Artists: Notes on Art Making

First published in the Visva-bharati Quarterly, Volume 2, 1991 .

A few years ago the well-known Bengali novelist Samaresh Basu started serialising a novel on Ramkinkar's life in a noted Bengali weekly. This was on his mind for many years, during which he made personal contacts with Ramkinkar, interviewed his relatives and friends, visited the places where he spent his days and saw all his available works, to marshal his facts. The novel was eagerly looked forward to. After a long period of incubation it started appearing six years after Ramkinkar's death. And it was responded to with great interest. Unfortunately Samaresh Basu did not live long enough to see the story through. Nor did he leave any clue as to how he planned to develop it.

What is of special interest here is that Ramkinkar is the first modern Indian artist to catch a serious novelist's attention. On the world scene many celebrated artists like Gauguin, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec or Michelangelo- have been subjects of highly acclaimed and successful novels. Each of them was a colourful personality working in a colourful environment. And to each, art was a heady vocation bordering on a religious obsession. But what attracted Samaresh Basu to Ramkinkar? Certainly his personality which was no less colourful or complicated. Besides this, the strange facts of his life which through surprising twists and turns transformed a small-town boy with a keen vocation for art into one of the major figures of modern Indian art, who could match his wits and talent with his most sophisticated compeers and, at the same time, mix and confabulate with unlettered villagers and tribals. And to Samaresh Basu the story of Ramkinkar was perhaps the culminating phase of a lifelong effort to uncover the demotic strains of creative vision and enlightenment on the Indian cultural landscape. After hobnobbing with khepas[1] and tantriks[2] in their akhdas[3] and melas[4] and observing their singular practices to cultivate body vision[5] or poetic introspection the study of a small-town artist, 'mad with his art', shattering the barriers of time and space and earning indisputable distinction in the modern art world was a natural step forward.

Even to the humdrum visitors of Santiniketan Ramkinkar's image and life style had a strange fascination in his later years. He was for them the Vama Khepa[6] of the art world- a tireless artist work-engrossed day and night-completely oblivious of his personal looks or needs, or name or fame, or even the priceless works he brought into existence-disarmingly nonconformist and bohemian but without the prickly egotism of many others of his kind- punch-drunk with the vision of the world, with an uncanny ability to record its finest nuances - deeply sensitive to the human predicament and its contradictions, with a special concern for the suffering and the heroism of the underdog - fashioning visions of man and nature that exuded ebullient masculine power not prim effeminate grace- and looking like a cross between a village crank and a mediaeval saint and talking in a language that was laced with rough-hewn wit and surprising flashes of poetry. If all this did not add up to be a challenging image they added little details of their own, like a special attraction for women or partiality for alcohol, making of him an endearing savage in a society of strait-laced intellectuals. Some underlined his humble origins to give more height to his meteoric rise to fame. Others made him a people's artist on the strength of his celebrating low-down life. In an article after his death an artist-friend called him a santhal[7]; another, in a similar piece, made him miss a train while mooning over a wayside beauty, fabricating these well-intentioned tales or misinformation to sharp-silhouette his image. But Ramkinkar was not more susceptible to the charms of women or the savour of alcohol than many other artists anywhere in the world. Nor was he a santhal though he would have felt flattered to be called one, admiring as he did their natural grace, simplicity, integrity and joie de vivre.

Ramkinkar was a Bengali. He was born in 1906 in Bankura town, those days a loose bunch of community neighbourhoods or padas. His father Chandicharan, was a barber who lived in yogi pada and bore the surname Pramanik. Ramkinkar had a brother and four sisters; his brother, Ramapada, slightly older, followed his father's profession. Cut out a little different from the others, Ramkinkar was treated differently by his father, he was not pushed into the traditional rut. He was sent to school, where he learned to read and write, stopping short of the School Leaving Certificate. When he showed a marked proclivity for art-drawing, painting, modelling - his father encouraged this too, feeling immensely proud of his son's juvenile achievements. Ramkinkar drew, painted and modelled and when his confidence grew took on small professional jobs. He painted drop-scenes for the local theatre and assisted a local icon-maker in modelling and painting images for the pujas[8]. And he started getting paid for his pains.

But he was by nature a compulsive artist, the sheer pleasure of work was his greatest recompense. So he cared little for what he earned. But his work started being admired by people around and the icon-maker, Ananta Pal, went as far as to leave the top ritual of 'painting the eyes' to the images to Ramkinkar and was disconsolate when he was not around. Ramkinkar's growing talent gained wider notice when a painting or two got reproduced in known Bengali magazines. And his interests widened. In 1920-21 when the non-cooperation movement started he entered the newly established National School and the local leaders of the movement enlisted his services to paint posters and hoardings to spread the message around. What he painted showed unmistakable talent and was widely exhibited. It was about this time that his work came to the notice of Ramananda Chatterjee, the well-known editor of 'Pravasi' and 'Modern Review' and friend of Rabindranath Tagore. He was so impressed by Ramkinkar's work that he took it upon himself to arrange for his advanced training in art at Santiniketan. And sure

enough, four or five months later, Ramkinkar found himself in Santiniketan.

It could be that Ramkinkar's initial ambition was to go to the Calcutta Art School, which was more ancient and reputed. The name of Santiniketan was known only to a few; and being the brain-child of the poet Rabindranath, and unusual in structure and objectives, it was looked upon with misgivings by most. But it had recently become a seat of higher learning, a world university. And it had a full fledged art department with Nandalal Bose as its Adhyaksha[9]. And Nandalal's name was fast becoming a household word in the local cultural circles.

When Nandalal saw Ramkinkar's work he knew that he had all the skills an art school couldteach. But, still, he signed him up hoping to give them a new orientation. BenodbehariMukherjee, Ramkinkar's life-long friend and colleague, confirms that Ramkinkar was already a skilled artist when he came to Santiniketan; what he gained there was just ruchi or taste. Ramkinkar was more modest, he was never tired of talking about the big role Santiniketan

played in shaping his artistic personality. And he was probably right.

