The quietude and gravity which characterised Ram Kumar was also a hallmark of the greatness which his art had reached. His fame followed him as he engaged with the world with compassion and his paintings whether figurative, as in the early days, or the later abstract works, concurrently displayed pain and concern with the plight of the individual.
Ram Kumar was an accidental artist. His early days were as a banker and later as a journalist with a Delhi newspaper. In the meantime, he had joined Sarada Ukil’s evening art classes. He also wrote stories in Hindi about lower middle-class individuals and the sordidness of their lives which was faced by them with great fortitude. He could have continued, but absorbed by art he borrowed a small amount from his father and went to Paris where he studied under Andre Lhote and Fernand Leger. He was also to join the Pacifist movement and the Communist Party in Paris.
Ram Kumar chose to return to India in 1952 and root his art in his own country. In the early years, his lonely, alienated individuals located within ragged cityscapes, created the awareness of the plight of the ordinary person in a newly emerged, developing nation. The forlorn figures with their gaunt faces and melancholy eyes provoked a sense of unmitigated poignancy. His training in Paris along with his association with the Mumbai-based Progressive Artists Group and with the Delhi Shilpi Chakra, provided the necessary professional alignments which enabled him to sharpen his artistic tools.
Yet the significance of these paintings lay in the skilful placement of the figure, wedged carefully in a semi-industrialised landscape with its crooked houses, badly-constructed streets and jutting overhead electric cables, providing a perspectival distance to the situation of the common man. By the early 1960s, his visits to the sacred city of Varanasi led to almost monochromatic cityscapes with tightly-wedged structures devoid of a human presence and held together in a loose grid, teetering on the edge of disruption. If Varanasi is seen as eternal and timeless, these were cityscapes with houses eroded by time — with peeling walls and broken roofs on the verge of collapse and disintegration. Yet, it was all held together by a tensile, fragile frame. He was to paint Varanasi under different conditions and lights and it was to become a recurring motif in his work.
Finding the representative form too confining, he turned towards abstraction, where the houses dissolved into large sweeping strokes of grey, black and white and the windswept landscape seemed to be moving almost of its own volition towards a larger vortex of seething gyration. Greater freedom of composition followed as these strokes of paint become lighter and attained buoyancy in ochre and ultramarine blue waves, that swept across the canvas.
The sensuousness of these strokes would be drowned in a bed of white, as he moved towards minimal representation where an occasional sign would relieve the great expanses of white. The artist had internalised the shimmering landscapes of his childhood in Shimla as well as what he had experienced during later visits to Ladakh and presented these in different angles on the same plane. The glistening glaciers, flowing rivers and the forests of the Himalayan foothills are evoked in sweeping movements that seem to radiate light and yet are always counterpoised by darker, more sombre shades.
In his later years, Ram Kumar’s brooding works see the emergence of wedges of reds and greens as he attains an even greater freedom with his colours. A twig, a bit of broken roof tile, would give a glimmer of the storm underlying the radiating surface. The lyricism of the work is matched by its disciplined structuring, which lends an inner harmony and grace to his paintings. The fusion of private and public spaces which characterise his language also make it distinctive, and provide us rare glimpses into the lives of ordinary people which he once suggested so vividly in his lonely city dwellers.
When asked if his short stories had any bearing on his paintings, he stated emphatically that each had its own place. Yet both the short stories and the paintings reflect the humble, humdrum lives of ordinary people, with the pitfalls they face and the resilience they demonstrate — myriad lives that ultimately enmesh to provide, as it were, the scaffolding for the India of today.
With his passing away at the age of 94, we have lost one of the last members of the epic generation — those masterly men with their artistic beliefs — who believed in the endless generation of life against death. And the grace of their engagement with people against great odds which will be memorialised.