It was 1941 and the place was Santiniketan-the bastion of the little understood but much maligned and evidently the so-called Bengal Revivalist School-a curious art object in glossy green cement came into existence to remain in full-view of everyone for times to come. Nobody in India had ever seen the like of it before. It represented no other visible object and was not an archetypal symbol of any conventional idea. The maker of this object, a stocky and rustic looking young man of thirty who had arrived straight from his village in Bankura district to the sophisticated atmosphere of Santiniketan some fifteen years ago, demanded that the sculpture communicated its message only by itself. Those who had known Ram Kinkar Baij, the creater of this abstract sculpture, had known it for the past ten years that something of this sort was coming, for they had seen "Mithuna" a cast stone piece done in 1931 in which human figures underwent strange metamorphoses to become vehicles of an experience or objectified form of an expression. The portrait of the poet Tagore that Ram Kinkar did in 1938 raised a dust storm of controversy.
It is not my intention to present here a survey of Ram Kinkar's art in chronological sequence and sketch the historical and social background of its emergence. Although his role in the history of modern Indian art is far more significant than is normally, though somewhat reluctantly, conceded to, yet his greatness as a sculptor and his virility as a painter and print-maker cannot be measured in historical terms only. Nor would I try to evaluate his creative genius. My endeavour would be to discuss, in brief, one aspect, perhaps the most important aspect of Ram Kinkar's work. This aspect, inter alia, provides key to his greatness as a creative artist.
In so far as the language of visual arts are concerned. Ram Kinkar appears to be a polyglot. In his sculptures, as well as in his paintings, his choice of language has ranged from naturalism to inductive or simplified abstraction, from baroque and romantic to expressionistic representation and from Indian classicism to medieval Indian staccato. Unlike many other artists, who have experimented with so many different stylistic conventions. Ram Kinkar has not moved from one to the other in any phase wise sequence. There had been occasions when he had worked within the broad frame-works of two or more mutually non-convergent stylistic conventions. Since we are in habit of understanding the personal style of an artist by analysing the use the particular artist makes of one general stylistic convention. Ram Kinkar's restless experimentations, eclecticism and non-conformism make it difficult to arrive at an understanding about his personal style. - Yet, Ram Kinkar's works do unmistakably bear his personal stamp. He has evolved no unique personal stylistic convention or language, but has a personal idiom commensurate with the make of his personality that permeates through the general stylistic convention he adopts. Ram Kinkar's art thus, once again, proves how futile it is to try to evaluate art in terms of any general stylistic convention, how naive it is to go by labels. It all depends on the use one makes of stylistic conventions at hand; there is nothing intrinsically good or bad, expressive or sensuous in any stylistic convention. But then, what are the stylistic key notes of his works that make them Ram Kinkar's and no one else's? What are the distinctive elements that relate his works to each other inspite of their apparent visual variety and diversity?
In answering that question one is tempted, at least in so far as Ram Kinkar's works are concerned, to say that, the conceptual after-effects of the sensual and perceptual encounters with his works are perhaps much more important than the sensual-perceptual participations in the works as such. If this be true, Ram Kinkar, the artist, at once gets related to the expressionists. Apart from the fact that the tactile quality of most of his sculptures militates against this assumption. Ram Kinkar himself has time and again stated that his works fulfill their own demand and they have no meaning other than physical presence, they possess vitality of their own. In other words, an art object is an object by its own right and not merely as an expression.
To begin somewhere, let us start with his images. But let us first be explicit about the use of the term, for it means different things do different sets of people. Image does in the first place refer to the motif, but that is not all. It also means the visual or physical and psychological associations the motif evokes in the form in which it has been presented.
The men, women, animals Ram Kinkar creates, surge forward vigorously, move along in full stride or make deliberate movements to accomplish the work they are portrayed as engaged in. Even when he portrays living beings in non-moving postures, such as in many of his portrait sculptures and paintings and in Sujata (direct concrete: 1935), he makes them vibrate with latent energy and vital life force. These become visible in thrust of the chest, tilt of the head, look of the eyes and poise of the limbs apart from the technical treatment they receive from their creator. Ram Kinkar makes his trees and flowers shoot out from the ground and reach for the skies. Road and furrows speed away in his painting like animated beings, so do the clouds and the sky. The few non-representational sculptures he has created alternately evoke the visual association of gracefully but vigorously dancing figures (human) and blooming flora. Both of which again evoke the association of deliberate organic movement and perhaps also of force and speed necessary to make any break-through. The unfinished Bodhi-sattva in direct concrete and carved stone Yaksha and Yakshini figures in front of Reserve Bank of India, New Delhi are the only pieces where he had attempted at static composition.