Santiniketan enlarged Ramkinkar's horizons enormously. It brought the skilled novice of a small town,fired by a desire to step out of its limitations, face to face with the whole world. He was then nineteen and already hatching out of his native social milieu. He was literate, was friends with other literate people and partook of their interests. He had already learned to think of national issues and the need for social reform. Influenced by the teaching of Ramakrishna, and in personal contact with some swamis [10] of his order, he was also exercised about the problem of existence and ways of its resolution. He was fast moving into another world despite his attachment to the things and people he grew amidst. And after he came to Santiniketan this became conclusive; there was no looking back; he had become an initiate into another culture- a world culture, without barriers, without thoughtless loyalties, liberated, aniconic. His vision of life changed. Below was the lively earth and above the boundless firmament and between these the individual stood like a pillar of aspiration. Anything that isolated him from these was an encumbrance. Ramkinkar visited his home town now and then and kept contact with his parents and relatives, but the ties became progressively tenuous. To him it was a lost world; though it often came back to him at the level of sentiment the sense of belonging had ceased. A year after he came to Santiniketan he changed his surname from Pramanik to Baij. Whatever may have been the reason it seemed to symbolise that he had taken diksha[11] and entered a new asrama[12].

Most of the students of Kala Bhavana, the art department of Santiniketan, were, at that time, from the urban middle class and, so, more literate, informed and smarter than he. For instance, Benodbehari was a voracious reader with an analytic mind and acerbic wit, his weak eyesight was compensated by a remarkable alertness of mind. Dhirendrakrishna Deb Burman was a genial young aristocrat dividing his time between painting and music. Ardhendu Banerjee had the looks and airs of a dandy, wearing a pince nez and using strong perfume. Prabhatmohan Banerjee had strong political convictions and pretensions to being a poet. But Ramkinkar came into his own very soon. His skills and technical ability impressed everyone. His open-heartedness thawed down all reserve. And he made an all-out effort at self-improvement,

reading up whatever he could in Bengali and English, on art, literature or theatre, and getting introduced to the thought and ideals of Rabindranath which laid unequivocal stress on the liberation and nurture of human creativity. He learnt up a number of Rabindranath's songs and sang them aloud day and night, while working or relaxing. All this, as it were, gave him new wings. He often sang a piece which said, 'A bird of the wilderness I have been caught by your eyes where I see a new firmament'; this perhaps spelt out closely his new experience.

Ramkinkar's artistic objectives tco underwent a basic change in Santiniketan. He was no more satisfied with representing what he said with truth and honesty, which facility he already had. He wanted now to go for that elusive reality behind visible fact, that intangible life-force behind tangible form; the form was only a vehicle for that thing behind. This did not mean that he turned his eyes away from what he saw, he never could. He found the visible world irresistible. What he wanted was to get into it and lay hold on its magic. In Rabindranath's words, he wanted to jump into the sea of forms and come up with the pearl of the formless. So art became an odyssey, an

adventurous search; he had to negotiate its whirlpools and quicksands, its cyclops and sirens. Consequently this artist of extraordinary facility was never satisfied with what he did; he went on altering his images till he felt he had got them right, with the right balance of vision and design, truth and aesthetic liveliness, the transient and the timeless.

This trait can be seen even in some of his very early works done as a student (of which a few fragments remain with a private collector). Highly accomplished wash paintings, they all sought this midway image. But, as time passed, his horizons became larger and challenges steeper. Two foreign sculptors (both women) came to Kala Bhavana in 1928, when Ramkinkar was still a student and introduced him to the intricacies of their craft. They worked in the Rodin-Bourdelle mode. With his background in modelling, Ramkinkar benefitted from their lessons readily and found it exhilarating.

Nandalal encouraged him, as he himself had a nagging fascination for sculpture and often said that if he was born an artist again he would go for it. He also recalled Okakura's statement that sculpture was undoubtedly the high-watermark of the Indian Artistic Achievement. Contact with these foreign artists roused Ramkinkar's desire to understand the novel features of the European art scene. What he could not learn from them he tried to find out from books. Whether or not he understood the full rationale of these, or the issues they were loaded with, through this summary exposure his remarkable visual intelligence and formal sensitivity helped him out. Hereafter we find him looking at local visual facts through Cezannean, cubist or cubist-futurist viewpoints; we also find him studying the various formal antics of Picasso for possible break-throughs in his artistic vision, in both painting and sculpture. But Ramkinkar could never find satisfaction in a manner per se, only when it transmuted or strengthened the reality of the

facts around or gave it a new dimension. So, his explorations are radically different from those of the other modernists; they are all very personal, with a definite place and date in the calendar of his experiences. And they also carry an unmistakable aura of authenticity.

Only Kala Bhavana could have been the venue of such experiments, at that time. Despite the general notion that it was stronghold of revivalism, it was the most modern institution around and remarkably open and permissive. It did not harbour any fears that the country's traditions will wilt or suffer damage on exposure to those of the rest of the world. So in its early days, it had a number of foreign artists and art critics on its faculty if only for short spells of time André Karpelles, Stella Kramrisch, Liza Von Pott, Margaret Merrifield and various others. It could be that after the death of Rabindranath(in 1941), and specially from the end of the forties to the end of the fifties, thedoors were not that open, and the institution, suffering a strange disorientation and lack of nerve, lapsed into a kind of conservatism. But not during Ramkinkar's years of growth. Ramkinkar has mentioned this many times and paid unreserved tribute to the open-mindedness and generosity of his mastermosai[13], Nandalal. So when he completed his studies in Santiniketan he was unwilling to move; he stayed on, living precariously off certain tiny job assignments. Two teaching jobs in schools that came his way, were not to his liking; after giving them a try, he bounced back soon enough. Finally, in 1934, after five years of drifting, he was taken into Kala Bhavana's faculty as teacher of sculpture. And he never left it since; it had become his permanent pitha[14].

