After the death of the renowned painter Ram Kumar, the artist’s friends and close associates talk about his legacy, his commitment to leading a quiet and simple life, and his awe-inspiring artistic achievement. A report by Bhumika Popli.

 

‘The influence of nature and the way he applied pigments on the canvas became the language of Ram Kumar. That’s what his work is all about,” says the critic Prayag Shukla about Ram Kumar, one of India’s foremost modern artists, who passed away on 14 April at the age of 93.

Shukla continues: “One who has a lot of substance inside him doesn’t need much experimentation and this element came very naturally to Kumar. Everything progressed at ease for him.”

Kumar’s death marked the end of an era. His paintings, which often fetched big money at art auctions, made him a global icon. But his works conveyed a sense of melancholy and aloofness. He depicted an existential sadness in his much-loved, and always unpeopled landscapes. Kumar’s Benares series of paintings in particular won him great acclaim. He was also awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2010.

As Shukla says, it was difficult for Kumar to raise the prices of his paintings, but he did so the constant behest of his friend and fellow artist M.F. Husain. Despite all the riches, though, Kumar preferred a life of quiet and simplicity. Shukla tells the story told to him by Kumar’s sister-in-law Gagan Gill. “Kumar once bought a pair of shoes for Rs 2,000 for his servant, and for himself he bought shoes worth Rs 400.” Shukla has also curated a show on Kumar’s drawings, which the artist had done in bookkeeping ledgers.

Varanasi, 1966, by Ram Kumar.

But art wasn’t the only calling for Kumar. He once called the art education he was given in school “uninspiring”, and wanted instead to become a writer. And he did become a writer.

“Very few people know that Ram Kumar also used to write,” says renowned editor and Kumar’s friend Om Thanvi. “His brother, Nirmal Verma was a towering figure in Hindi Literature. But Ram Kumar himself was a fine fiction writer and very few people know about it. He started as a story writer only, and not as a painter.  He used to write in Hindi. Later I also published many of his writings in my paper Jansatta, when I was editing it.”

Thanvi adds, “Basically, he was a man of Hindi. That was really very strange in Delhi particularly, when we were meeting many painters here, like Krishen Khanna, Jatin Das. And Ram Kumar ji always used to talk in Hindi. If you look at his paintings, you see most of them were unsigned but later on, when he started signing his artwork, it was also done in Hindi.”

According to Thanvi, the master painter bridged the gap between abstract and figurative art. Thanvi gives an example. “The best example is the series of Benaras he painted. You can’t say those are the Benaras ghats, but they are very much there,” he says.

Untitled, 1965, by Ram Kumar.

Arun Vadehra, director of the Vadehra Art Gallery, had a long and fruitful collaboration with Kumar. He was one of the few people who were able to look at the artist’s work closely. Vadehra says, “Art was almost like a saadhna [discipline] to him. It really didn’t matter to him what he was making and he never needed the approval of the audience which made him quite unique in this manner. What really mattered to him was the effort he used to put in his work, and not the result. We loved his work even when there was no market. He was not bound to a particular subject. His work used to come from his heart. And that remained his motivation all his life. For us, he was a mentor.”

Acclaimed art critic and poet Ashok Vajpeyi was a close associate and lifelong friend of Kumar. It was an exhibition of Kumar’s paintings that Vajpeyi saw when he first came to Delhi in 1958. “I got to known him very early on. I came to Delhi when I was 17 and the first ever art exhibition I saw when I came to Delhi was of Ram Kumar’s, in Delhi Silpi Chakra at Shankar Market.”

Kumar’s work moved from figurative to abstract in his later career. Vajpeyi says, “His paintings in the earlier stage were figurative, which projected the lower middle-class reality—people looking sad, distracted, isolated, and most of the times lonely and even sometimes abundant; until he moved on and slowly became broadly and very authentically a landscape artist. He started painting the landscape of his memories from his early childhood days in Shimla.”

He adds, “Because he was born and brought up in Shimla, which is surrounded by hills on all sides, he drew inspiration from it. So it was this kind of work which can be called ‘hillscape’ rather than landscape. By the time he reached his Benaras phase, and a little later his paintings became quite abstract. The figures disappeared altogether and he became a kind of painter who was not trying to narrate everything, to say very much, he was very reticent. He was a man of few words. He used to feel uncomfortable when too many words were used. But he was not a painter of nothing, that [V.S.] Gaitonde became for instance. So there was a difference between the two, though they were great friends. There was a poetics of reticence, a poetics of not imposing his ideas on others in Kumar’s life.”

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