The Abstract World of Ram Kumar, 1924-2018

An edited version of this was published in today's Hindustan Times. I don't own rights to the images used in this post. If you do and you'd like me to take them off, please let me know.

Close your eyes and think of Ladakh (or search for it on Google). See the ungreen mountains, the painfully-bright sky and the shapes in which that landscape has been carved by wind and water.

Now take a look at how artist Ram Kumar interpreted those sights.

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These slashes of colour and contrasts aren't realistic in the technical sense and yet, when you look at it, you know it's a landscape, you know there's a sky, a few low houses and craggy peaks. More importantly, you can feel how unforgiving this terrain is. It's expressed in the jutting angles and the dusty colours (made all the more dry because of the richness of the contrasting blue). And so, with a few angular shapes and slashing, dark lines, the abstract is made real. In the paintings inspired by Ladakh’s harsh but spectacular landscape, Kumar’s talent for using colours almost like emotional accents is unmistakable.

In 1948, Ram Kumar had a difficult decision to take. Should he devote all his time to becoming an artist, or pursue it as a hobby while continuing to work in a bank? Kumar, whose younger brother was well-known Hindi writer and novelist Nirmal Verma, chose art. It seems like a sentimental decision today but back then, Kumar was being practical. You could sell two paintings, earn ₹300 — and that covered his monthly expenses in a way that was much more enjoyable than banking.

That year, Kumar would have his first exhibition. Not too many paintings sold, but Kumar had found his calling. It was an ironic beginning for an artist who wouldn’t make headlines for the prices his paintings fetched, but whose art is a national treasure.

Ram Kumar was perhaps the least famous of those who belonged to the Progressive Artists Group. Founded in 1947, in Bombay, the collective drew some of India's most brilliant young artists and then started disintegrating in the early 1950s. By 1956, it had officially disbanded.

While it lasted, it enriched the imaginations of some India's finest artists, and long after the group had collapsed, the label of Progressives remained because these artists truly lived up to that tag. Inspired by European art but determined to develop a distinctive visual vocabulary for a modern, newly-independent India, the Progressives were incandescent. Some, like FN Souza and MF Husain, became iconic as much for their art as their flamboyant personalities and scandals. Ram Kumar was not among the founders, but he was friends with Raza, Husain and others. Photographs of him from those decades show a slim, good-looking man, who stared intensely whether he was looking into the camera or away from it. He would go on to dabble in journalism and write short stories in Hindi, but most importantly, he'd develop a strikingly new artistic style that was abstract and yet rooted in realism.

 Ram Kumar photographed by  Richard Bartholomew .

Ram Kumar photographed by Richard Bartholomew.

On April 14, the legendary artist Ram Kumar passed away in Delhi. He was 94.

Born in 1924, in Simla, Kumar discovered art while studying economics at St Stephen’s College. His first teacher was the Shantiniketan artist Sailoz Mookherjea and in 1949, Kumar went to Paris to train under André Lhote and Fernand Léger. The sights and sounds of post-World War II Europe would have a deep impact on young Kumar, as would the way French artists and poets grappled with the suffering they witnessed.

Kumar returned to India in 1952 and became friends with Raza, Husain and others from the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group. After briefly dabbling in figurative painting, Kumar started painting landscapes and cityscapes that had obvious connections to Cubism, but developed into a visual vocabulary that was unmistakably Kumar's own. These weren’t pretty pictures, but had imagery that reduced a scene to near abstraction. He dismissed realism and, instead, recreated the feeling of a place through precariously-balanced shapes, bold lines and earthy colours. To remove people from a scene is an unusual device. Most artists keep human figures to give a sense of scale or add an emotive quality. To remove people from scenes set in India was a radical concept. India's people have been the cornerstone of how the country and its culture had been depicted. Kumar, instead, focused on geometry and architecture for the bulk of his career. People and faces would return to his paintings during his last years. It was almost as though these figures of his imagination were the company he wanted to keep.

Despite the absence of figures in Kumar's paintings, they're not lifeless. On the contrary, they teem with emotion. There's depression, a searing sense of disillusionment and sometimes, a meditative calm that radiates from his work. At their darkest, the paintings feel like wombs in which sadness is festering. The deserted streets and lanes make you wonder about what is locked away in the buildings that will not open up to the viewer's gaze. They convey the sense of isolation that comes with being in a big city. The naturescapes contain textures and layers — often literally, since Kumar liked using the impasto technique to create accents. There was a sense of human toil that you could feel as your eye followed the unwavering lines. Abstracted by Ram Kumar, the world became all the more unnerving and yet so fascinating that you had to linger before his paintings.

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Disinterested in the media and unimpressed by how little actual interest he saw for art and culture in India, Kumar didn't become a headline-grabbing artist. When he spoke about art he was both undiplomatic and honest. He didn't mince his words when criticising the government for how little it had done to nurture artists and promote art in India. He didn't shy away from saying Indian audiences weren't interested in art by and large, and that this was a shame. He was one of the few who didn't miss a beat or attempt diplomacy when asked which contemporary artists' work he liked (Atul Dodiya and Subodh Gupta was what he'd told me).

In 2010, Kumar was awarded the Padma Bhushan.

Kumar is perhaps best known for his paintings of Varanasi and Ladakh. He first went to Varanasi in 1960-1961 with MF Husain, and the city fascinated him. He would later say that he turned to an almost-abstract visual language because he just couldn’t imagine being able to recreate the misery and pain radiating from the human form he saw. Varanasi, crowded with those seeking blessings and salvation, turns into a ghost town in Kumar’s paintings — a cityscape of stark slabs, flares of colours, jagged lines, pointy roofs and a curving river that’s bent into an embrace.

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Part memory, part imagination and part abstraction, Kumar’s style was ahead of its time. He didn’t offer the pretty peace and stability of his friend Raza’s abstract art. Kumar’s paintings were often messy, ugly and even hinting violence with the way his lines slashed their way across the canvas. His art demanded you to linger and look beyond the obvious. The world in Kumar’s paintings is an organised chaos of shapes, almost as though he’s looking down from above; the ruminations of an angry god.