When Ramkinkar joined the faculty, Benodbehari was already there. This brought them together, though they were vastly different in temperament. And these two carried the institute's flag forward and enlarged its perspectives. Nandalal certainly had a world perspective but on his own admission he was not as sure of his West as of his East due to the ardent nationalism of his early years. These two had no such reservations. If any cultural fact from the outside world could unfold a new vista, or clarify, or add a new dimension to their perspective on things around they would readily draw resource from it. In line with Nandalal's shift of focus from mythology to mother Nature in his Santiniketan phase, their basic focus too was on the visual environment, not cultural history; they were mainly taken up with the study and representation of facts of nature or the human drama. And at the start their work had many things in common in spite of individual differences. But as time went by, their different temperaments led them in different directions. Introvert, contemplative, reticent, Benodbehari found himself drawn towards the Far-Eastern traditions (of China and Japan) and their philosophic bases. In 1937-38 he even paid a long visit to those countries. So his landscapes, murals and even the latter day human narratives, remarkably original as they are, and based on the local environment, have a distant, though dynamic, quiescence or impersonality. But Ramkinkar was an extrovert and had great reserves of physical energy. So he projected a personal drama on whatever he saw; on his human subjects certainly, but also on his landscapes and object studies; they all radiated a contrapuntal exuberance. In most of his works there was a muscular wrestling, or call it libidinous interplay, of the components; in his figure compositions body was thrown against body in tense interaction, in his landscapes the trees jabbed the sky or caressed the space with their branches with obvious concupiscence. And their linear flourish and textural hatching gave the works a restless animation. Naturally he had a lot of common ground with the artists of the modern European scene. Like theirs, his works were prominently autobiographical. And like

them he was taken up with the problems coming between natural appearance and motif, or objective illusion and subjective vision, though this never drove him to extreme or purist positions. Deeply influenced by Rabindranath's ideas he was always for reconciliation, not rejection; he would rather let the various alternatives coexist. For him, the creative mind was a thousand-headed hydra which, the moment you struck down a head, replaced it with another.

It was to the advantage of Ramkinkar that his creative personality was a many-faceted and versatile one. For it cost this small-town genius a many-sided effort to come to the centre stage of the modern art world and understand its impulsions. He was cut out for this from the beginning, with interests in drawing, painting, and theatre quite early in life, even before he saw the portals of the art school. Later in the day he even acted in and directed plays. This talent for the theatre was a particularly fortunate circumstance as it entailed the integrated use of text, act and visual presentation. It trained his sensibilities and responses in various directions and introduced him to the notions that lurked in their background. Even more, the theatre with its

changeable conventions was a useful analogy to gain insight into the changing art forms of the modern world as the changes were not merely in the outer forms but also the underlying concepts, whether Ramkinkar was conscious of this or not. He should have been for all we know; after all he grew up in the shadow of Rabindranath whose genius reached out in various directions. This helped him to navigate from one medium or notion to another in an internal way and one kind of effort or activity led to the next. Let us line up a few-his efforts at becoming fluent in English by reading Shaw's Prefaces and plays aloud in the quiet of the sal ban[15]. his unconventional (and reportedly successful) attempts at staging the problem plays of Rabindranath (Raktakarabi [16] and Muktadhara [17]) and the delightful satires of Rajsekhar Bose and Sukumar Ray; his further plans to stage plays of Ernst Toller, Gorki, Shaw and others, covering the whole spectrum of scale of the theatrical form, from the poetic to the realistic, from the didactic to the farcical; his attempts at bringing creative sculpture out of the studio into the

open air and facing the challenges of their coexistence with the environment; his continuous struggle to transform, in most of his work, a transient experience into a timeless image, balancing the objective and non-objective; these give him an unprecedented standing on our modern art scene. This is probably why many thinking people, who had greater scholarship or global exposure, still found his views provocative and original or why many sophisticated artists and art critics found sheer contact with him rewarding. Even foreign artist visitors like Isamu Noguchi (U.S.A.) or Affendi (Indonesia) found their brief encounters with him memorable. His conversation may have lacked fluency and sparkle, but it was loaded with original sensibility and had many novel insights. So people sought him out. He too, on his side, had a great fascination for strangers and people outside the conventional group, and reached out to them readily without any shyness or reserve.

It is well-known now that as an artist Ramkinkar divided his time between painting and sculpture. They were for him complementary. He explained this in his characteristic way- 'What I see with my eyes in this world's garden in the light of day I represent in my painting, what I touch and feel in its darkness I embody in my sculpture.' And they worked on each other. His sculptural sensibility gave his paintings a structural solidity and spatial presence, his painting experience gave his sculptures a broad-based environmental relevance.

Butwhere was this world's garden that charmed Ramkinkar's eyes? Everywhere. In thecountryside around Santiniketan-its fissured earth, its rolling fields, its riverside, its spectacular seasonal changes, when trees shed their leaves, or put out new ones, or stood bedecked with flowers, and its skies changed from deep cloudy grey to the most ethereal blue. But also in

the other places he visited-Rajgir, Shillong, Nepal, Baijnath- with their own type of hills, hollows and trees, and details of wind and weather. Everything had an irresistible charm for him. Nor was he choosy about the spot or the view-point. He could readily extract a striking spatial motif from any common scene and transmute it into something uncommon- not by dressing it up, but by uncovering its inner animation and making it into a mobile ballet. These direct watercolour studies in modest format had a kind of structural economy and simplicity as we see in Cezanne's work in the same medium, or the work of Cezanne's successors to whom they were an eye-opener. Occasionally he went into cubist-futurist explorations, as in a few black-and-white studies of birds-in-flight or landscapes with trees and houses, making them compact grids of spatial animation. But these are few. A compulsive worker, Ramkinkar should have made thousands of such studies over the years, but he never took proper care of his works. So, when he died he left only a few hundred. Where the rest are is still an open question.

