A leading name from India’s modern art movement, Ram Kumar is renowned for his ephemeral landscapes. With Tyeb Mehta and Akbar Padamsee, he made a strong thrust towards modernism, albeit each artist followed his own unique stylistic and thematic preoccupations in a larger context. For example, Ram Kumar’s paintings expressed the desolation or sense of loss he witnesses in the life around him.
He was greatly inspired by its mystical imagery of day-to-day life in Varanasi. When he first went there almost five decades ago, he felt a haunting sense of hopelessness and desolation in the dimly lit, deserted lanes of a dark night. The starkness of this haunting experience only grew with every subsequent trip to the holy city. These impressions marked a major transition in his thought process and practice. Reliving it, he had stated: “The main purpose of my visit to Varanasi was to feel its depth and intensity. When I first went there, I thought the city was only inhabited by the dead and their lifeless souls. It seemed like a haunted place to me and still remains the same.”
The young painter spent hours at the riveting riverbanks engulfed by a vast sea of humanity. The wary faces with a prayer on their lips seemed like masks that bore marks of sufferings similar to the creaky windows and doors jutting out of old structures. Seeing the lifeless bodies brought from distant villages, awaiting their turn for liberation, he felt the fading boundary between life and death. The somber sight left a lasting imprint on his artistic sensibility. Gradually, a new visual idiom arose from the depths of an introspective experience.
Though hailing from a large middle-class family sans any creative environment, he and his brother developed interest in literature. In 1945, he happened to visit an art exhibition, and he almost immediately joined art classes. As his passion for painting grew, Ram Kumar decided to travel to France. Fortunately, he received the French Cultural Council scholarship (1949-52). It was a great learning experience for him to meet the likes of Octavio Paz, Jacaques Roubaut, Andre Lhote, and Fernand Leger.
In his early works, the painter opted for an elegiac figuration, exuding the excruciating spirit of tragic Modernism. He also drew upon exemplars such as Georges Rouault, Gustave Courbet, Edward Hopper, and Kathe Kollwitz. Infused with a great ideological fervor, he dedicated himself to constructing an iconography of victimhood and depression. The paintings imbued with a touch of melancholic Realism not only reflected his acute disillusionment with the anonymity and monotony of urban existence, but also alluded to the disillusionment with unfulfilled promises after India’s Independence. These compositions represented a significant phase of the country’s post-Independence art.
Analyzing Ram Kumar’s growth trajectory, art critic Ranjit Hoskote has noted in an essay: "He spent the first decade of India's independence, perfecting an elegiac figuration imbued with the spirit of tragic modernism. To this period belong those lost souls: the monumental Picassoesque figures packed into a darkened picture-womb, terrorized workers, emaciated doll-women and the bewildered clerks trapped in the industrial city. Rendered through a semi-cubist discipline and memorialized, these fugitives are trapped in a hostile environment and in their own divided selves."
A series of solos of his wonderful work have been held in India and internationally over the last six decades. It has also been featured in several recent group exhibitions, including 'Paper Trails', Vadehra, Delhi; 'The Progressives & Associates', Grosvenor Gallery, London; 'From Miniature to Modern', Rob Dean Art, London courtesy Pundole, Mumbai; 'Master Class', The Arts Trust, Mumbai (2010); 'Indian Art After Independence’, Emily Lowe Gallery, Hempstead; 'Progressive to Altermodern', Grosvenor, London, and 'Tracing Time', Bodhi Art, Mumbai (2009).
His retrospective exhibitions have been held at NGMA (1994) and Jehangir Art Gallery courtesy Vadehra, Delhi (1994); Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal (1986), and Birla Museum, Kolkata (1980). Among his recent participations are '10th Anniversary Show', Tao gallery, Mumbai; annual exhibitions of Chawla Art Gallery, and Kumar Art Gallery, Delhi (2010); 'Paz Mandala', LKA, Delhi, and 'Moderns', Royal Cultural Centre, Amman, Jordan (2008-09). The veteran artist has won several honors and awards, such as Officers Arts et Letters, France (2003); Kalidas Samman, Madhya Pradesh government (1986); Padma Shri, Government of India (1972); J. D. Rockefeller III Fellowship, New York (1970), and the national awards (1956, 1958).
The core concern of his oeuvre remains the pathetic human condition. A sense of alienation in crowded cities disturbs him as an artist. The extreme irony he notices in the life around finds an echo in his paintings. If his Benares series is a haunting meditation on death, the landscape paintings focus on brighter side of life. The vibrant colors and shimmering surfaces exude a sense of restless vitality.
A visionary link seems to exist between his paintings and his stories. If his landscapes appear remote and alien, his stories are troubled, sad and brooding. The colors – greys, yellow ochres and browns – soak in their deft tonal subtleties, and his lines pulsate at every point of its length. Stylistically and thematically, Ram Kumar’s amazing oeuvre grips your mind and heart.