Be they male or female figures or children, be they known animals or unknown ones (buffalo-fishes in the fountain in front of Sri-Sadan in Santiniketan), be they trees or clouds, be they reads or furrows or be they inanimate objects of abstract non-representational shapes. Ram Kinkar always endows his motifs and comprising forms with weight, mass and volume. If these massive, voluminous and weighty beings and forms do not squat for being on movement, they do very much remain rooted from where they spring forth, sprout, take off or move along. For this very simple reason the movements never become fleeting, aerial or fluttering. Even when his motifs are emaciated (Composition with a Woman in cement: 1943), stricken (Famine : Beggar Woman in cement : 1943) and thin (Sujata in direct concrete: 1935), the flora and fauna, Ram Kinkar creates are robust and deliberate in their movements and gestures, not to speak of the youthful, healthy, expansive and robust beings so favourite with him.
Another very significant quality of his images is that they often appear as metaphors- of visual entities which have not been presented. At times metaphors tend to assume symbolic validity even; trees become symbols of phallus, so on and so forth.
Now we have reached a point in our discussion when we just cannot afford to ignore the techniques involved in giving form to the images and weave the objects into patterns. We have already referred to the apparent movements like the portrayal of fauna in moving, running, walking and dancing postures. But these postures may be frozen postures unless the right techniques give form to them. We have also referred to the subtler movements like the tilt of the face, angle of the neck, look of the eyes and placing of the limbs etc. Yet subtler movement can be achieved by the styling of the hair, fold of the drapery etc. In actuality, however, dynamism and staticness do not so much depend on the gesture of the motif as on the treatment of the gesture or of the motif itself. What techniques does Ram Kinkar apply to visualise the dynamism he intends to?
Let us have a look at his method of composition. Irrespective of whether he is painting, sculpting, modelling or engraving there is always a low firm horizon-detail less, uninteresting, yet important-a ground on which the object of interest stands. Very seldom are these standing objects vertical and erect, as that would give impression of staticness. Most often the standing object gets a diagonal propensity, gaining some movement. Sometimes, in his sculptures, and oftener in his paintings, two diagonal movements opposingly face each other giving a clashing array of opposing movements. Forceful emergence of the diagonal from the horizontal is a method Ram Kinkar has got from the post-classical Indian art (he once did a copy of Dancing Uma from Aurangabad Cave). A love for the diagonal, contrastingly juxtaposed to horizontal and/or vertical, is discernible in all his works. This is one source of dynamism so evident in Ram Kinkar's works. But this takes into account only the straight linear and the angular lines of movement and not the curvilinear lines of it.
Ram Kinkar has little use for the convex-linear, the concave-linear and spiral linear lines of movement those tend to repeat themselves in closed circles even within very small spaces of visual reference. Nor does he prefer the fluvial and flame-like lines of movement for their weightless illusiveness. If he goes in for the curvilinear line of movement, he prefers the sweeping curve and the loop, for they can evoke the memory of speed and freedom. Loop and the sweep are perhaps the only curves, apart from occasional bends, which do not repeat themselves in limited visual space and thus can remain open-ended in a given space.
This brings us to the question of rhythm in Ram Kinkar's works. It is for anybody to find that, a strong sense of rhythm pervades through all his works. According to the text book definition, repetition of two or more non-similar elements in regular sequences makes rhythm. In other words, there must be the repetition of identical elements after regular intervals. One would search in vain for such repetition of identical elements in Ram Kinkar's works. Rhythm so defined is mechanical. Rhythm discernible on organisms or rhythm made by organic bodies are never composed of identical parts, but of similar parts of varying sizes and intensities. We have already noted that it is only the deliberate, organic and free movement that results from a latent energy, vitality and consciousness about surroundings found among unalienated men and women that Ram Kinkar is after. One look at his first abstract piece would convince us about the truth. This piece is on the subject of organic rhythm itself. 'The undulation of the planes point out to similar looking elements which are neither identical in shape nor in size; moreover, the ups and downs of the planes not set equally apart or near. Projections do not crop up at predictable places, recessions delve to unsuspected depths, just as it happens in life itself, Yet, vision glides along smoothly, with the hand over the object in rhythmic flow and do so very speedily.
