Associated with the Progressive Artists Group, Ram Kumar who is considered to be one of the country’s first artists to give up figurative art for abstraction, recently passed away at the age of 93, after a creative career that spanned seven decades.
Art Radar also talks to Arun Vadehra, Director of Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi, who knew him well and who showcased the artist’s work on a numerous occasions over the years.
Scholar, painter, author, mentor – a multifaceted person
On 14 April 2018 India bid farewell to one of its greatest artists, the prolific abstractionist, the passionate writer, the multidimensional individual– Ram KumarVerma. Born in 1924 into a large family in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, his initial education was far removed from fine arts and after completing his MA in Economics from St Stephen’s College, Delhi, he started working in a bank. It was in this city that he was first exposed to the world of art and he started taking classes at the Sarada UkilSchool of Art under Sailoz Mookherjea an Indian painter who has been considered by many scholars to be one of the country’s early modernists. Ramkumar soon gave up banking to pursue art and visited Paris in 1949-52, to study the subject further under the tutelage of Cubist painter André Lhote and Fernand Léger – the latter of whom is often considered to be the forerunner of the Pop Art Movement. He became a member of the French Communist Party during these years and also spent time with intellectuals, poets, authors and artists who helped him shape his ideology and define his artistic path.
When he returned to India in 1952, which was a few years after the country’s independence from colonial rule and the subsequent partition of the nation, he lived near refugee camps at Karol Bagh in Delhi and drew inspiration from their plight in his figurative works of the 1950s. These paintings were of homeless squatters, unemployed youth, desolate figures against a semi-industrialised landscape and cityscapes that depicted the desperation and alienation that displaced citizens of the country felt during the decade after independence. Ram Kumar became close friends and was associated with artists of the Progressive Artist’s Group – such as S. H. Raza and M. F. Husain, and it was with the latter that he visited Benares (now Varanasi) in the early 60s, an event that had a significant impact on his painting style of the following years. Writing about his subsequent works, Amrita Jhaveri, a specialist in 20th century Indian art says in her book, A Guide to 101 Modern and Contemporary Indian Artists:
The Benares series of the early 60s is distinctly sombre. Virtually monochromatic, the paintings are constructed in the manner of a loose grid. The earlier palette of greys and browns gives way to flashes of pure white – a representation of the fast flowing river and the city of light. Though devoid of a human presence, the paintings teem with life and tensile energy.
Over the next few decades Ram Kumar’s works changed significantly, to include dynamic, vibrant colours as compared to his earlier focus on more earthy tones. From figurative paintings during the initial years, he moved to depict cityscapes and then migrated to landscapes reminiscent of the mountains of his native Himachal Pradesh. After a brief return to using the city of Benares as his muse in the 80s, Ram Kumar’s work started showing his growing fascination with architecture –of buildings, temple-towns and cities as well as tombs and crypts. The paintings that he completed towards the latter part of his life combined many of these elements and references – the geometric elements of a cityscape, the vibrant hues of a verdant landscape and the wide open spaces that he was accustomed to growing up.
During his artistic life, Ram Kumar was widely exhibited in India and abroad and also participated in the Venice (1958), Tokyo (1957/59) and Sao Paolo (1959/79) Biennales,and the Festivals of India held overseas in the 1980s. He was a recipient of a number of honours and awards during an illustrious life, including the J.D. Rockefeller III Fellowship, New York (1970), the Officier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (2003) from the French Government, the Padma Shri (1972) and the Padma Bhushan (2010) from the Government of India. Ram Kumar was also a talented writer like his younger brother, Hindi novelist Nirmal Verma and had several of his work published including two novels and a travelogue. Commenting on how this skill developed Ram Kumar said in an interview to Saffronart:
I was born in a large middle class family of eight brothers and sisters. My father was a government employee posted in Shimla. And it was not easy making ends meet. There was no creative environment at home and I don’t know when and why I and my brother got interested in writing. We used to write short stories and were very inspired by writers like Chekov, Virginia Woolf and Tolstoy. Later on, I began to devote my entire time to painting and art, while Nirmal Verma my brother, stuck to writing.