Ramkinkar's paintings in oils are fewer. And amongst these there are very few landscapes, only two or three-his early 'Kopai' which was shown in the international exhibition that toured Europe (in 1946); a near-abstract vision of houses in Bhuvandanga flash-lit by lightning; and a third, not so distinctive a piece, depicting a bunch of palm trees in khoai.[18] These paintings are well-constructed and have a gripping image, but they lack the freshness, transparency and depth of his watercolours. This was due to his particular use of the oil medium. As the first artist from Santiniketan to use this medium on a large scale he was never completely at ease with it. Also, he never had the means to get the right materials. He never had good canvases, even painted on old bed linen. He used house-painter's powder colours which he bought cheap in the Bolpur [19] bazar-zinc white, yellow ochre,robin blue and black, rarely red, brown and emerald green. And he mixed these on his palette with crude linseed oil. Also the very nature of the medium which allowed overpainting was a deadly temptation; he went on changing his images and encrusting the surface with layer upon layer of thick impasto. This came partly from his feeling that to gain proper gravity the final image in a painting has to grow up through a series of metamorphoses. So, wilfully distrusting his own virtuosity, he subjected his first, facile images to ruthless revision, sweating away in stages what he thought were inessential beauty, technical bravura, effortless verisimilitude. True, this was in the air at that time and it is not hard to find similar attitudes among the artists of contemporary West. Cezanne's statement that he worked on the portrait of Ambroise Vollard for nearly a year and only got the collar right pointed to what an uphill task art is. A long documentary on Picasso (released in the fifties) showed him effecting drastic modifications to an initial image- distorting, mutilating, grafting or making complete replacements. So this method had sanctity. And if in his search for that intangible something behind tangible form Ramkinkar found this inevitable, it was only natural.

But the sorry result of this is that under each oil painting of Ramkinkar lie hidden many (often brilliant) intermediate stages, each complete and whole, which he rubbed down or painted over. If someone had recorded this photographically stage to stage (like they did in the case of Matisse or Picasso) it would have made an impressive body of work. But in the primitive circumstances Ramkinkar worked this was inconceivable. So we have now to be satisfied with the few paintings that remain, and they, too, in a poor state of preservation.

Apart from these few landscapes, his other oil paintings do not depict any direct vistas from his world garden. They depict human drama and except for two paintings- 'Santhal girls' and 'On the Road to Konark' - which are both painted with much enjoyment and flourish and lightness of touch, none of them are so direct or celebrative. Even his portraits, which are some of the most distinctive in modern Indian art, are very different from the conventional ones (that work towards close, glossy and, often, flattering representations of a sitter); he seeks to transform the sitter into a kind of removed presence, almost an icon. His 'Soma Joshi' is an icon of childish simplicity, his 'Swapnamoyee' of haunting youth, his 'Binodini' of dazed bewilderment. A portrait of 'Nilima Devi' (Barua)- the whereabouts of which is now unknown-gave her the look of a Cretan snake-goddess. They all keep close to the essentials of appearance, but go beyond to become an enduring symbol of the person.

Then, there are a group of paintings that represent life in the countryside -peasants ploughing, reaping, threshing, restings, tending cattle or goats or playing with children. In these the tribal types feature quite often, impressed as he was by their sculpturesque build, their physical energy and love of life. Some of these exude an air of languor of quiet virility, others of explosive

libido. A few carry a larger implication, like in a painting that features a worker couple (whose body rhythms strike an erotic chord) but which, with the introduction of a dug-up skeleton on one side and a child on the other, reads like a commentary on the cycle of life. More involved in image are two other paintings- the 'Picnic' featuring three near-nude girls round a tree with a kind of succinct eroticism, or the 'Tent' which records in quasi-cubist drawing an unspecific romantic event- a young man and woman standing on the two sides but magnetically connected (or separated?) by the lines between, with the semblance of a pool in the middle, where fish chases fish. There are also some more enigmatic examples like a sitting figure, a hooded female, a mother and child, all of which hang in a cubist-expressionist limbo; and a near-abstract landscape entitled 'Spring'.

Ramkinkar always reacted quickly to the facts of human suffering or misfortune; a subdued didactic streak that he probably inherited from his early days was always there. But in his most productive years it was always bound with something personal; it was always a private event that gained a public implication. His 'Death of Jogen' is a personal tribute to his favourite

tea-vendor but also, at the same time, an open commentary on human poverty and suffering. But sometimes the statement became literal. Hisresponse to the 1943 cyclone, showing a blanched skeleton and a fallen tree ona blue ground is one of this kind. This literalness increased in the paintings of his later years. By nature Ramkinkar was a compulsive artist who was freer presenting the body's message than a cerebral didactic tract. So when after the forties, various progressive groups suddenly discovered him as a people’s artist, and he too in his simplicity let himself be drawn into the vortex of open didacticism, the works lost their old sanguinity and punch.. They were no more body statements but dry commentaries. Their

compositions became stereotyped, made up of repetitive grids and readable images, though occasionally relieved by some graphic verve. They do not have any more that secret power of his old paintings. This danger is always inherent in open didacticism; a slogan does not easily give birth to a symbol.

Although the paintings of Ramkinkar are enough to ensure him a lasting place on the modern Indian art scene, as a sculptor his position is quite unique. We can readily call him the first modern sculptor in India, who used the medium entirely for creative expression and whose work was personal, not professional. Earlier sculptors made portraits or monuments on commission; if their work showed any personal idiosyncrasy or sense of innovation it was still within the range of favourable public response. Not so Ramkinkar. He was from the beginning a non-compromising individualist who owed complete allegiance to his private impulses and turned his back on public reaction. For instance, of his portraits each one is an individual

piece of sculpture which adds to, exaggerates or simplifies the sitter's characteristics but comes up in the end with a dynamic parallel, with an inner life of its own- whether it be 'Madhura Singh', a challenging though unflattering image of an earthly 'Kinnari’[20], or 'Preeti Pande' an elusive persona with eyes like a mardi gras [21] mask, or 'Ganguli Mosai', the dreamy and bleary-eyed inebriate, or 'Rabindranath', an impressive human being (not a glossy demi-god) with his powerful head and neck bowed by the thought of the human predicament, a cross between Moses and St. John the Baptist. Although he made careful studies from the sitter, he never let himself be constrained or overpowered by the details of appearance; and in most cases, after a spell of meticulous study he broke the piece down and built it again entirely from memory, effecting a kind of transfiguration.

