EXHIBITION - Ram Kumar Show (May 19-Jul 30, 2002) :

PARTS OF A WORLD: Reflections on the Art of Ram Kumar

Paradox, more often than consistency, defines the vitality of any field of cultural production. This may explain why many artists in post-colonial India, while asserting the autonomy of their individual styles in relation to tradition, actually work their way towards the critical re-articulation of the innermost impulses of their background culture. The distinguished painter Ram Kumar (born 1924) offers an important and dramatic example of this pattern. In charting Ram Kumar's development as a painter, we also trace the graph of an art evolving in the context of India's unfolding national modernity, with the freight of intellectual and spiritual crisis, the changing currents of aesthetic and stylistic preoccupation that this implies.

Ram Kumar's painterly development could be conceived of as a pilgrimage, given the orderliness with which its stages have succeeded one another. And yet, through the decades, this pilgrimage has been broken at several, and sometimes surprising, way stations of experiment. Having been drafted into the circle of artists who gathered at meetings of the Silpi Chakra association in New Delhi in the late 1940s, Ram Kumar left for Paris in the following decade, to study art formally. He found himself in a Europe that had not yet recovered from the economic and psychological cataclysm of World War II, and to this environment he brought a consciousness equally traumatised by the circumstances under which the Indian subcontinent had won its independence from British colonial rule in 1947.

Ram Kumar That independence had been achieved at the cost of the subcontinent's partition into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. The communitarian riots and pogroms that attended these events, and the two-way diaspora of refugees between the new nation-states, were to scar the subcontinent's subsequent history (many of Ram Kumar's colleagues at Silpi Chakra were refugees who had sought shelter in Delhi during this tumultuous period). The artist took this knowledge of suffering with him to Paris, where he became acutely aware, also, of the constraints that the bourgeois-capitalist order can place on the individual subjectivity. He became a member of the French Communist Party, coming into contact with such notable radicals as Louis Aragon and Roger Garaudy, Paul Eluard and Fernand Leger. He spent most of that decade, the first decade of India's independence, in Europe: both as painter and as writer of fiction, he meditated on the varieties of suffering that he had encountered.

Ram Kumar may have enlisted under the Communist banner, but he was impelled by humanist compassion rather than by ideological fervour; eventually, he would move away from all formal political affiliations. Even at this time, he drew upon a diverse and not necessarily Party-sanctioned range of artistic exemplars, including Courbet, Rouault, Kathe Kollwitz and Edward Hopper; he dedicated himself to an intense and stylised idiom of figuration imbued with the spirit of tragic modernism, an elegiac iconography of depression and victimhood.

To this period belong the lost souls who inhabit such paintings as 'Sad Town' and 'Hidden Sorrows': the mondiglianesque figures packed into a darkened picture-womb, the bewildered clerks, terrorised workers and emaciated doll-women trapped in the semi-urbanised industrial city. Rendered through a semi-Cubist discipline, these fugitives are trapped in a hostile environment, and in their own divided selves. The paintings of this period offer evidence of Ram Kumar's scepticism with regard both to bourgeois European society and the social formation that had begun to take shape in India.

Ram Kumar India's passage to freedom had, as we have noted, released both constructive and destructive energies on a mass scale. What gave the nascent Indian republic coherence was its collective hope for a future that was incarnated in its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru's vision of a liberal, humane and ecumenical society - a vision that was confidently positivist in its regard for the scientific management of progress, yet sensitive to the conservation of India's traditional systems of skill and creativity. Many Indian artists saw themselves, in this phase, both as participants in the nation-building enterprise and as observers of its costs: their mood fluctuated between idealism and doubt.

If the motifs of technology provoked admiration in Leger (as they did in Nehru), they compelled the opposite reaction in his pupil: Ram Kumar could only fear the locomotive of progress, driven as it was by an increasingly insensitive ruling elite. 'Sad Town' (1956) cramps us into the disappointing modernity of dams and highways, the satellite town with its badly painted cement-concrete buildings, its pylons and ugly overhead electric cables. The individuals jammed into a picture space divided into awkward compartments are members of a local petite bourgeoisie: they caricature the notion of cosmopolitanism in their ill-fitting Western clothes and their ill-fitting aspirations; the squinting eyes of the men suggest defeat, the woman's clenched fists speak of a quiet desperation. Pressed flat against the canvas, his protagonists are reduced to pawns and tramps, components in the brutal machine of a society controlled by unseen powers. They can do little but squint out at exits that simply are not there.

Ram Kumar II. Over the late 1950s, Ram Kumar shifted away from these melancholy evocations, and towards landscapes in which he explored the archetypal presence of Varanasi, Hinduism's most sacred city: a site of acute polarities, a place at once of dying and rebirth, grief and celebration. In Varanasi, where religion and corruption flourish interwoven, where the zones of faith and torment intersect, he found a potent symbol by which to denote human suffering under the tyranny of putrefying social customs.

