Essays on Ramkinkar Baij

A comprehensive retrospective of Ram Kinkar Baiz's work is well-nigh impossible, because he is one of those artists who are an art historian's despair, who have never kept their work together or kept a reliable record of them, or even cared what happened to them once the creative fever was over. It is known to everyone who knew him that he never took too great a care as to what materials he used in his work or bothered about keeping them in reasonable safety, and that, very often, when he was hot with ideas he painted over an already finished painting without the least compunction. So it should not surprise us if a large part of his work has got scattered around as gifts or has gone into decay or is lying in irretrievable hiding under the surface of his present works. For him these were no big matter; each stage of his work was no more to him than a milestone in the way of a personal search-he came to it only to pass it by, and he did this without the least sense of loss.

So in to-day's world, where many artists are as sharp and astute as bankers and handle their work with great proprietarily sagacity, Kinkar-babu is a rare phenomenon indeed. He is probably one of the lone survivors of a lost tribe, the 'Khepa' Bauls or the mad mystics; an artist crazy with his art, lost so much in his search as to forget both his person and his product, not concerned in the least whether it brought him name or fame or success. This unconcern of his is so unlike the cultivated unconcern of the usual artist-bohemian, who wears tears in his trousers and holes in his pockets and lives an ostentatiously disheveled life; the most moving fact about Kinkar-babu is that there is not even a grain of affectation in him. Those who have been near to him to some extent, like I flatter myself I have been, know how transparently sincere his attitudes are and how guileless and disarming his corniest eccentricities.

In a sense the comparison of Kinkar-babu to a 'Khepa' Baul can be extended into more dimensions than one. He is like them simple and unsophisticated; he is like them close to the soil; like theirs his feelings are tied taut in the landscape to register its slightest movement, its vivacity, its change of colour, its romantic mystery; like them he liked to break into spontaneous lyric at their behest. His innumerable doodles and water colour sketches stand a witness to this. Besides, he combines in his work a salty earthiness with a sense of philosophy even as they do, using an imagery both immediate and instantly persuasive, sensuous and titillating and hieratically remote in the same flash; like them he swells each experimental fact into a metaphor, transforming the figure of a woman into an elusive dryad or a bewitching mother-goddess, of a tree into a phallic hymn, of an animal into a suffering fossil or an aggressive predator. So even his factual studies, be they his drawings or water colours or his painted or modeled portraits, get a lasting and monumental overtone, an epic dimension.

An in-felt pantheistic romanticism of this kind is a persistent quality in all of Kinkar-babu's work, whether it be his early romantic vignettes centring around Santhal life or his in between cubist phase or his later phase of expressionistic baroque. It may sound paradoxical to say that he brought such a quality to his cubist work, but his cubism is unique in that it does not de-personalise the object or dress it up into a decorative masquerade but preserves its individuality through a syncretic metamorphosis-his cubist landscapes manage to hold in them the full savour of sunlight and shadow, branch and foliage, and his cubist portrait studies have a remarkable sense of person. His open air sculpture, which are some of his masterpieces, have a moving appositeness to the environment, whether it be the tall wraith-like 'Sujata' in the eucalyptus grove, or the large, monumental Santhal family group against clumps of spear-grass, or the, later, scintillating group of Santhal maidens, which comes so dangerously close to being a fragile document but escapes being so by a miracle, each unlike the other, but each having a sanguine though removed presence, stable but changeable, immutable but ever new. He followed this mid-way phantom in a relentless chase, knowing full well that it was exacting and intractable; he often took recourse to reciting some of Tagore's inimitable verses to explain his predicament. Of these the following verses (in loose translation) stand out in my memory :

"Is this, my vision, there or not there ? What is it, is it a flash of light or a mirage or a dream-shadow or the mind's little deception ?" Combining in it the poignancy of the search and its desperation.

This is what makes Kinkar-babu so unique on the modern Indian art scene; both in his person and his work he is like no other. There is hardly any artist in India with the same enthusiasm, the same graphic incisiveness and versatility, the same facility for formal metamorphosis, the same moods of self-criticism and euphoria, the same single-minded devotion to his vocation as an artist, the same incorrigible lack of self-interest; it is a great pity that he is not known more than he is among Indian artists, leave alone the Indian public; on a scene crowded largely with slick picture-makers and facile carvers of ornament his influence can be truly didactic; he can be both a lesson and an example.

Courtesy: Lalit Kala Akademi, Delhi
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