Ram Kumar

Born 1924. Died 2018.
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Ram Kumar Biography

Over the course of his career, Ram Kumar bore witness to a number of pivotal movements in art history, which were to have a profound effect on his painting. He was born in Simla in 1924 and later moved to New Delhi, where he studied art under the tutelage of Sailoz Mookherjea. In 1950, he left for Paris, where he would continue his studies with the great masters André Lhote and Fernand Léger. Like Francis Newton Souza and Sayed Haider Raza, as a first generation postcolonial Indian artist, Kumar was struck by a desire for global success yet retained his need to preserve a close connection with his homeland. Thus, while European styles infused his work, his subject matter remained distinctly Indian.

His figurative works from this period, remain familiar with their muted earth-tone color palettes, but are devoid of any recognizable characters; distinctive, emotive facial features; costume elements; or urban and landscape backdrops. His works from this period not only reflect his disillusionment but are also part of a larger commentary on the despair and desolation experienced in India due to the unrealized promises of a better life after Independence. Reflecting a sense of vulnerability and isolation, Ram Kumar often depicted urban dwellers who felt constrained by the city. 'Though I wasn't directly involved with the rehabilitation of people who had come from Pakistan during Partition, I was involved in some way with the refugee settlements in Karol Bagh and that definitely affected me,” the artist recounts. (The Hindu, Friday Review, Delhi, 17 December 2010). Ram Kumar has asserted that his brief dalliance with the communist movement in France also left an impact deep within.

Ram Kumar's landscapes mark a significant shift in his work, from his post-Paris figurative phase to the non-figurative world of abstraction. In the winter of 1960, Ram Kumar visited the holy city of Varanasi (or Benares) which prompted this significant shift in his painterly style. Seeking to capture the haunted nature of his experience in a novel way, the artist moved away from figuration and started to paint a series of landscapes devoid of the usual constituents of reality and where the human figure was noticeably absent.

The conspicuous absence of human figures in Kumar’s paintings of Varanasi may be explained by the circumstances of his first visit: “It was the middle of winter. And I had reached the city late at night. The dimly lit lanes were deserted and gave an impression of a ghostly deserted city. Except for the occasional howl of stray dogs, all was quiet. I thought the city was inhabited only by the dead and their dead souls. It looked like a haunted place and still remains the same… Every sight was like a new composition, a still life artistically organised to be interpreted in colours. It was not merely outward appearances which were fascinating but they were vibrant with an inner life of their own, very deep and profound, which left an everlasting impression on my artistic sensibility”. (R. Kumar quoted in Ram Kumar: A Journey Within, ed. G. Gil, New Delhi, 1996, p. 89)

Hindus believe that death or cremation in this holy city leads to liberation rather than rebirth in another form and in some ways these sentiments are reflected in the transition of Ram Kumar's work from figuration to abstraction. In the words of the artist, “Every sight was like a new composition, a life artistically organized to be interpreted in colours. It was not merely outward appearances which were fascinating but they were vibrant with an inner life of their own, very deep and profound, which left an everlasting impression on my artistic sensibility. I could feel a new visual language emerging from the depth of an experience.” (Ram Kumar in G. Gill ed., Ram Kumar: A Journey Within, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, 1996, p.89)

By the late 1960s, Kumar’s paintings turned away from Varanasi and towards the more nostalgic landscapes of his childhood, the forests and rivers of the Himalayan foothills. Kumar’s works from the late 1960s document his steady progression towards complete abstraction. ‘Ram Kumar translates the landscape into a system of lines, planes, blocks; their machine edged logic, entering into dialogue with texture and tone, governs the distribution of significant masses over the picture space.’ (R. Hoskote, Ram Kumar: A Journey Within, New Delhi, 1996, p. 38)

Using colour and subtle gradations in his canvases, Kumar was able to break down forms and ideas to their abstracted core. Through this practice he had come to the realisation that abstraction had an inherent presence in all Indian art, and had formed separately to its Western counterpart.

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