Ramkinkar's few pieces of outdoor sculpture, built freely with cement and rubble, are even more original in approach. Always based on a tiny maquette showing little more than its rhythmic structure these large works grew freely over a summary armature (which too he altered or added to from time to time). They are the only works of their kind in India, probably the whole world, effecting a strange fusion of human gesture and monumental structure, making the structure itself movingly eloquent. And, besides, when they were first made they had an acute sense of environment-slender 'Sujata' (based on a study of young Jaya Appasamy)against a tall and white row of slender eucalyptus trees, the celebrated 'Santhal Family' edging forward with their life's burden, with an air of quiet grace and heroism through tall clumps of spear grass, the inimitable 'Reaper'( or "Thresher'), strangely sensuous and abstract, condensing the body's message into a tense monumental gesture, and kept on a high pedestal to be seen against the sky like a solid ideogram, or the 'Mill Call' that brilliantly manages to freeze a transient visual experience into a tantalising image and the impressive 'Lamp Stand', before the old Shantiniketan building, probably the first abstract outdoor sculpture in modern Indian art.

Ramkinkar was an astounding virtuoso at handling clay; his fingers could do almost anything with it most effortlessly. He matured this facility by observing the work methods of Rodin, Epstein and others (without ever seeing their originals); using his hands and tools judiciously and playing off clean contours against broken, and smooth surfaces against rough he managed to impart a special dynamism to whatever he made. This very virtuosity that could readily record all nuances of appearance and give them an imprint of his inner emotions turned him into an irrepressible experimentalist. He built and destroyed incessantly, hopping from image to image, from the simple to the complex, from the realist to the abstract, or vice versa and, so, all his finished works are the end products of a series of transformations his restless imagination engineered. They are not loyal to any preconcept but grew moment to moment, bearing the brunt of every change in vision and mood. For this reason he was not built to be a professional in the usual sense of the word-i.e. one who could outline an idea and pursue it in predictable stages into a finished work without any radical change in between. The few times he was forced into this predicament (like in the case of the "Soldiers' Monument" in Nepal, or the Yaksha-Yakshi figures on the Reserve Bank building in New Delhi) he came close to disaster. After a brilliant start he abandoned the former to his helpers to complete; the latter he completed with the help of professional carvers and assistants and the finished work is a far cry from the brilliant sketches it started with. True, if he had been left to himself he may have taken his own time and possibly produced an unusual piece of work, but which patron today is blessed with that kind of patience and generosity to allow this?

That is why Ramkinkar was in his true element in his modelling studio where he had all the freedom to do what he wanted and be a veritable Visvakarma [22]. His range was large. From the near documentary, 'Horse and Groom', to the gestural 'Perambulator', or the abstract 'Mithuna' reducing the erotic drama into a tense symbol, wheeling vestigeal male and female forms round a tall axis of life topped with an enigmatic apple symbolising both the temptation and the fruit; or the highly expressionist 'Mother and Child', breathing animal power not soft sentiment, underscoring the fact that the young are condemned to live off the body of the old, or that little sketch of striding 'Gandhi' that is a masterpiece of monumental gesture; or those numerous studies of Yakshas and Yakshis ranging from the erotic to the droll. One can recall many other works of greater or lesser significance at their point in time, but they are untraceable today even in photographic record.

What made Ramkinkar so special as man and artist? What gave his personality its mysterious chiaroscuro? What tied him to Santiniketan with such an inseverable bond placing him in this respect next only to Rabindranath and Nandalal? What gave him that uncanny insight into the inner workings of modern art and thought and thataudacity to experiment in spite of his limited learning and exposure? One canonly speculate. Many who have known him, at various points in time, will have their own views on this. Having known him for a little over four years (1944-48) as a student, often on terms of some intimacy, I too have a reading of my own. I shall end this article with this piece of critical reminiscence for whatever it is worth. True, Ramkinkar lived another thirty-two years and kept active as an artist for another fifteen. So my reading can only be partial. But I still put it down because in the years I knew him he was at the height of his powers and articulate about his concerns. From the middle of the fifties there was a let-off in this power. Barring the 'Mill Call' of 1956 and a few smaller sculptures (which are now untraceable) and some brilliant sketches in clay and watercolour he hardly did anything of great consequence after this. He also stepped up his drinking and let his health fail. Santiniketan itself underwent drastic change in character, from the organic academic community it was it soon changed into a structured university with rigid horizons and hierarchies. It may be that recognition came to Ramkinkar at this time and admirers flocked to him and plagued him with attention. But their focus was on his past.

When I went to Santiniketan Ramkinkar had already the reputation of being a work-mad artist. And for the students of Kala Bhavana he was already an accepted member of its reigning trinity; they tried to get close to him as they tried to get close to Nandalal and Benodbehari. He had already executed most of his significant works, including four of the famous outdoor sculptures-'Sujata', 'Santhal Family', 'Lamp Stand' and 'Reaper'. He was seen on the landscape in sun and rain carrying his sketching accessories in a shoulder bag and sporting a broad palm-leaf hat on his head. His loud singing was heard everywhere in the studio, on the Khoai, in his little hut. It was always guttural and pathetic like a soul's cry and he always chose a snatch from a Rabindranath song that echoed his mood. He raised mixed reactions among the people around. His admirers (who were larger in number) marvelled at his one-pointed involvement with art, his transparent lack of self-interest that brought his bohemianism to the borders of saintliness, his genial character that did not carry the swagger of an unquestioned genius.

