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The modern Indian sculpture’s founding father
One of the most distinguished early modernists in the history of Indian art, Ramkinkar Baij (1906-1980) can also be considered as the modern Indian sculpture’s founding father. A multi-faceted creator - an iconic sculptor, painter and a graphic artist, all rolled in one - his blending of both Indian pre-classical sculptural methods and Western principles added a radical touch to his works that inspired the coming generations of artists.

Known for his monumental sculptures, he seamlessly fused the European modern visual idioms with his own roots and ethos. Indian sculpture, largely limited to academic naturalism until that point, was greatly transformed by this master practitioner, who experimented with different themes, materials, and forms, switching between figurative and abstracts, all soaked in a deep humanism and an instinctive grasping of the subtle, symbiotic relationship existing between man and nature.

His oeuvre, including paintings and sculptures, involved immense experimentation. For example, his usage of cement, laterite and mortar for public sculptures marked a new precedent. His works made in sand and pebble are noteworthy for a lyrical sensuality that shares an extreme oneness with nature. He generally worked with cement and pebbles for outdoor sculptures since he could not afford other costly materials, quickly molding the mix before it set and then carefully chipping at the cast. Later, few of his sculptures were cast in bronze using molds made from the original works.

Although more known for his elegant expressionistic sculpture, the artist was an equally gifted painter. Ramkinkar Baij was born in Bankura of West Bengal, into a humble family. He had to struggle hard to pursue his passion for art, and did so by sheer determination. In 1925, he joined Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan, where he studied under Nandalal Bose. The liberating intellectual environment at the world-renowned institution shaped his artistic skills. After completing his Diploma in Fine Arts from the Visva-Bharati University, he became a faculty member there in 1934. Later, he headed the Kala Bhavan’s Department of Sculpture. In fact, the trio of Nandalal Bose, Benodebehari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij played a major role in the evolution of Santiniketan as an important center for modern art especially in pre-Independent India.

Ramkinkar Baij deftly integrated different enchanting elements of Santhal tribal art and the way of life into his work, to enhance them by an acute understanding of prevalent Western expressionism. This sense of rhythm his sculptural works are noted for brilliantly manifested in his watercolors as well. Fluidity of the medium lent itself to his superb style reflected in his works done in the Kalighat tradition eclectically interconnected with Cubism. The captivating combination led to a peculiarly personal idiom - unprompted and bold – a trademark of both his paintings and sculpture. He reveled in the remoteness and silence of Santiniketan and reflected the serene vibrancy of local life – tribal celebrations, marriages, and women threshing paddy. Though his experience and upbringing as an artist was totally Indian, he did understand international art, as reflected in his evocative and colorful watercolors and his sculptures that portrayed local life.

Apart from a series of solo shows and group exhibitions in which his wonderful works were featured from the early 1940’s, among his major posthumous exhibits are 'A Retrospective' at Lalit Kala Akademi (2012); 'Indian Art Through the Lens of History, Indigo Blue Art, Singapore (2011); ‘Manifestations', Delhi Art Gallery (2011, 08, 05, 04, 03), New Delhi; 'Time Unfolded', KNMA, Delhi (2011); 'Moderns', Royal Cultural Centre, Amman (2008); and 'Santhal Family: Positions Around an Indian Sculpture', courtesy Bodhi Art, and Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp, Belgium (2008), among others. A recipient of Padma Bhushan from the Government of India (1970), he won Deshi Uttam Award (1977) and Doctor of Letters Award (1979) from Viswa Bharti, Santiniketan. The Nepalese government had invited him to create Buddhist Sculptures in 1945.

A major retrospective of works courtesy LKA, curated by sculptor K.S Radhakrishnan, incidentally one of his distinguished students, along with K.G Subramanyan and A. Ramachandran, included over 350 masterpieces drawn from various collections. After Delhi, it was hosted in Mumbai and Bengaluru. The paintings, drawings, graphics and sculptures on view encompassed close to six decades of his fulfilling career. A peep into his rich artistic journey was further enhanced by diverse media interventions like photographic blow ups, texts, video clips and digital prints, in an effort to contextualize the artist, the person and his philosophy.

According to K S Radhakrishnan, his curatorial venture aimed at flagging those junctures where Ramkinkar Baij met all those who had traveled before him, along with him, and even after him. It served as a context in which the post 1980s generation of artists see, accept, reject, or understand him. The grand showcase threw light on this enlightened and highly creative soul, who was more of a wanderer, whose works reflected his larger-than-life persona, and symbolized his creative genius. On the eve of the retrospective, the National Gallery of Art also released a few significant publications, such as ‘My Days with Ramkinkar’ by Somendranath Bandhapadhyaya’ (translated by Ms. Bhaswati Ghosh); ‘Ramkinkar Straight from Life’ by Mr. Johnny M.L; ‘Ramkinkar’s Yaksha Yakshi’ by Mr. K.S Radhakrishnan;; and ‘Ramkinkar Baij’ by Prof. R. Siva Kumar.

Nature and his own versatile folk background were among the crucial aspects in the formation of his own inimitable style. He felt that it was only momentum that would create tension in an artwork characterized by a tremendous flow of energy. His art exuded vigor, joy, and vitality, keen to reach out to light. Earthy and dynamic in nature, while exhibiting a tendency of surging movement or growth, his path-breaking sculptures received acclaim not only in India, but also internationally. Ramkinkar Baij opted to break away from the formal celebratory styles prevalent in British India and set a new precedent as a painter and sculptor.