In his trousers and coat, his neck swaddled in a checked muffler, artist Ram Kumar looks like he might have stepped out of one of his paintings at the start of his career in 1948, of simple urban men. Now 86, he walks with a slight stoop, and is a man of few words, whose eyes seem to have a searching, inward intensity; a quality to be found in his work. His piercing eyes take in the vibrant greens, yellows, blues and browns glowing on his canvases lying around the gallery. A selection of over 50 canvases, from the 1950s to 2010, are on display at Delhi's Lalit Kala Akademi through December, hosted by Vadehra Art Gallery.
The exhibition showcases an assortment of Kumar's work.
Figurative works from his early period, the '50s and '60s, have been sourced from various collections. A suite chronicles his transition from the figurative to the abstract. These are mostly landscapes inspired by the hills of his home town Shimla, and of Varanasi, a recurring theme in Kumar's work. There are also works composed purely of line and colour, from his brown and blue periods, which trace human civilisation.
Kumar reviews his journey as a painter with a restraint that contrasts the legendary flamboyance of his peers MF Husain and the late FN Souza. He identifies more closely with the quiet, philosophical energy of SH Raza, one of the first friends he made in the art world. "We met at his exhibition in Delhi in 1949," says Kumar. "I had just discovered the excitement of painting, so we spent a long evening talking about art. He was already a known painter at the time but he did not have any airs about him; he was encouraging and warm."
Kumar grew up in the summer capital of Shimla, and had come to Delhi to study economics, and get a good job. That plan changed when he set eyes on his first painting. One evening, after "loitering" around Connaught Place with his friends from St Stephen's College, he landed up at an art exhibition. "I saw paintings like that for the first time and it made me so intrigued that I returned several times," Kumar says. "There was a notice for evening art classes at the gallery, and I joined the Sarada Ukil School of Art."
His career as an economist was swiftly jettisoned. Instead, he went on to study under art theoretician Andre Lhote in Paris in 1952, after which he joined the atelier of Fernand Leger. "I began painting figures because that is what people who begin to paint do," says Kumar. "The human figure and representational art: these are the easiest. One is preoccupied with content and message."
Kumar has left behind the figurative and the representational. Over the years, his work has become increasingly detached and mystical. His brooding, melancholic figures from the '50s gave way to schematic grids, lines and geometric forms that resembled landscapes. "I'm an abstractionist; however, my formative years were important for me. In Paris I met Souza, and when I returned to India in the 1960s, I met Husain. It was an exciting time for the Progressives. Everyone was talking about Modernism and I too began developing my own style. I painted middle-class people because I felt I could speak best of their preoccupations and dreams, since I am a middle-class man," says Kumar. His men were not the essentially rural or folk people that Husain chose to paint. They were distinctly urban in appearance, with their black coats and melancholic expressions, and were often set against the dark satanic mills of industrialisation in paintings like Vagabonds and Sad Town.
Kumar's suffering humans were either the product of the industrial revolution, or the refugees who fled Pakistan during Partition. Some of them were his neighbours in Karol Bagh in Delhi, and he absorbed their stories into his paintings. In some instances, they appear to be characters straight out of his well-known novel Ghar Bane Ghar Toote. Kumar is also known for his short stories in Hindi, but he gave up writing to concentrate solely on his paintings.
In the late '60s and early '70s, the melancholic men began to disappear from his canvas. "I was interested in Japanese painting, and a visit to Greece exposed me to black-and-white images of olive trees against the sky, with no human presence. Finally, when I went to Varanasi in 1961, I was so impressed by the city with its thousands of people that there was no other way to capture the power of that city except through an abstract painting," says Kumar. He made paintings of Varanasi throughout his career, some as recently as in 2010.
In 1996, art critic Richard Bartholomew wrote of Kumar:"In Ram's recent work, the presence of the living force of nature, man and landscape, has come to be expressed more obliquely, as a mystique… the indefinable but concrete feel of the living landscape now expresses the painter's sensibility." In 2005, Sotheby's auctioned his untitled figurative work for $396,800 (Rs 1.8 crore), adding a monetary value to his work that was already garnering critical acclaim. Kumar's works have not fetched astronomical prices unlike those of his contemporaries, Raza, Souza and Husain. The works have been steadily climbing the market and were valued at Rs 95 lakh-1.4 crore at a Christie's auction in September 2010.
While Kumar's landscapes can hardly be called representational, a certain human presence is still implied in his work. "Although I have grown detached over the years, I still feel close to humanity," he says. Critic and curator Ranjit Hoskote says Kumar's restraint sets his work apart from decorative abstracts which lure the viewer with sensuality.