7th June, 2002

The heart of Varanasi on Canvas.... Ram Kumar's painting continues to be unpeopled. There is a quietude and reconciliation about them that is becalming. Gayatri Sinha observes all this and much more at the recent one-day exhibition of Ram Kumar's works in New Delhi... One may wonder what Pandit Channulal Mishra, a master of the Purabi ang of vocal music, and the artist Ram Kumar have in common? Quite simply it is the city of Varanasi. One the gharana singer in the line of the legendary tabla wizard Pandit Gudai Maharaj, the other a virtually self-taught artist. They are bound together by what Daina Eck describes as the City of Light.. At 66, Channulal Mishra spends much of his time in his small room in Chhoti Gaibi, Sigra. It is an old part of the city, the entrace to the door is low enough to make you crouch, and any entrant has to walk sideways, single file to enter the house. Channulal Mishra, grandson of Gudai Maharaj and son-in-law of Anokhe Lal Mishra, learnt his art from a range of great singers like Thakur Jaidev Singh and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan.

Channulalji is one of the greatest living exponents of the semi-classical forms of North Indian music - thumri, dadra, chaiti, kajri, holi. With him surely an entire era will pass. Yet till the age of 63, he did not have a single commercial recording to boast of, and has only recently been feted at premier festivals like the Shankarlal. For this short, stocky man with a rich tenor, erhaps the greatest recompense was living in Kashi, in a small house where the stairs wind up and down like his spiraling mellifluous tans. His music, rich as it is in bhakti gayan, is intensely peopled like the city of Kashi itself. He sings of the issues of longing and desire, of the changing seasons , the koel that awakes the nayika each morning, the lure of the full green fields and of the gods who feel the ebb and flow of human emotion. The music evokes continually the sound of the bells and the ringing of the aarti, the stillness and the continual movement of the city. Not surprisingly he titled a recording on Krishna 'The Heart of Varanasi'. In startling contrast, and perhaps as an enduring compliment to the idea of Varanasi stands Ram Kumar. For four decades the city, or more specifically the idea of Varanasi, has been a recurring subject. Ram Kumar is the quintessential landscapist, who has adapted perhaps the greatest virtues of the school of Paris to his own ends. It is interesting that the early Ram Kumar is used consistently to define the painter as he is most widely recognised. By which I mean that his melancholic, part modernist Modigliani type figured of the mid 1950s, framed against the hard flat exteriors of the city, as depressive exiles, are in fact used to continually decode the slew of paintings that have followed in his post-Varanasi abstract phase. In other words, the landscapes in the manner of the earlier figurative works are seen as metaphors of the human existentialist state - freezing the artist somewhere between Jean Paul Sartre and Nicholas de Stael. The artist himself is by extension imbued with the view of the outsider and the exile. This may be both a simplified and limited reading of Ram Kumar. The artist is primarily a formalist, who has been overwhelmingly. Committed to the plastic possibilities of his materials, to the epic potential that is generated each time he puts paint to canvas, and allows the incisive strokes of the spatula or the jagged movement of brush to evoke a sense of both mystery and recognition. In Ram Kumar, this evocation has most often been interpreted as the primeval landscape, ruggedly unpeopled, harsh and jagged in its fierce and seemingly untamed beauty.

But when does Varanasi fit into sweeping generalized reading of his art? This past week for a single evening 31 works by Ram Kumar were exhibited by Saffron Art, the company that is taking the exhibition to San Francisco and New York. The overwhelming impression the show evoked was one of quietude, even reconciliation, some of the works contain the vigorous evocation of the landscape as only he paints it, collapsing prespective, compacting vast spreads and rocky angularities to contain great compressed. Energy. But his palette is fairly muted, and in fact seems to anticipate the more deliberate paintings of the city. It is after a considerable lapse that Ram Kumar has taken to painting a recognizable Varanasi. It is if one was standing on the muddy flats of Ram Nagar, looking on at the seven-kilometre stretch between Varuna and Asi that makes up the holy city of Varanasi. Recognisable faintly are the spires of the holy Vishwanath temple and the presence of its neighbour, the gyan Vapi mosque. There are illuminated temple doorways hinting at the effulgent garba griha within, and the collapsed temple of Ahalya, that sinks in sideways, as if caught permanently in the act of rigor mortis.

As ever, the paintings are distinctly unpeopled, quite shorn of the time cycles that otherwise guide the daily cycle of life at Kashi. The cold palette forebodes death, but contains within this eventuality the great comprehension that Varanasi brings : of the coming together of the earth, air, water, fire and ether - the panch mahabhutas, the essential gunnas of tamas, rajas and sattva that direct all life, and of the guiding principles that determine the samskaras of life and death. It is in this perhaps that Ram Kumar is probably the greatest abstractionist that India has produced in 50 years, because the absorbs - as Nicholas de Stael famously recommended - the possibilities of figuration in his painting, and moves beyond into the realm of the tentative stance of a discussant, allowing us to walk with him in his journey, to comment, pause and nod in agreement perhaps, in a sharing that is always generously open-ended.  

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