During this phase, the artist abandoned figuration altogether. Always diffident and marginal in Ram Kumar's art, the figure disappeared entirely from the burning ghats and penumbral hovels of the Varanasi canvasses. By banishing the figure from his kingdom of shadows, the artist was able to emphasise the nullification of humanity, and to deploy architecture and landscape as metaphors articulating cultural and psychological fragmentation, the bondage of an imposed destiny that strangled the will to liberation and self-knowledge.

Ram Kumar addressed himself to the formal aberrations of mismatched planes, jamming the horizontal perspective against top views inspired by site-mapping and aerial photography, and locking the muddy, impasto-built riverbank constructions into a Cubist geometrical analysis. Gradually, the architecture drained away from his canvasses: society itself passed from his concerns, until, during the late 1960s, his paintings assumed the character of abstractionist hymns to nature.

In these works, the landscape became its own architecture. Ram Kumar began to commemorate vast, epic images: the whirling onslaught of the storm, the descent of ragged forests along the courses of swollen rivers, the bronze echoes of the sun roaring above the cliffs, an eclipse falling like the shadow of a great bird over honeycombed ruins, glaciers and fault lines. The paintings of this third and continuing phase, elaborated in Ram Kumar's hallmark palette of ochre, ultramarine, sienna and viridian, carry a sharp whiff of pine from the Shivaliks, the Himalayan foothills. We sense, in them, the aura of Shimla, where the artist spent his childhood, and of Andretta, the village in the Kangra valley to which he retreats periodically, to replenish himself. As he writes in a personal communication to this writer (Winter 1995): "When I sit facing the Dhauladhar range, with the thick forests of the Shivaliks at my back, I start probing within myself, my mind full of memories and lost images."

Ram Kumar Apocalypse and renewal, nostalgia and hope are the themes of Ram Kumar's idiom: these rhapsodies point to a transcendence. Holding the cosmic within a miniature frame, the numinous within the materiality of loaded pigment and decisive stroke, these paintings approach the visionary landscape. We wander homeless in the cosmos; at the end of our arduous climb, the artist rewards us with an epiphany that, unlike the seductive and treacherous mirage, exalts by its advent. Like a musical note sounding when it was least expected, out of the ochre-gold and olive of the undulating hills, a vibration of sparkling blue reveals itself.

The world is at a slant in these paintings, askew, all slope. Everything seems about to change its form and nature: the soaring wedge of the mountain, the tumescent fork of the watershed, the streaming avalanche, the floodburst. Entropy, the long descent into nocturnal winter, reigns over this unruly climate; and yet spring, its indomitable opposite, refuses to be quelled and explodes in tan and sienna, green and azure. Ram Kumar's paintings reiterate the Heraclitean dictum that all things are in flux: they resonate with the cadences of a universe that continually brings its precipitates to birth, only to subject them to decay, dissolving them in history's acid current.

Ram Kumar embodies the drift and flux of this Heraclitean universe in a structure hinged together from a succession of collapses and seizures, stresses and strains. In dissolving and re-concretising the motif, he subjects visible reality to prismatic analysis: his topography is a diagram of forces in a field rather than a picturesque post-card view; each city, each trapfall is a summation of views presented from various angles, arranged on the same plane for the discernment of the viewer. Ram Kumar's landscapes are orchestrated as a dynamic equilibrium of floating planes, triggered weights and directional vectors. We respond to these meditative frames precisely because they have moved from the perceptual to the conceptual, from semblance to structure.

Ram Kumar III. Ram Kumar, like many of his confreres among the first generation of post-colonial Indian artists - including such figures as F N Souza, M F Husain, Paritosh Sen, Jehangir Sabavala, Krishen Khanna, S H Raza and Akbar Padamsee - combined an internationalist desire with the need to belong emphatically to their homeland. In its internationalist mood, this generation looked to the early 20th-century modernisms of Paris, London and Vienna for inspiration; its need to belong prompted an interest in the construction of a viable 'Indian' aesthetic that bore a dynamic relationship to an Indian identity. With Ram Kumar, this quest for an indigenist tenor has not meant a superficial inventory of 'native' motifs offered as evidence of a static and essentialist Indian identity. Instead, as I have already suggested, he demonstrates that a painter can enact the innermost dramas of his culture while maintaining the individuality, even idiosyncrasy of his performance.

Ram Kumar Ram Kumar's art, which has proceeded through an alternation of joyous expressivity and brooding reticence, plays out a crucial polarity of emphasis in the context of Indic culture: that between samsara, the sensual participation in the world of events, and nirvana, the ascetic blowing-out of desire. Having renounced the active engagement with the state and civil society that had earlier characterised his position, the artist has turned gradually inward, choosing to be an internal exile of the spirit. This withdrawal affords him the space in which to reflect upon the great natural forces that have enthralled him since his childhood, to gauge their metaphorical import: in their workings, he senses the deeper intrigue of time as kala, the destroyer of worlds. Attentive to the ceremonials of decay, alert to the processes of transformation, he stands on that threshold where the anguish of the private self is sublimated into the universal rhythm of creation and destruction.

