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A colourful friendship

Ram Kumar’s upcoming solo at Chemould is a tribute to Kekoo Gandhy, one of the oldest patrons of Indian art


January 18, 2008 4:10:09 pm

For over six decades now, his colour-splashed canvases have adorned the walls of galleries like Pundole and Chemould. But we have seen very little of the artist, Ram Kumar. Now as the 83-year-old, , a contemporary of the biggies of Indian art like M.F. Husain, S H Raza and Akbar Padamsee, puts together an exhibition in early February dedicated to none other than Kekoo Gandhy, the founder of Chemould Art Gallery, he is emerging from his cocoon to share both his canvases and memories.

“I thought of organising the show as a homage to Kekoo since it’s been a while that I exhibited at his gallery. The new space, at Chemould Prescott, which I have yet to see sounds exciting but this exhibition was not done with that gallery in mind. It is a suite of oil on canvas executed in 2007, and was recently exhibited in London at the Grosbener Gallery,” says the Shimla-born painter, who likes to hole himself up in his studio in east Delhi and seldom ventures out.
Kumar’s link with Gandhy goes back to 1964 when he first exhibited at Chemould. The artist then was a new figure in the Bombay Progressives and had just made friends with S.H. Raza. Gandhy was the owner of one of the first private galleries to open at the Kala Ghoda area in Mumbai and went on to sponsor shows of prominent artists like Husain, K.H. Ara and Raza.

“After that landmark show, there were a number of occasions when I have shown at Gandhy’s gallery and we have always been friends. This is my first big attempt to show my feelings and return his warmth and friendship,” says Kumar.
Gandhy, too, has good memories of those days. “After the opening, we had all gone to Kihim beach for a picnic. Husain and Ram were sitting on a wall and Husain was showing us how to give a foot massage by just pressing the soft of your foot against the hard wall. That is the kind of time we had in those days of leisure,” recalls Gandhy. Whenever Kumar would visit Gandhy, he would insist that he stay at his Bandra residence. “I have seen his son grow and watched his art moved from figurative to the abstract he is known for now,” he says.

Before Kumar arrived at his abstract landscapes, his works were characterised by desolate figures that conveyed a sense of urban angst. Kumar was also acutely aware of the scar that the Partition had left on the country. Many of his colleagues at the Silpi Chakra in Delhi had been made refugees and a lot of his work of that time was influenced by that trauma.
In the early Fifties, Kumar left for Paris and studied painting under Andre Lhote and painter Fernand Leger in Paris between 1949-52; he carried his past with him, not forgetting his Indian roots or his commitment to the proletariat. He joined the Communist party and noteworthy radicals like poet Paul Eluard and Leger.

When he returned to India in the Sixties, his colleagues were happy to see that Paris had not changed Kumar. He was still as simple and reclusive as he used to be. Only, the prices of his canvases had shot up. “His canvases were soon fetching higher prices than others like Ara. Again, this turn of events for Kumar never affected our friendship,” says Gandhy.
Auctions have now pushed the price for Kumar’s early works to a crore but the artist remains unassuming. “The auctions are part of the game, it’s not a question of being happy or unhappy about the commercial approach,” he says. Gandhy is happy that Kumar has chosen Chemould to display his solo and to dedicate the show to him, “I am indeed honoured, and it proves that our friendship has stood the test of time.”

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