But however, swift and smooth these bends and sweeps are, Ram Kinkar has only a limited use for rhythm and movement along curves. Oftener he goes in for straight-linear lines of rhythm and movement. Lest, such angular, and straight linear lines of rhythm and movement gain geometricity and loose proportionately in organic validity, he makes his straight and angular lines and geometrically shaped masses broken & irregular; each area of mass or a line goes to the extent of one sweep of his brush or hand only and not more. Incidentally, the brush strokes in his paintings and treatment of masses in his sculptures, have lot to do with the general effects" of his paintings & sculptures. The tentativeness and the unfinished quality of the quickly or swiftly applied brush strokes or thrown cement or mortar give to the objects a raw vitality and add to them the dynamism of the working process itself. Interestingly, the rough and coarse surface texture, that is so important for Ram Kinkar's sculptures, is a resultant effect of this process of working. The raw goose-skin, wrinkling and other effects resulting from this process of working, as surface-texture, enhance the suggestion of raw and vita! life-force bursting from within as a physical fact. In more sense than one the objects created by him retain some of the qualities of the working process itself.
The passionate involvement in the life at its roots has also dictated Ram Kinkar's manner of handling of the mass, volume, weight and space. Whether it is painting or sculpture, in so far as Ram Kinkar's works are concerned, the interest centers round the space filled and not over the space left-out. In fact, he lets little room for the space. left-out. His work is characteristically tonal and plastic. Masses and planes & volumes rather than lines are his key equipment. Even when he goes linear-as in his drawings and lithographs-he uses lines to define volumes. Or else his lines are supporting lines to mark the direction of movement. Both in his paintings & sculptures, he defines receding & forwarding of planes by dividing his masses and marking the dividing planes by etched or furrowed or ridged lines-a method derived from the classical Indian sculptures. Whether it is painting or sculpture, to volume he gives a tactile existence. In his hand inert mass of cement, concrete, stone & plaster become throbbing and pulsating volumes or organic life, heavy and earthy.
Ram Kinkar, the artist, is supremely loyal to art, that is, he does not take liberty with structural elements of art. He does not transgress the bounds of the media he handles. On the other hand, he utilises the possibilities they offer. He weaves harmonious structural patterns with mass, volume, tone, texture, line, light, shade and colour, in that order, in his compositions, to create images of tremendous energy, of exuberant, joyous, buoyant, earthy and dynamic life-force.
Ram Kinkar is no more interested in 'pure' movement, 'pure' rhythm and 'pure' speed than in organic becoming etc., as qualities those can be abstracted as essence from objects in which these get manifested. To him these are essentially life-functions. Yet, one can emphasise these aspects, but these cannot be abstracted from living bodies. Hence, even his co-called abstract pieces, e.g. the green cement essay on rhythm (1941) alternately evokes the associations of human figure and of blooming flora, his abstract composition in plaster of paris-the Speed (1953)-metaphorically relates itself to dancing figure.
Ram Kinkar will go down in the history of Modern Indian Art as the pioneer of abstract art in this country. Yet, he had never been a purist or an aesthete. Although he has been loyal to the structural elements of art, he had never attempted to construct structural patterns with these elements only-those would exist as designs only. That is one reason why he has preferred simplificatory or reductionist abstraction of organic forms rather than construction of geometric patterns with visual-structural elements only. In fact, many of his contemporaries are much more purists, than he had ever been, without going in for abstraction and/or expressionistic distortion.
Ram Kinkar has brought to Indian art vitality, a dynamism and has infused to it an energy which is associated with life, at its raw-where men and women live buoyantly and energetically working in association with nature, of whose part they are. These people work in rhythm with nature around them to make nature bestow it’s bounty on them. They make the vital cycles of life & nature move with them through their actions. It is the very basis of folkish life, the basic fact of life-and-nature that Ram Kinkar objectifies in his works.