It is this versatility and multiplicity that has characterized this eminent artist’s seven decades as an artist. Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi have held over 22 solo exhibitions of his work over the years and it was with “Ram Kumar, A Journey Within” in 1996 that the gallery started its foray into publication. With his death, the Gallery mourns the loss of a both a mentor and a passionate supporter.
Art Radar spoke to Arun Vadehra, the Director of Vadehra Art Gallery for whom Ram Kumar was a close friend.
The Vadehra Art Gallery has had a long association with Ram Kumar, so you must facing a huge feeling of loss with his passing away. Can you share with Art Radar readers the nature of your relationship with him and the role that he played in the evolution of the Gallery?
We as a gallery and I personally have been very fortunate to have had this opportunity and such a long association with Ram Kumar. It is as if I have lost a friend. He was also a mentor, as his understanding and in-depth knowledge of all forms of art was outstanding. As a token of his friendship he guided the gallery on the kind of artists the gallery could represent and exhibit.
Ram Kumar entered the Indian art world at a time when artists such as those of the Bombay Progressive Artists Group or the Delhi Shilpi Chakra were all exploring a modernist Indian narrative. In what way was he different during these formative years of Indian art?
Ram Kumar and all other members of the two groups that you have mentioned, were different from each other in their aesthetic, approach and practice, and that was the excitement that existed in those years amongst all of them.
Being a late bloomer, having studied Economics first, how significant were his Paris years where he studied under the Fernand Léger and André Lhote – in defining his early aesthetic as a figurative painter? Do you see influences of these years in his later works?
Ram Kumar was inspired in many ways by these artists during his Paris days and that translated beautifully in his paintings in future years. It helped introduce him to the prevailing art practices on the international stage as at that time, Paris was the art capital of the world.
On his return to India, his preoccupation with the frustrations of the unemployed and educated youth of our country grew significantly. Referring to the move from figurative to abstraction Indian literary critic Sham Lal put it very succinctly:
It is easy to express a tragic vision of life in portraits of lonely and lost faces, it is more difficult to listen to the sad music of things and capture it in images, particularly when the human figure is no longer there to give the artist the emotional support he may need. The significance of the change and not a break can be seen in the 1965 Varanasi work where a tumbledown house takes the place of a ravaged human face . . . it is the same sad music but with a new depth.
Could you share with Art Radar readers a little about Ram Kumar’s association with other artists of his times – such as his friendship with Raza and Husain – and how his affiliations helped him define his style, if at all?
He had a very friendly and cordial relationship with all artists and his dry wit and humour made him very popular amongst his peers. They all shared their own preoccupations and these exchanges were used as reference points by others.
Much has been written about the impact of his visit to Varanasi in 1960 and how the city remained his muse for most of his artistic life, with abstract landscapes dominating his oeuvre. Could you shed some more light on his close relationship with this city and the reasons behind it?
Ram Kumar and M F Husain together visited Varanasi at the same time and stayed together, but both left to discover the city in different directions. Ram Kumar internalised the duality of the city, simultaneously depicting life and death and Husain externalised his experience and vibe of the city.
From figurative works and naturalism to abstract landscapes; from variegated acrylic colours to stark black and white charcoals – Ram Kumar always used multiple mediums and styles for his visual language. What in your mind were some of the key changes in his visual vocabulary over the decades of his practice?
Every artist has the independence to use and experiment with various mediums and fortunately Ram Kumar pushed all boundaries making him a great artist.
Few people are aware of his exceptional talent as an author of short stories, novels and a travelogue. How did his skill with the pen and his powerful prose influence his art and vice versa?
He was writing a column for the then Hindi newspaper called Hindustan during his Paris years, which gave him the financial support to live in an expensive city, in a frugal manner. His paintings had the same pathos as his writing and his short stories had the same abrupt ending as his paintings.
As someone who knew him so well personally and having hosted 22 solo exhibitions of his works over the years, what would be some of your favourite artworks from Ram Kumar’s oeuvre?
Several! It has always been very tough for me to choose a favourite as there have been many that have moved me.
Are there any plans on the anvil for Vadehra Art Gallery, that Art Radar readers should look out for, that will pay homage to his life’s work?
We would love to keep exhibiting him time and again, showcasing his various periods and mediums, and at different points in his career. An international retrospective in one of the world’s established museums is the most important mission for us at the moment, accompanied by an exhaustive publication and a catalogue raisonné.
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