His detractors (-though smaller in number and mostly strait-laced men and women whose lower middle class values he offended by his idiosyncrasies) scoffed at his dress, sniggered at his singing, got outraged by his open waywardness and candour or were dismayed by the novelty of his work. They spread around stories about his unpredictability. Some whispered he was an alcoholic. Others said he was amoral. And this in spite of knowing that no less a person than Rabindranath thought highly of him and had taken affectionate interest in his growth (-counselling him to stalk his vision ruthlessly like a tiger stalks his prey) and Nandalal marvelled at his dedication and virtuosity (-saying that such a facility as his was much in excess of what one could cultivate in a single life.) But Ramkinkar was unmoved; this only amused him. He brushed it all aside with a puckered gleam in his eyes and his characteristic laugh that sounded like an elongated hiss.

I have no clear recollection of when I first met Ramkinkar but it was soon after I came to Santiniketan; since my first paintings had a singular image I was brought to his (and Benodbehari's) notice by Nandalal. Apart from this, I found myself amongst a group of friends, almost all non-Bengali, who like me had come after a spell of university education and were great Ramkinkar fans. On certain evenings I went and visited him along with them and sat sipping tea on the verandah of his hut. Later we chanced on each other regularly at a tea shop on the Bolpur Road where I went daily with a friend (to fill myself with toast and tea, being still unused to the niceties of Bengali cuisine). Ramkinkar and Benodbehari were regular visitors there and sat on the opposite side of the road under some scraggy trees. We joined them there. The contacts grew. Ramkinkar and Benodbehari discussed their work or the issues that were uppermost in their minds. As time passed we joined too. My real education in art started there, under those scraggy trees.

I became more intimate with Ramkinkar when we started going out sketching together; he liked the great outdoors and so did I. We went out most afternoons; he came and called me out of the hostel, when the sun burned the hottest. It was a privilege to go sketching with him for he had a

kind of alchemy in his eyes, and brush, that turned each sordid fact with something special. On these sketching sessions he was often relaxed and communicative, talking sometimes about himself or about his work, or his problems and challenges. I was nearly twenty years younger, and by nature reserved; so I never forced him into any confidence. Though I was eager, nevertheless, to get an insight into this strange man to whom art was a consuming obsession and whose personality was both transparent and mysterious at the same time.

A few months after I came to Santiniketan a close friend of mine (Jitendra Kumar) took initiative (along with his uncle) to exhibit the works of Ramkinkar and Benodbehari in New Delhi, where they were still little known. I went along to help. (How the show came to be I have recounted elsewhere). The paintings were shown in the Massey Hall of the YMCA. This brought me closer to both the artists and their work. Thereafter I became a regular visitor to Ramkinkar's verandah. Benodbehari also came most evenings. They became more communicative and I became freer. Apart from art I discussed with them whatever I was reading, and often read with them certain pieces of common interest.

To come to Ramkinkar, his personality had many contrary characteristics. He was extrovert and gregarious, but he had within himself a patch where he sat alone with himself, even in the midst of company. Although he seemed aggressive and produced works that often exploded with masculine energy, he was soft and dependent at heart, and even his working hands were delicate and feminine. He was an impulsive romantic but he longed for intellectual rigour in his work, even his bohemianism (if you can call it that) was of a special kind; it was the bohemianism of a fakir[23], not of the head-swollen, urbanite intellectual. For all the folklore he gave rise to he was much less idiosyncratic than most other artists. Though he sometimes looked dishevelled he never dressed oddly. He never flaunted his ego, was never abrasive in his

dealings with others. If he was open and forthright in speech it was because he disliked the unguent artificiality of Bengali middle-class conversation. If he was often absent-minded andcould not honour social commitments it was just because he was a captive ofhis prime obsession-art. He drank only in moderation at the time I knew him and that too to key up his sensibilities. (He started overdoing it later). He held his drink well and never lost control, he

could not brook vulgarity of any kind. Once when two scions of a local family came drunk before his house and passed indecent remarks on his kitchen-maid he threw them out physically saying that if they did not know how to hold their liquor, they should rest content with milk. He was far from amoral; this story gained currency only because some sworn puritans in the

local community were outraged by the sensual explicitness of some of his works and could not think that studying from a nude model (as he did) at odd hours, at home or in the studio, was an innocent exercise, though the very fact that village girls readily posed for him and he was welcome in all the villages around and the villagers thought of him as one of themselves should have been sure proof of this. Even the two maids/models he had some intimacy with in his later years he treated most deferentially and no husband would have treated his wife with greater concern and delicacy than he showed one of them he spent his last days with. In fact the kind of reckless over-indulgence and decadent sexuality that artist bohemians are credited with

Ramkinkar was totally incapable of.

Ramkinkar's attitude to women was itself rather mixed up and ambivalent. Or so it seems. Women appeared to him on one side attractive and angelic, on another unsettling and fiendish. He liked to know women of the intelligent and sophisticated kind, who responded to his work or ideas; and they too found him attractive- though he had none of those traditional attributes

associated with this, good looks, fetching manners or smart conversation. A kind of openness or childlike simplicity he had put them at ease; and when they came face to face with his unusual perceptions and sensibilities it opened little windows in their hearts. With a few (all educated and upper class) he had long friendships and with some he went very close to the brink. But that was as far as he would; something militated against his going further. Probably he felt that a lifelong entanglement with women of this kind would be a great distraction; in his mind's attic there was place for only one tenant and that was art. It was like the dilemma of Kacha [24] the choice lay between his life's purpose and his paramour. In one of his unguarded moments he reminisced, probably referring to his first grand passion, 'I liked her, she had all the things one looked for, looks, youth, intelligence, devotion; she was irresistible. But her presence smothered me like a perfume. That unsettled me. It was soul-killing. Then a strange thing happened. One day when she stepped into my dark studio unannounced, a ray of light came from the high shutters and etched her out in her real image. It gilded the edges of her mass of hair, it lit fires in her eyes. It gave her laughing teeth an ominous sheen. Good lord, I cried within myself, I was

falling into the hands of this fiend! That little vision warned me. I slowly withdrew, though I had to use all my tact to do it. This probably happened more than once. So he remained single for long years. And finally when he chose to live with his housemaid he was past his prime. And she too had no demands on him.

