Editorial: Obituary / Ram Kumar (1924-2018): When the Silence Departs / Johny ML
JohnyML, editor in chief of Art Tehelka remembers Ram Kumar, the veteran artist who passed away in Delhi today (14-04-2018)
Veteran artist Ram Kumar is no more. He was 94 years old. Known for his ‘Banaras’ series and abstract landscape paintings, Ram Kumar was a genial presence in the art scene of Delhi. Living for nine decades and still be active till the end is a rare achievement for a normal human being. But artists seem to have broken that ordinariness. KGS was active till the end though a broken hip had made him bedridden for a month or so. Even from the sick bed, he painted. His magnum opus ‘War of Relics’ in fact was painted a few years back when he was recuperating from an operation. MF Husain pulled it off well even driving Ferraris and painting Arab history till he was taken to hospital for a short period of illness. Raza was active till he was called to his heavenly abode. Ram Kumar, unlike these doyens was less flamboyant though could mark his presence with his smile and silence.
Ram Kumar was a perfect Parisian not only in his education but in his looks. Perhaps those people grew up in the midst of socialist movements within the nationalist struggle during 1930s and 40s had this Parisian liberalism in them. Look at the photographs of the writer Sadat Hasan Manto and then look at the portraits of young Ram Kumar. You may find something too difficult to avoid. Chittaprasad Bhattacharya had that. Jeram Patel had that. Jyoti Bhatt would tell about this better; if he is unwilling you should just visit the innumerable portraits of his fellow artists that he had taken during their young days in Mumbai, Baroda, Delhi and elsewhere in the world. Manto, perhaps was bound to the subcontinent and was reveling in darker side of the life there. Ram Kumar on the other hand, had the opportunity to leave the heat and dust of Delhi, after a short stint in art education under Sharda Ukil and Barda Ukil. Ram Kumar went to Paris, studied under Andre Lhote and Fernande Leger, smoked pipes and cigars, wandered along the Paris streets, felt a lot of existential angst and came back to India. With him came the pin stripe suits as well as the corduroys, which he was too fond of till the end of his life.
Late Nirmal Verma was his younger brother and Ram Kumar was also inclined to be a writer. Both the brothers along with many other literary giants of the time like Agye, established the modern Hindi literature that experimented both at the formal and content levels. Ram Kumar made his mark in the art scene with his ‘dark paintings’ done in 1950s and 1960s. Paris was refusing to go in these paintings. The lost men in the streets with their staring eyes and tilted heads became the hallmark of Ram Kumar’s paintings. In India, he could be with the most happening artists of the time; namely Husain, Souza, Raza and the other progressives in general. Somehow the Progressives had the Parisian outlook including the influence of the Parisian leftist movements that supported the political anarchy through the withering away of the State. Artists did think in those days that the State would eventually wither away though the later years proved the contrary. Ram Kumar slowly shifted from strong figurative paintings to abstract landscapes. Was it a result of the disillusionment that he had felt with the demise of socialism and the collapse of the Nehruvian dreams? Was the eschewal of figuration for abstraction an escape route to the world of ideas rather than dwelling in a world of conflicting realities? I think this shift has to be seen in that light.
Most of the north Indian artists somehow turn their attention to Banaras at some stage in their lives. I believe that the turning towards Banaras and Ganges is often resulted by the mid-life crisis when most of the Indians feel the absurdity of life. The waning hope in the political process and the realization of one’s own lack of agency in facilitating a revolution, perhaps make everyone to turn to something spiritual and Banaras is the most handy place with a lot of history and a lot of visuals. Ram Kumar has not painted Banaras the way many had painted, including Manu Parekh. In Ram Kumar we see an abstracted version of Banaras and depending on the mood of Ram Kumar we could always see that he had Blue Periods and Rose Periods a la Picasso.
I can’t say that I knew Ram Kumar personally well enough to write a hagiographic description. But I do remember visiting him in his Jangpura home in late 1990s in some context. In my vague memory I see Ram Kumar sitting in a cane chair and looking at me through his thick glasses. Or perhaps, this could be a projection of mine on his image. But I am sure that the room was dark unlike the natural light that pervades through the drawing rooms of other artists. Perhaps, even after passing through the crisis period, a little bit of existential angst still remained with him in those days. Old habits die hard. I saw him last when A.Ramachandran was having a solo show in the Vadehra Gallery at D-40 Defence Colony, Delhi. These artists, all in their white manes, corduroys, slightly frail bodies but a lot of guffaw, I thought, felt at home in that gallery for it was the gallery’s Arun Vadehra in his anarchism that perhaps matches or excels that of the artists nourished and cherished them carefully over three decades. Ram Kumar was emotional and when he spoke words were hardly audible. I thought he had a saintly aura around him unlike the aura of erotic desire that had surrounded Raza. The old coat was hanging at his shoulder bones and the old trouser was accompanying him like an extended shadow. I thought, existentialists age in this way, but there was a beauty in it. Today I feel the departing of Ram Kumar has that beauty; the beauty of silence in which he had immersed himself completely during the last years of his life.
(All images have been sourced through the internet)