Ram Kumar was prepared for me when I visited him at his Delhi residence one recent evening. A day before, while arranging the interview, he had sounded somewhat ambivalent about having himself subjected to journalistic grilling at his age (he turned 91 this year). “Well, it’s all in the book,” he told me over the phone. “You can get the information from the catalogue, no?” I said I preferred seeing him and maybe having a short conversation, for as long as he felt comfortable. He very kindly acceded to my demand. And so, on the evening I arrived at his house, he sat under the high ceiling of his living room, with an empty chair next to him.
Flaubert believed that the greatest compliment one can pay to a painting is through silent, awed admiration, rather than words of praise or exegesis. Kumar’s abstract landscapes have often struck me dumb in the same way. I can’t say much about them except to direct you towards the canvases and have them — through their smudges of blue, grey or yellow (the colours of urbanity) and their out of kilter perspectives —speak to you.
Throughout our conversation, Kumar was exceedingly polite to me, bending forward every once in while to ensure I caught his voice — always very soft, and now very frail — in my recorder. Having started painting in the late 1940s, Kumar is among the last of our greatest living artists. His works are known to fetch big money at art auctions, but his celebrity is now a thing of the past.
These days, he doesn’t go out much or meet many people. While talking to me, he often lapsed into brief spells of silence, as though reminding me of the virtues of wordlessness; it was as though he was telling me to return to the paintings, for he has already answered all the questions there.
Q. You have lived most of your life in Delhi. Did this city ever inspire you in a way Benaras clearly did?
A. No, you did not feel inspired by Delhi, because you have become a part of the whole thing. Delhi, I have been living here… since after my birth I’ve been here. Delhi has also changed a lot. But, you know, a new place, when you go to a new place, there you get inspiration. So Benaras was a different experience for me to Delhi. Or Bombay or Prague or anything else. We painted Delhi, when we started painting outdoor scenes. We went cycling. To the ruins. You went to the Old Fort. We sat there and copied the ruins. This was when we were in college.
Q. How did Benaras finally happen? I have heard you were taken to that city by MF Husain.
A. It was a question of by chance. He [Husain] once came and said let us go on a sketching tour of Benaras. This was in 1961. So I said, let us go, and we went. We had a friend, who was living in Allahabad and had a house in Benaras. He wanted to come along. He was Premchand’s son. So we all went along, and stayed at Premchand’s house. It was a big building, lots of rooms and all that.
Q. And here begins what art critics call your “Benaras phase”…
A. I was inspired by Benaras, that is true. But Benaras phase…that is…that I don’t…I just painted Benaras. But Benaras can be depicted in many ways. Not in only one way. The ghats, the temples or the people. So it was…but this…I have said this a number of times…Benaras…[laughs]…one goes on repeating the same thing.
Q. It’s simplifying it? To put it that way?
A. Yes. It’s simplifying it.
Q. You started off trying to be a writer, like your brother Nirmal Verma. And you also wrote short stories in Hindi. Can you tell me what those stories were about? Do you remember?
A. Ya, I wanted to be a writer, not a painter [laughs]. The stories I wrote were about what I knew at the time: middle-class families. Problems in middle-class families. The stories have also been published. Then I wrote a small novel, but that was not important. I wrote mostly about the life I saw around Delhi, post-Partition.
Q. But you then decided that what you had to say was better conveyed through painting?
A. Whatever I wanted to say… painting… painting was a different medium altogether. What I wanted to say in writing actually could not be depicted in painting.
Q. How much time do you give to painting now? Do you still paint everyday?
A. Yes. Everyday. This is the only thing. Because I stopped going out. And painting is not a physically tiring activity. My studio is also here, in the basement. So whenever I feel like, I go there. No fixed timings as such.
Q. I am interested in your views on contemporary art. Do you look at works created by contemporary painters at all?
A. I have stopped doing that. Done it enough. My friends were all doing it once upon a time. And we would look at each other’s works. People like Husain, Raza, Akbar Padamsee, Tyeb Mehta. All these people were of my age. But not now. And then I am not interested in knowing what the younger gene ration is doing. I am not an art historian.
I wanted to be a writer, not a painter. The stories I wrote were about what I knew at the time: middle-class families. Problems in middle-class families. Some of the stories have also been published. And then I wrote a small novel, but that was not important. I wrote mostly about the life I saw around Delhi, post-Partition.
Q. The exhibitions I attend these days, I see a lot of emphasis on mixed media, computer-generated art and so on. I notice a move away from traditional mediums.
A. You see the basic thing [traditional mediums of painting] is still there. And what you can depict by the basic thing, you should. But adopt other means only when you need them. Of course one takes inspiration from other countries or other people…what they are doing. But it’s too late in my life to be inspired by such things. If they are doing it, let them do it. That is their outlook, not mine.
Q. But what of the old inspirations? Do you still look at the paintings you once loved? Do you have any of these paintings in your memory still, something you can recall now?
A. Yes, I remember Husain’s painting very well. For which he got a national award…I am forgetting its name. Raza’s exhibition of Kashmir landscapes, I remember. The Fifties. Gaitonde’s paintings. And Nasreen Mohamedi’s…But… you remember, but what do you do? What do you do when you remember paintings? You’ve seen them, you’ve experienced them. Or whatever you wanted, you’ve learned from them. That’s all.
Q. It doesn’t take you back in time? Looking at a painting may trigger memories of the first time you saw it, the place you were in?
A. Yes, of course. It does happen. But… my case is different also. At this age…one doesn’t remember the old things. Let the past be past, please [laughs]…The future…there’s hardly any future. So whatever is there, you… you live that.
Q. And as you get older, do you find art, creating art, becoming more of a challenge in any way?
A. It’s not a question of challenging. No. It’s a question of doing what you want to do. I feel like having the freedom. To not be scared of having my art exhibited. “What will the critics say?” Let them say anything now.
Q. How do you pass your day when you’re not painting. Do you read?
A. Yes. Either reading something or watching TV, bas that’s all.
Q. What are you reading now? Anything interesting?
A. Yes. In Hindi, I was reading Aranyak by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, who wrote this…
Q. …Pather Panchali.
A. Yes, the author of Pather Panchali and Aparajito. He wrote this book, Aranyak, on living in a jungle. It’s very beautiful. I have never read anything like that. It’s all about the jungle. He had never seen birds like that. Birds of different colours, flocking together, not scared of a human being. They come near him. He stayed for about five-six years in a jungle. He was not getting a job in Calcutta, so he got a job working with a friend in this jungle.
Q. Finally, do you see your old friend SH Raza these days?
A. Raza… he lives very far away. So it’s an ordeal to go all the way. But once in two months I go. He also came here two months ago. But Husain, when he was there, he kept coming quite frequently, because his movement was very… he was energetic.
Q. So what did you guys talk about? I am sure you didn’t talk much about art. There are other things, of course?
A. Yes, didn’t talk much about art. [laughs] So many other things.