Ram Kumar Ram Kumar's continual awareness of this rhythm produces a specific effect of deconstruction in his aquarelles and Japanese-ink paintings from the mid-1990s. The intimacy of reduced scale permits the artist to conduct himself as though he were a stranger to the world he has composed carefully over the decades: he dismantles its coherent grandeur into fragments. Even as he strums upon the basic images that have long preoccupied him, he adopts the notation rather than the composition as his structural principle in his watercolours; which is why we are seized, in these works, by the pleasure of renewed encounter.

Ram Kumar IV. Architecture, long abandoned, returned to occupy Ram Kumar's canvasses in 1992. In the Varanasi series of thirty years before, it had symbolised the degradation and inertia, the simultaneous religiosity and appalling callousness of a ramshackle civilisation. Ram Kumar's early-1990s conception of the dwelling was no longer the house of the widows rising through the Gangetic murk, or the tin-roofed shack of the shantytown. It was no place of the living, but the serene tomb, its dome a stillness unbroken by voices.

Ram Kumar's meditations on the tomb, informed by his fondness for Delhi's Lodhi and Mughal crypts, prompt an unease: they force upon us an awareness of the absolute nature of death, while also countering that fate with a final, elegant gesture of the affirmation of presence. The built form signals the hope of posterity, and yet triggers off a bleak terror, a memorandum of extinction. And the ambient landscape, secure in the knowledge of its own permanence, remains indifferent to the works of humanity.

Ram Kumar During the mid-1990s, the city that Ram Kumar invoked was a composite city of the imagination: it was a spectral Varanasi, but the domes, gables and arches that loom through the fog evoke the ghosts of other cities, sinking into marshy lagoons or cresting deltas of brackish discontent: Delhi, Byzantium, Rome, Alexandria, Venice, Moscow and Baghdad. In his oils, acrylics and drawings of those years, Ram Kumar embraced the city at the very moment when it is about to be overwhelmed by catastrophe. Site of habitation yet cold refuge to the homeless, its ghats wavered, its gateways swayed, and even the skiffs poised midstream lost their balance as the painting was overturned by the momentum of a rushing gale. With a broad, fluid handling, Ram Kumar would dismantle the city, breaking its earthworks, gathering it into the pure abstract motion of swirl and fall.

In his most recent works, the artist negotiates, afresh, the counterpoint between city and landscape that has long exercised him: to shuttle between these poles is to know and traverse the discontinuity between home and world. The city, shored up from silt, vulnerable to the river's sullen tides and periodic floods, would appear to symbolise the life of the grihasta, the householder trammelled by duties, circumscribed by ritual, susceptible to anxiety. The landscape, on the other hand, with its drifts of ice and sand, its hills misting into the horizon, suggests the open breadth of the cosmos, where the sanyasin, the renouncer, may wander at will.

If Ram Kumar's art has been a journey from city to landscape, from the grihasta's social obligations to the sanyasin's peripatetic freedom, it has also been an art of looking back, an art of reminiscence. As he departs from places he has known intimately, the artist takes with him spasms of agitation that he will recollect in tranquillity; so that the images that time has shattered may be set right, and words lost to the wind may be strung together, again, in chants. Do we see evidence, in Ram Kumar's most recent work, of a reconciliation between householder and renouncer, city and landscape? In the paintings that he has executed since the late 1990s, the architecture of the tomb has been replaced by the architecture of the temple-town built by the river. This is surely a Varanasi idealised as tirtha, the ford that signifies a place of pilgrimage in Indic culture: the point where settlement meets openness, and the pilgrim self makes the crossing from locality to cosmos, the earthly to the transcendent, time to eternity.

Ram Kumar V. Ram Kumar's recent paintings attest, also, to another kind of reconciliation: since the aesthetic experience belongs, eventually, to the realm of samsara rather than that of nirvana, it cannot be defined by severity of structure alone; the impulse towards the voluptuary insinuates itself even into the sternest asceticism. Motivated by one pole of his sensibility, Ram Kumar has often acted as an 'inquisitor of structures' (the phrase is Wallace Stevens'), translating the earth in the idiom of the surveyor's map, so that a topographical code of contour lines and benchmarks constrains the deep saturations of the landscape. But he has also been tempted to oscillate to the other and romantic pole of his sensibility: taking a passionate and unabashed delight in the physicality of the vista, its capacity for moodiness and unstable beauty, he has celebrated the flush of magnolias in bloom, the gravid slopes borne down by clouds.

The dialogue between these opposite poles has grown richer, and replenishes Ram Kumar's oeuvre: his stringent geometry and his contemplation of mortality now yield primacy to the celebration of sensuousness, the solace of the beautiful. The true subject of Ram Kumar's art, perhaps, is the landscape as Beloved. In responding to the palpable eroticism of graze and blur, the stippling and studding of textures across these painted surfaces, we share his manifest rapture, his sense of stepping outside himself to attain communion with the Beloved.

Ranjit Hoskote
Bombay, Summer 2002

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