Ram Kumar lived in New York in 1970 when he was on a Rockefeller grant.
In the winter of 1960, Ram Kumar visited the holy city of Varanasi (or Benares). The trip marked a significant moment in his artistic career whereby he abandoned the human figure in favour of abstracted cityscapes. The current work is an excellent example of this shift in his style. Here, Kumar has applied cubism to the architectural forms of Varanasi, and despite the throngs of people that fill its streets and ghats, the scene is entirely devoid of human presence.
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)
With its sombre hues and dark shadows, this painting captures the ghostly impression that Kumar described. The chaotic array of overlapping shapes and lines provide the only noise in an otherwise silent scene. With masterful brushstrokes, this is a haunting vista that matches the mystery of the sacred city itself.
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