Known for his social realism where the central human figure often depicted pain and anguish of the urban middle class in a young independent India in the 1940s and ‘50s, artist Ram Kumar went on to become one of the country’s foremost abstractionists, who experimented with the genre to paint landscapes that were not a literal reflection of what was visible but an amalgam of thick, deliberated brush strokes that represented Kumar’s view.
“I always painted for myself, trying to find new forms,” Kumar had told The Indian Express in an interview in 2014. He pursued this quest for experimentation until the very end, and continued to paint until he breathed his last in Delhi on Saturday. He was 94.
“I have lost a dear friend. We grew together as artists, and he was held in very high regard by all of us. He was reticent but painted works that were authoritative,” said close associate and artist Krishen Khanna, who first met Kumar in the late 1940s as a young writer in Delhi who was pursuing art alongside.
He did not formally join the renowned Progressive Artists’ Group, that comprised the likes of S H Raza, M F Husain, Khanna and F N Souza, but Kumar did often exhibit with members of the collective.
Born in Shimla into a middle class family, a chance visit to an art exhibition in 1945, when he was pursuing his Masters in Economics from St Stephan’s College in Delhi, had led Kumar to enroll for evening classes in art under the tutelage of Sailoz Mukherjea at Sarada Ukil School of Art. This is when protagonists of his novels and short stories, who spoke of the trauma that followed the Partition, and struggles of the common man, started occupying his canvases as well.
“It is as if the muted characters of his novel, the refugees, leave the shelter of the written page and get transmuted into the shadowy squatters of his paintings,” wrote his brother, Hindi novelist Nirmal Verma, reportedly in an essay in the 1996 book Ram Kumar: A Journey Within.
Like other artists of his generation, Kumar, a Padma Bhushan recipient, also sought a language of art that was modernist yet rooted in the homeland. While a scholarship took him to France in 1949 — where he studied under the likes of French painter Andre Lhote and artist-filmmaker Fernand Leger — Kumar chose to return.
“He was responding to what was around. Recently, I feel, he was returning to the kind of figurative works that he did earlier. There was a difference in the tone though: while the earlier works were dark and sharp, now they were brighter,” Vikram Bachhawat, owner of Aakriti Art Gallery, said.
His seminal and dark 1956 oil “Vagabond”, which fetched $1.16 million at a Christie’s auction in 2008, is representative of that period. Although his works continued to reflect human concerns, steadily the figures receded to the backdrop and the landscapes became pivotal. Kumar painted the clear blue sky of Greece as well as the rugged mountains of the Himalayas, but the one city that was recurring was Varanasi, which he first visited in 1960 with fellow artist M F Husain and Sripat Rai, Munshi Premchand’s son.
In a city teeming with people, he painted empty ghats, with its temples and houses in the horizon. Perhaps this was also a reflection of his own temperament: an introvert, Kumar was seldom seen at art openings or interacting with his audience.