Yet, he has never displayed any love for the folk traditions of visual arts. It seems that he knew that had he gone in for any of the stultified, ossified, and conventionalised folkish styles, he would not be able to objectify the basis of folkish life; its vitality and its buoyancy, Secondly, although he attached great importance to the basic structure of folkish life, yet his own style of life was different from such a life. Nor could his freedom loving mind accept the societal ramifications which stultified the folkish life and sort of ossified it into petty stagnant circles; folk traditions are but aesthetic expressions of this closed life, which had never been Ram Kinkar's cup of tea. He had always been much more sophisticated, much more universalistic for all these.
Interestingly, by being what he is, he has, in his individualistic manner, solved the most vexed question of Modern Indian Art. The question of how much "Indian-ness is compatible with what amount of "Westernness", alias, "Modernity", and how much of both should be taken in to leave room for "Individuality", has never really bothered him. To him "Indian-ness" has always meant loyalty to some vital aspects of Indian life, that is part of one's being, and not to any style or school of art, living or dead. Modernity, likewise, consists in the ability of identifying the elements in that life, which has relevance to the contemporary situation. Modernity also consists in the manner of objectification. He has never been hedged by the question of choice of techniques in objectification. "Indian-ness" or "Westernness" of technique has never troubled him. He could not care less about the origin of the technique or general stylistic convention. Nature's becoming humane and human-nature's becoming humane through the process of life and work had been his primary concern and the secondary had been how best he could objectify it. He is a modern in his manner of objectification; his idom is not only his own but is at the same time a unique form of the content or the content of the form.
The extraneous considerations of being "Indian" or "Modern" or "Individualistic" are not the only factors that create hiatus between the subject or the creator and the created object, and thereby reduce the aesthetic validity and communicability of the object. There are other theoretical considerations as well, which create hiatus by not becoming a part of the experience of the subject. Ram Kinkar's uniqueness as a sculptor rests on the fact that he has allowed no extraneous factor to intervene between him (i.e. the makeup of his personality and experience) and his created object. They, are not just mirror image of life. They are objectifications of life as Ram Kinkar has experienced it and as he experiences it once again in his created objects.
Ram Kinkar's creative greatness can be measured from the fact that his art is never one dimensional (not in physical or visual sense). Like life, or living experience, itself, his art is multi-dimensional. His sculptures and paintings live their lives on different levels. His works can be appreciated on the level of illustration and representation or suggested representation, on the level of images and associations, on the level of metaphors and symbols, on the level of structural-constructional design, on the level of intellection and on the level of emotion. Each level of existence has its equivalent structural-constructional correlate. As such, through the mode of construction each level is related to the other in organic unity. Ram Kinkar's works do not only have wide communicability but have levels and levels of meaningfulness on this account.*'
Even Ram Kinkar, had not always been immune from the pressure of inexperienced extraneous factors. . This is evident in some of his so-called abstract sculptures and in some of his so-called cubist paintings; take for instance, the Speed. Here he has tried to abstractify the quality speed and justify it in abstract. But then, his mental makeup; could not just abstractify it from the organism and action in which he has experienced it. The resultant effect had been grafting of masses, arranged in sweeps, on a form which metaphorically evokes the memory of a dancing figure. But this reductionist figure, and the swiftly moving curved masses appear as two disjointed elements, lacking an organic unity. Perhaps once again he failed, in wanting to create the image of static energy in Yaksha (carved stone in front of Reserve Bank of India, New Delhi). But then these are the monuments of not so successful experiments of a creative genius and a master craftsman.
Robust optimism, unbounded vitality, joy of living an active life in communion with nature have characterised all his creative output. Yet, his work had never been a mirror image of life. His loyalty to and command over the language of art have made it possible for him to create exact structural correlates of his attitudes to art and nature. But neither his involvement in certain of life-functions nor his loyalty to the language of art has made his art uni-dimensional. Like life itself, his art is multi-dimensional. And the different dimensions of it are related in organic wholes. Here lies the secret of Ram Kinkar's greatness as a creative artist.