The distinguishing subject of Ram Kumar’s work is traceable to a visit to Banaras with his fellow artist friend, M.F. Husain. The oldest living city of the world, Varanasi has been a muse to several artists, who over time have understood and interpreted the city in their own ways. Although very few artists managed to capture the profoundness of the city in the way Ram Kumar did.
Born in 1924 in Shimla, Ram Kumar was studying Economics at Delhi’s St. Stephen’s College, and was on his way to become a banker. Visits to art galleries that dot central Delhi during his college days were enough to bring out the creative within him. Ram Kumar did not receive formal training at an art college but he studied independently under artist Sailoz Mukherjee. Ram Kumar was meant to tread on the creative path, and he found his way to Paris, where he trained under artists Andre Lhote and Fernard Legere. Ram Kumar belonged to the generation of post-colonial artist who were looking to define an idiom of Indian modernism in their works. For technique, they sought inspiration from modernist movements of the west, the experimentations in Vienna, London and Paris. But for subject matter, these artists were looking inward and introspecting on subjects closer to home.
Ram Kumar’s early works were figurative, focussing on the drama of emotions on the human face. It was at Paris that the Communist ideology began to trickle into his thinking and work. This ideology of liberation furthered him to explore the pathos of human condition. After his return from Paris, he witnessed the condition of the partition refugees living in Karol Bagh in Delhi. The melancholic living and the elevated human suffering had a deep impact on his thinking. It was at this time that he channelled his experiences with the refugees and wrote his first novel, ‘Ghar Bane, Ghar Toote.’
Shortly after that, Ram Kumar visited Varanasi along with M.F. Husain. They reached the city at the dead of the night with only the howls of street dogs to welcome them. The absence of humans in his first impression of the city would stay, and his paintings on the city would be completely devoid of human presence. He spoke of his first impression, “It was the middle of winter. And, I had reached the city late at night. The dimly lit lanes were deserted and gave an expression of a ghostly deserted city. Except for the occasional howl of stray dogs, all was quiet. I thought the city was inhabited only by the dead and dead souls. It looked like a haunted place and still remains the same… Every sight was like a new composition, a still life artistically organised to be interpreted in colours. It was not merely outward appearances which were fascinating, but they were vibrant with inner life of their own, very deep and profound, which left an everlasting impression on my artistic sensibility.” (Quoted in G.Gill edited, Ram Kumar: A Journey Within, 1996, Vadhera Publishing, New Delhi, p. 89)
Ram Kumar’s art had evolved to a point where human suffering was at the centrestage of his works. The contrasting nature of the city was evident in the purpose it served, he would witness devotees teeming to take a dip in the holy Ganges to ensure that the cycle of birth and rebirth would stay unbroken. He also witnessed cremation and rituals where ashes of the dead were scattered in the river to ensure that the dead soul was free of the cycle of birth and death, and would rest in heaven. Ram Kumar sensed the feeling of alienation in Varanasi, even though the city was bustling with people, the lonely existence of humans could not be ignored. The city was symbolic of contrasts – samsara and nirvana, desire and asceticism, profane and spiritual. The decline of the city, and the dilapidation of its ancient structures was evident, and the artist felt a deep sense of loss. Moved by the sights of the funeral pyres, the widows, and the hopelessness of existence, Ram Kumar sought to capture the emotional response to the city on his canvas.
His canvases abandoned the vividity that had been present in his earlier works. The years between 1960 – 1965 were watershed, and his style moved from figurative to abstract, although he achieved full abstraction only in his post-Benaras period. This was his Grey Period, and the works were cityscapes that were executed in dull greys and muddy browns which were emblematic of the suffering and death. The silvery greys were a reminder of the grey smoke covering the burning bodies at the ghats. The works were Cubist aerial views of the cityscape and the landscape, bordering on abstraction. Ram Kumar was careful in composing the architectural elements – the buildings, the ghats, and the narrow alleyways. The sharp outlining was set besides blocks of colour. In the early works, dark zones demarcate the river with the architecture lined behind its bank. Ram Kumar’s Varanasi is quite yet fragmented, the architecture and landscapes become metaphorical of the fragmentations of human conditions. The melancholic faces of his early works are replaced by dilapidated structures making the same beguiling statements about human condition.
The abstract urban landscapes pointed to the city becoming the central motif in his art. In his rendering of Varanasi, its built forms and landscapes, Ram Kumar was becoming a philosophical flaneur much like Nietzsche, whose thinking had some bearing in his appreciation of the city of Turin. Nietzsche perceived Turin as the exact opposite of chaos. It was a labyrinth where each path lead to the center, making it the perfect city. In similitude, Varanasi has been perceived as a mandala, situated at the center of the universe where the chaos of human existence is liberated in the holy waters of the Ganga.
Varanasi was a subject that the artist came back to in the 1990’s and 2007. In the recent canvases, the landscape receded away from a dark river and instead the architecture is set against a blue river and a blue sky. The canvases remain bereft of human presence, even though the presence of collective spirituality is felt. In the works of this period, the city emerges as a teertha, a pilgrimage site yet the shadow of shamshana or the crematorium looms.
Ram Kumar’s visual language emerged from the depth of his experiences in the city of Varanasi. His canvases of the ‘Benaras Series’ were not only the expression of collective spirituality of the city, but his individualist understanding of the cyclical nature of time, of birth and rebirth. The lack of human presence does not abandon the presence of human emotion, pain and suffering on the canvases. Ram Kumar’s Cubist and abstract investigations capture the city through the inner mind of the artist and present some of the most successful experiments of his artistic expedition.
Gill, G., ed. 2009. Ram Kumar: A Journey Within. New Delhi: Vadhera Art Galery.