In the way many of his paintings and sculptures featuring women (including the portraits) grew this double vision could be seen; the image started as an entrancing angel but ended up as a mysterious apparition often overdrawn and ungainly, sometimes sporting wild looks, even prominent canines. It was a passage as it were from Gouri[25] to Kali[26]. To the traditional

Bengali to whom his Shyama Ma[27] is both sweet and terrible this should not be unusual to think of; but Ramkinkar was not traditional in that sense; and was unwilling to project any traditional symbols on his work. (To keep themselves free from the taint of the mythology of their predecessors his whole generation fought shy of his). He persistently refused to make drawings of Durga for the Puja numbers of journals (as Nandalal often did), saying that to unbelievers like him this did not come readily. He told his latter-day mistress, be in jest, that the only thakur [28] he knew was Rabindranath Thakur.So this dual vision was a product of his own inner world.

Was it the result of a strange dichotomy as may have arisen when he compared the mental images of his mother and sister-in-law (whom he idolised in his childhood) and the flesh and blood women he came into contact with? Or his conviction that women were Nature's instruments to enslave man and use him for its own purposes (like outlined in certain plays of Shaw)? Or did it come out of his mixed response of attraction and panic when facing persons from another class? It will be dangerous to speculate. But certain facts stand out. Although he was unwilling to go and see his mother when she was old and senile, he often dreamt of her. He used to say that she appeared to him in dreams, just before his birthdays in mid-summer, in the image of a young woman with a bowl of payas[29] in her hand, an image he cherished. He portrayed this in many drawings at different stages in his life and called them Annapurna [30] (her own name). In some of them she loomed like a saviour above a group of hungry people. Was this just what it seemed or did it carry some hint of his persistent hunger for her affection ?

Was he afraid to go and see her in her last days for fear of letting her look of misery rub out this magical image from his mind's horizon?

It is now well-known that the bohemianism of creative men in our time comes out of their being outsiders in society, by the force of circumstances or their own choice. In the former case they have a sense of grievance that they give vent to through aggressive nonconformism or ego-projection. In the latter they feel an internal need for being outsiders, i.e. a need to stand

outside the predispositions of their social context and earn the freedom to hold its premises to scrutiny - isolating its living features from the dead. So all modern creativity has at its core a critical strand. This leads to another kind of nonconformism, and each artist or writer has a kind of self-image in its light. Rabindranath, Nandalal, Benodbehari and Ramkinkar had their own varieties of these.

When he was small Rabindranath was fascinated with the vision of being a restless vagrant who could shake off all ties and walk into the horizon. (See My Reminiscences) In later days, although he cultivated the looks of an ancient rishi [31], his innermost wish was to be a mad baul who got direct access to wisdom (or illumination) by living close to the earth. In many of his plays he features a crazed baul or old man orfakir, as his alter ego, who with his songs and paradoxes tries to upset theapple cart and exhort people to dissent. Even the institution he founded was, in its basic concept, an institution for nonconformists-i.e. those who would have the courage to call the prevalent notions about society, education, art or creativity to question. Nandalal on his side was enamoured of the image of the craftsman sadhaka [32] (like Kabir or the other craftsmen saints of the middle ages); he would have been happy to be called Nanda patua [33]. Benodbehari's self-image conformed to that of a Taoist monk, roaming the barren earth of the Khoai and communing with its desolate palms. Needless to say that Ramkinkar's

self-image came close to that of tantrik, if you stripped it of its traditional coarseness and braggadocio and its esoteric mumbo jumbo.

But why did they plump for these kinds of self-image? Because they had a special model of what we may call a modern artist's vision. Writing about the Vama Khepa of Tarapith (in his Tantrabhilashir Sadhu Sanga) Promode Kumar Chatterjee (artist-traveller) suggests (though not in these same words) that Tantra is the non-literate common man's alternative to Vedanta; in the absence of a trained intellect to take one to the essential truth by reductive reasoning, it makes the body, with its incipient urges, an instrument of knowledge, by diverting the focus of the urges from physical gratification to inner vision. To the creative man in the modern age, who has a great desire to de-sophisticate himself and start from scratch this kind of body vision seems a valuable archetype; he attaches great importance to sensory experience and has reasons to think of this as direct and extra-rational. Even Rabindranath, for all his transcendentalism, has spelt this out in various places-by saying that for a creative man seeing with the naked eye is as sacred and significant as seeing with the inner eye and that his sense of obsession lines him up with the lover and the lunatic.

It would seem that Ramkinkar visualised his vocation in the image of this archetype. If his options were not clear when he first came to Santiniketan, they became clear in the years to come. Art was an engrossing quest (or sadhana) to pursue which you had to give up a lot, thought about oneself, one's antecedents, name or fame, and steer clear of all distractions, including loves and loyalties. When he told Samaresh Basu 'I never looked back', (which Samaresh Babu used for the title of his novel,) he meant to emphasise the gravity of his decision; it was a diksha, as it were. Nature had to be wooed in her different moods-in sun, rain and storm- to yield her secrets. In a work of art these secrets and the artist's ideas and aspirations had to get locked in an ecstatic embrace, like in a yab yum[35] image, where the bodies blurr and power reigns supreme. The rather unique features of his temperament, his attitudes to life or his works' iconography and aesthetic content can only be explained by this.

For this exercise Santiniketan was the most suitable location. A tantrik wants a cultural clearing where he can sit and start afresh, where his past will have burnt down to ash. Santiniketan was such a clearing, though it will be sacrilege to call it a field of ashes. At least Rabindranath meant it to be a clearing where he could make a new beginning, ripping down obsolete stereotypes and uncovering the essentials of human growth and creativity. His calendar of activities was visualised as a whole chain of creative excursions (random encounters, celebrations, fairs) through which individuals could react with each other or the environment or their inner selves freely, without any rigid alignments or dogma. He had the kind of genius to keep this calendar going. And his kind of pantheism gave everything a sense of the sacred but without any specific religious colour. The very concept of the moving encounter (or mela) was liberating; Santiniketan was just the ground, it was the human concourse that mattered and this was ageless and unlimited, and so could lead to unforseen innovations. (That Rabindranath had a vision of the whole world in this image is also known to most). It may be that this concept did not come alive fully at any time in Santiniketan but it gave a special kind of colour and character to the place. People like Ramkinkar knew it in their bones. Even when the institution changed in structure, that horizon was still alive in the minds of people like him. So he would not leave

this place even though he received attractive invitations to move elsewhere from time to time.

