In 1960s Varanasi, two young artists would climb down the ghats of the old city at dawn looking for an inspiring spot. One of them, MF Husain, would stay out the whole day, sketching furiously. But the other, Ram Kumar, would be in no hurry. He would sit by the ghats, taking in the boxy, uneven landscapes and meditate on his art.
Husain, famously temperamental, left the city in a week. But Kumar stayed on. Varanasi was where Kumar’s body of work changed from painting figures to embracing abstract, a style he has made his own ever since. “I had read about Varanasi in Hindi novels, but when I went there I felt an instant emotional attachment. There was so much faith. It was the city of Ganga, the ghats were full of people. I also realised that it was a city where a lot of old people came to die. The character of the place stayed with me. As I began to paint, the landscapes came naturally and gradually the lines blurred,” says Kumar, who was to revisit the holy city numerous times. Some works from this landmark transitional phase, including Varanasi (1964) and Untitled (1978), are on display at Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vaastu Sanghralaya, Mumbai till August 25.
“The works are from the private collection of Jehangir Nicholson, who was an ardent admirer of the artist,” says Kamini Sawhney, curator of the show. The story goes that Nicholson, a regular collector, lost faith in the art market during the late 1980s. Sawhney says that during that period, he chanced upon an early Ram Kumar abstract and bought it on impulse. That ended his art collecting drought. The collection, titled “Ram Kumar: Works in the Jehangir Nicholson Collection”, traces Kumar’s oeuvre from his figures to landscapes, abstracts and his more recent gothic works. Kumar says, “I knew Jehangir Nicolson had my works but did not know he had so many. We did not meet too often, since I was in Delhi and he was in Mumbai, but we did see each other at exhibitions. He used to just sit in a corner and keep looking at a work in deep thought, till it was actually time for the gallery to shut.”
While the ongoing exhibition, the artist notes, brings back old memories, Kumar was not keen on a career in art in the first place. A post-graduate in Economics from St Stephen’s College, he was employed in a bank for years before he even considered foraying into the arts. “Growing up in Shimla, Kumar started his life as a writer,” says Dadiba Pundole, director of Pundole’s, the gallery that represented Kumar for years. The stories were dark, melancholic and introspective, not unlike the writer himself. “He wrote about the struggle of the working class, the difficulties of the class divide and its consequences,” says Sawhney. These were issues that concerned the artist and also saw him join the French Communist Party during his stay in Paris. At the show, one of the earliest translations of his collection of short stories, Ram Kumar: Short Stories will offer a glimpse into Ram Kumar, the writer.
Even though his penchant for the pen continued, it took a back seat when Kumar travelled to Paris in the early ’50s and began his figurative work. One of his earliest semi-figurative pieces, The Dream (1958) is part of the exhibition. After Paris, Varanasi opened Kumar’s mind to landscapes and he then delved into abstraction. “His works are
very honest. I remember once Richard Armstrong, art director of Guggenheim museum, saw a beautiful painting of
Varanasi by Ram Kumar. Not knowing the artist or the subject of the work, he remarked, ‘This is a very smoky city, isn’t it?’ to accurately convey the mood of the city,” says Pundole.
It was during the ’70s and ’80s that Kumar became an abstract master. The more recent works, Untitled (1978) and Untitled (1984) in the show, offer a smooth transition from landscapes to abstracts. It was during this time that Kumar trained himself to become a disciplined artist. “He would go to his studio like one goes to an office. He wouldn’t take any breaks, and would return in the evening,” says Pundole.
Kumar has been candid about the fact that he prefers to surround himself with his works rather than people. These days, he rarely comes to the phone, paints less and writes lesser. Kumar says, “I was invited for the current exhibition but did not travel due to my health and also because I do not think an artist needs to be present to explain his work, the work should do the talking.” Perhaps Nicholson would have agreed. As Kumar says, “He did not distinguish between young and established artists, what mattered to Nicholson was their art.”
— Inputs by Vandana Kalra