.

A pioneer in modern Indian sculpture, he showed the way in more than one direction for younger generation. At that time even plaster of Paris had to be brought from Calcutta. It was imported and very costly. Ramkinker found an alternate in cement concrete casting. Taking a cue from the idol makers, he made a skeleton of ordinary bamboo and plastered it with mud and cowdung, to be finally coated with tar, as Nandalal did in his reliefs.

He took to the use of iron rods and a mixture of cement bonded with pebbles, from the local ‘Khoai’. He built large figures out of it.

Technically it opened a new door. The series began with the slim Sujata and then thelargerthan life Santhal family - the highest mark of India sculpture of our day. Perhaps there is nothing comparable to it anywhere. There was an all-round enthusiasm for the making of this sculpture. An inspired Kinkerda, intoxicated with the will to conquer the new medium, worked with a farmer’s straw hat on his head, under a blazing sun, month after month, possessed of the ambition to make monumental sculptures in the open air, and make these ‘en-situ’.

If the image created by them did not pass the impartial scrutiny of a fresh look, the next morning, he simply pulled down and started afresh. Nandalal kept on supplying cement and cost of workmen.

Gradually, the inner structure of this sculpture overwhelmed its outer, and formal representation. Slowly, it moved towards the abstract and the essential. The brightly polished sculpture in coloured cement, before the guest house and the abstract portrait of Rabindranath Tagore is the first example of this journey into the abstract.

These may have gone above the heads of the most, but controversies could arise over them. Rabindranath had fractured distortions in his own self portrait so much that no one had the courage to call Ramkinker’s work ugly, despite it being contrary to the traditions of Santiniketan. In fact no one at that point had bothered about the changing concept of beauty and aesthetic outside of Kala Bhavan, notwithstanding Rabindranath’s own preoccupation.

Whatever the efforts of Santiniketan to spread its own culture, the rest of Bengal continued to be frustrated with it, particularly in the field of sculpture. The average Bengali was still fascinated by the meticulously laboured realistic toy like figures produced in Krishna Nagar. The painting Abanindranath and Ganganendranath had not displayed outside Calcutta; their exposure was limited to the admirers around Jorasankho, the general elite did not bother about the subtleties or the Indian-ness in these paintings. However, welcomed the new may be, when it goes beyond the recognisable parameters of accepted taste, it fails to create the desired response and remains unaccepted. An altogether original form does not make any impression on the average mind. Whether Rabindranath’s paintings were beautiful or ugly/ shocking, they had been the preoccupations of Tagore’s admirers. The paintings of Rabindranath did not command the respect of the average educated in the arts. They offered their homage and adorations from a distance as works produced by the great poet. There is no evidence that any artist in Santiniketan or in Bengal was attracted or influenced by them. Ramkinker is the only example we can name, who draw direct inspiration from the otherwise baffling drawings and paintings of poet Tagore and of the incomprehensible wooden assemblages of Tagore nephew, Abanindranath, ‘the Katum-kutums’.

The aesthetic controversy in the field of the painting did not touch sculpture. In sculpture, you had either the pictures of the Karmakars of Bomaby or the effigies of gods and goddesses, in their stylised postures produced at Kumar Tuli, draw the same admiration.

The new chapter in sculpture was started at Santiniketan through Ramkinker. His head of Tagore and Paddy thresher are the highest models of figurative abstraction in this country. No work of that kind has been produced hitherto. These creations led to considerable bitterness between him and the authorities. The nudity of the figure of a woman at work was found to be objectionable by quite a few. The taste of our society of that period was as Victorian as the environment of social life. On the one side, we proclaimed with pride merits of our ancient traditions. No one ever dared to mention the erotic sculptures of Konark or Khajuraho, the paintings of the Hemen Mozumdar of youthful women, carrying pitcher of water under their arms, their curves emphasized by their wet draperies, as anything objectionable or indecent or ugly. In this unfortunate country, even the best art cannot get either the sympathy or appreciation of its society feels outrages in anyway. More than once, Ramkinker had to face this kind of out of bound obstruction, due to the lack of orthodox linage. Once he could not say that it did not hurt him, but he had the robustness to bear such insults all by himself.

His sculpture produced three or four decades ago still remain incomparable. They can hold on their own against the best, anywhere in the world of his time. There is in the Oriental Society, a work of Nandalal Bose carrying the stamp of a period. They can be dated as the work of the twenties and the thirties. The work of Ramkinker is still the brilliant fore runner of modern age.

As a result of this mental anguish, Ramkinker walked out of the puritan and elite society of Santiniketan. Not that he was ever a popular social figure. He always lived in solitude occupied with his own self and his zest for painters and sculpture seemed to decline fast. He would walk to country side and sang loudly and with abandons, frequently seeking release with the help of the potent spirit favoured by the Santhals. More than ever before, he felt nearer to the simple villagers of Bankura, who he had abandoned. Probably he wanted to return to the roots of his childhood. The unadorned affection still existing there, seemed more valuable than the false politeness and regard shown to him by the residents of Santiniketan. The decapitated mudhouse, the cattle, and the environment of rice cutting stirred him more vigorously. Those who knew him well are aware that he was, in the best sense of the phrase - ‘a man of the earth’. He never showed to anyone what anger is. His defiance of the contemporary taste was not tainted by any conscious self-assertion. In fact it was merely his natural reaction, nurtured by his peasant surroundings.

Gradually he unburdened himself from everything. All pleasure, the intoxication of creative work, got transformed into the inebriation provided by the bottle. He did not have any inclination again to come out of it or to paint and sculpt.

Our memory will remain overwhelmed by the mandir of the Ashram, the Santhal family surrounded by trees, the rhythmic footfalls of the tribal groups, keeping the time their homeward journey from daily toil. With it will remain entwined the birth pangs of modern Indian sculpture.

Notes

1. Editor Modern Review. Published by the National Gallery of Modern Art, 1990, pp. 5-9
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