It is this inborn urge to go to the essentials that gave people like Ramkinkar that ready access to modern art concepts and the courage to experiment. Steering clear of critical jargon, what does the modern artist try to do? To liberate himself from old forms that tend to lose power. Or reanimate others with fresh resource. Or create new forms out of his interaction with his environment, by unravelling the secrets of its external attributes or internal rhythms. And reinvesting them with new meaning and emotional reference. When he gets down to these essentials he bypasses the need to know the historical antecedents in their full dimension. Ramkinkar was a living testimony of this. He was more acutely conscious of the possibilities and limitations of most modern developments than many learned artists; as he learned these by sensitive experiments. He caught the essence of a lot of modern writing (in spite of his limited knowledge of language) by the sheer wealth of his sensibility. This is why a lot of people,

who were better informed than him, or had greater global exposure, still valued his company; his direct insights were surprisingly more rewarding than their reasoned dialectics.

In his last days Ramkinkar drank too much. His health declined. He was not strong enough to undertake any major work. He had ideas galore but not the old drive and power. His mind was still full of insights but there was not the old coherence. But he had become a legend. The tourist guides showed the visitors to Santiniketan his cement sculptures and pointed him out

if he was seen around. Artists, writers, intellectuals came and talked to him and went back elated or befuddled.

But they were all delighted by his eccentricities-his refusal to leave his mud hut even when the roof was falling down, his sharing his meals with his bunch of kittens from the same plate, his unwillingness to shave regularly, or show his weak eyes to the oculist or his bad teeth to the dentist, and his great forbearance, suffering everything with a benign smile. He could still reel off a lively sketch if a sheet of paper and a pen were put in his hands and these he passed around as gifts. Shrewd admirers took advantage of this generosity. Ingratiating themselves with him they made him part with more considerable works for verylittle more than a sweet word or a bottle of rum.

I met Ramkinkar lastin Santiniketan in the summer of 1978. When I told him I may be back in another two years, and for a longer time, his eyes brightened. "Then we shall sit down and talk like in the old times', he said nostalgically, 'I have not done so for a long, long time'. But that was not to be. When I came in the July of 1980 he had already been removed to a Calcutta hospital. And from there he did not come back alive.

The basic difference, therefore, may be stated thus. The Aryan mentality of the West has worked out a concrete universal which has a relatively shifting, exterior reality; whereas the Aryan mentality of India has worked out an abstract universal creating new cosmos of realities out of the chaos of existence by its synthetic vision. In Indian philosophic parlance this process of assimilation, the progress from Yes to Yes, is called Anvayi, as opposed to the antithetic

movement from No to No which is termed Vyatireki; both being recognised as legitimate ways in the realisation of life,- individual and communal.

Nature that dominated Europe as an embodiment of Truth could, however, only hold a precarious position, inasmuch as its virtue lay in an antithetic implication. It operated more as a moral than as an aesthetic asset. It was lauded in so far as it was a protest. But a cult implying moral antithesis cannot continue to supply æsthetic inspiration. A rankling sense of antagonism, born of a philosophy summed up in the phrase: struggle for existence, has vitiated in the West the relations of Man with Nature. The romantic love of Nature was unknown not only to the Greeks and Romans (as Mahaffy and other writers admit) but practically to all European nations up to the time of Rousseau's deification of Nature in a wild protest against culture, tradition and society. The West never knew Nature as she is,-as one part or phase of a larger existence where it has no conflict with Man. And so, as I began by saying, she has been inevitably dethroned of late.

The succeeding emphasis on a scientific standard as the referee for a better Truth has led to the logical analysing of objects of art to find out, and if possible eliminate, that which is non-æsthetic therein. Of the two elements in artistic figuration, intellectual and intuitional,-antithetic logic has done away with the former in the fond hope that the remnant must be æsthetic. This has meant the discarding in toto of all representational elements,-a swing of the pendulum to the opposite

extreme. But the West forgets that a logical amputation, an over-conscious effort bent on getting rid of the last flickering shadows of representational suggestions, implies a sterile conflict,-an intellectual combative mood that resists, like a desperate fighter in the trench, the legitimate flow of forms which the spirit of unconscious surrender to formless joy so fruitfully conjures up.

There is no doubt that the Occident is in the throes of a struggle, the struggle of the human spirit against the fetters of its antithetic out-look that always creates new barriers. Its tremendous "will to suffer," the pride that it takes in its fragments of vision as achievements of humanity, evidence a heroic Promethean sadhana, that extorts our admiration. After all, the suffering to realise is more spectacular than the quiet of realisation itself. The spirit of the fallen angel,-that epitomises occidental thought,-is in her. In the process of self-realisation in her own way, in the forlorn hope born of her inability or unwillingness to surrender to a wider synthesis, she is out to achieve or to destroy. The shock of this explosion of hers has mildly reverberated in the East as well. Baron

Suyematsu notices how in Japan antique temples have been pulled down, precious pictures destroyed, invaluable lacquerware burnt to extract the gold,-so that everything old may be destroyed. In India similar phenomena may be seen. Oriental culture in some respects bears a charmed life and even the fascination of scientific achievements cannot for long disintegrate the indelible pattern of joy woven into its inmost fibres.

The Occident has achieved something, but probably lost more. There is a parable in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra which tells us of a handsome young maiden of quality who carries with

her immense treasure, but is ever accompanied by her sister, an ugly wench in rags, who destroys everything within her reach. He who would take the one must also accept the other. Thus has been the choice of the West.

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