The solitary figures on his canvas from the ’50s, he says, are closest to who he is as a person. Like them, Ram Kumar, one of India’s foremost abstract painters, yearns to be surrounded by his art rather than by a crowd. The 89-year-old, whose work The Vagabond, fetched $1.16 million at a Christie’s auction in 2008, spends hours in his basement studio every day, where canvases lie stacked on shelves, and abstract landscapes, that have defined his oeuvre for years, are sheathed in plastic. At a solo show that will begin in Kolkata’s Aakriti Art Gallery on August 1, his early works will be on display — sketches from the ’60s with unseen gossamer-like line drawings made just before Kumar travelled to Varanasi for the first time. In this interview with Vandana Kalra, the artist talks about his abiding enchantment with Varanasi, the camaraderie that existed between contemporary artists and painting for himself. Excerpts:
The line drawings in the Kolkata exhibition are from a phase of transition, just before you visited Varanasi in 1960. After that, your oeuvre completely changed. How was it to revisit those works?
These are works from my sketchbooks, that I never thought I’d exhibit. They were very private, capturing what I was feeling at that moment. They need not have led to any bigger work. It’s like practising lines. I used to draw in ledgers, because those were cheaper than sketchbooks.
What made you move away from figurative to abstract paintings? Several artists of your generation went on to practise both, but you never returned to figurative work.
After making figurative works for over a decade, I felt I had done all that I could have. If I continued, I would just be repeating myself. There was an ambiguity about abstracts. I had something in mind, but chose not to title them, so everyone is free to have their own interpretation. Cities attracted me. Landscapes that were in the backdrop in the figurative works came to the forefront. All the places I visited impacted my work, whether it was Greece or Ladakh, Paris, Venice, Prague or Baghdad.
But Varanasi was special. It stayed with you and continued to be a part of your work.
It was (artist) MF Husain who first took me to Varanasi in 1960. It was an impromptu trip — one day, he just asked me to pack my bags for 10 days and go with him. We stayed at Prem Chand’s haveli. Both of us used to part ways in the morning, work on our own and discuss our experiences at night. It was an instant emotional attachment, very profound. I saw faith in that city, it belongs to the dead and the living. There was a mass of people, yet, for me, no human being could depict the anguish. It required symbolic motifs. As I began to paint, the landscapes came naturally and gradually, the continued…