One of India’s foremost abstractionists, Ram Kumara was among the country’s underrated artists for years. While it was the social realism in his work that first attracted attention in the ’50s, gradually the figures disappeared, giving way to landscapes in multiple textures and, most famously, architecture of Varanasi. Excerpts from an interview with the 92-year-old Delhi-based artist, who will have a solo of works from the early ’60s to the present at Aarkriti Art Gallery in Kolkata:
The exhibition in Kolkata has several works from your collection. Another exhibition of your work is being planned in Bangalore later this year. What are your thoughts when you view the works of so many years together?
These are works done over a long duration. The direction of work keeps changing, as do the subjects, treatment and your own thoughts. In the exhibition, you will find large oils on canvas as well as small-format paintings and even drawings I did in accounts books. It was MF Husain who suggested that I use paper of the accounts books, as it was strong and lasted longer, and he was right.
Your work in the ’50s and ’60s was dominated by muted tones, but gradually more colour seeped in.
In the beginning, I was not fascinated with strong colours. I wanted to subdue them, I wanted the colours to speak for themselves and not be loud but, with time, as the subjects one deals with change, the manner in which you treat it also changes.
You were among the first Indian artists to move from figurative to abstract in the late ’50s, a medium that, till recently, was not popular in Indian art. What prompted you to make that shift?
I pursued figurative art for over a decade but then it stopped going forward. I had said what I wanted to. Abstracts attracted me. It began with landscapes, and the figures
gradually moved away. Our concern was not the market or what was understood and sold, we were just interested in doing our work, what we liked. Even (VS) Gaitonde was making abstracts.
What led you to pursue art?
Like most other college students, I used to roam around with friends in the evenings. Connaught Place in Delhi was a regular haunt and, one day, we visited an art exhibition. I thought why waste time in the evenings, it is better to learn something instead. I enrolled at the Sarada Ukil School of Art. Sailoz Mukherjee was a teacher there, he introduced me to still life paintings. Then, I met SH Raza in 1950, when he was exhibiting his landscapes of Kashmir at AIFACS. He was a known artist by then and I admired his work. He introduced me to other artists in Mumbai. I had left my job at the bank and had decided that I wanted to become an artist. I was also writing alongside.
When you left to study art in France in 1950, all you had was a scholarship of Rs 100 from the French embassy, and a one-way ticket sponsored by your father.
At that time, France was the centre of art, with the Louvre, home to several renowned artists. I knew there was a lot to learn there. I studied under Andre Lhote for some time, and later joined Fernand Leger’s classes. There was a short period when I joined the Communist party, where I learnt a lot from people such as Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard.
When you came back to India, your works reflected trauma, including the 1956 oil Vagabond, which fetched $1.16 million at a Christie’s auction in 2008.
What I was painting reflected what I saw around me — there was so much pain, trauma and misery. There were changes in newly-independent India. In Delhi, we had so many refugees from Pakistan. There was a camp in Karol Bagh were I was a volunteer.
You were also a writer, did protagonists from your books ever appear in your artwork? Also, why did you quit writing?
Perhaps, unconsciously, some characters seeped from one to another. I was both an artist and a writer for a very long time. When I could not manage both, I quit writing. I started writing before I started painting. It was when I was a student in college. It helped me earn money even when I was in transit to France. I was writing on the ship. From Paris, I used to send articles about the exhibitions there, celebrated artwork I was seeing and so on.
How did Varanasi become a constant in your oeuvre?
MF Husain was the one who took me to Varanasi in 1960. We went with Sripat Rai, Munshi Premchand’s son, and stayed at their haveli. I always borrowed from cities and countries I visited — Greece, Ladakh, Prague and Venice. When I visited Varanasi, there was an instant connect. It was an inner, spiritual experience and I have visited it numerous times.