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Artist Profile2
A sensitive artist who deals with history & tradition, pain & social tensions
The core concern of Ram Kumar’s oeuvre has essentially been the pathetic human condition and pathos of life – a sense of alienation in crowded cities and the extreme irony around. If his landscapes highlight brighter side of life, the Benares series is a haunting meditation on death.

In his works, the vibrant colors and shimmering surfaces exude a sense of restless vitality. A leading name from India’s modern art movement, he is renowned for his ephemeral landscapes. With Tyeb Mehta and Akbar Padamsee, he made a strong thrust towards modernism, albeit each artist followed his own unique stylistic and thematic preoccupations in a larger context. He was among the artists close to the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) such as Akbar Padamsee, Bal Chhabda, Tyeb Mehta, Vasudeo S Gaitonde and Krishen Khanna.

Though hailing from a middle-class family sans any encouraging creative environment, he and his brother developed interest in literature. As his passion for painting grew, Ram Kumar decided to travel to France. Luckily, he received the French Cultural Council scholarship (1949-52). It was a great learning experience for him to share creative time with the likes of Octavio Paz, Andre Lhote, Fernand Leger and Jacaques Roubaut.

Greatly inspired by its mystical imagery of day-to-day life in Varanasi, he experienced a haunting sense of hopelessness and desolation in the dimly lit, deserted lanes of a dark night there. The starkness of this memory only grew with every subsequent trip to the holy city, and these impressions led to a major transition in his thought process and art practice. He had reminisced: “The main purpose of my visit to Varanasi was to feel its depth and intensity. When I first went there, I thought the city was only inhabited by the dead and their lifeless souls. It seemed like a haunted place to me and still remains the same.” Gradually, a new visual idiom arose from the depths of an introspective experience as the young artist spent several hours at the riveting riverbanks engulfed by a vast sea of humanity.

His early works included elegiac figuration, exuding the excruciating spirit of tragic Modernism even as he drew upon exemplars such as Edward Hopper, Kathe Kollwitz, Georges Rouault and Gustave Courbet. Infused with a great ideological fervor, he dedicated himself to constructing an iconography of victimhood and depression. The paintings imbued with a touch of melancholic Realism not only reflected his acute disillusionment with the anonymity and monotony of urban existence, but also alluded to the disillusionment with unfulfilled promises after India’s Independence. These compositions represented a significant phase of the country’s post-Independence art.

A recent joint show, entitled ‘Eternal Landscapes‘ at Mumbai's Institute of Contemporary Indian Art (ICIA) brought together two diverse landscape painters Ram Kumar from the pre-independence generation, one of the pioneers of the modern art movement in India, and Paresh Maity from the post-independence generation, a young turk of the contemporary art movement in India. The exhibition presented an opportunity to feel the timeless elemental power of nature as explored by these works, expressing a faith in the spiritual benefits to be gained from the contemplation of nature’s bounty. Revealing the true spirit and essence of Ram Kumar’s works, an essay by renowned art expert, collector and gallerist Vickram Sethi had underlined the following aspects of his rich art practice:

•Ram Kumar’s paintings are inspired by the natural environment in its many manifestations, wilderness, mountains, ravines, crevices, rifts, fissures, gorges, canyons, hillsides, forests, deserts, fields and rivers. Ram Kumar modifies them to a point of making them unrecognizable. His works cover a wide spectrum of possibilities often based on emotional response to a natural setting rather than a specific depiction of a place.

•His journey as a painter is an evolution from objective memory to subjective tension, from images which memorialize nature to abstraction in which nature has become a sum of surreal parts that almost missed becoming a cohesive whole. His works are charged with a seductive energy, the painterly gestures at once vehement, agitated and autonomous and yet the structure holds - there is a kind of a framework creating a sense of fixed and absolute space, the gestures at times becoming more forceful, threatening to shatter it.

•His abstractions are a precarious balance of abrupt explosions of uncontainable gestural energy and soothing stabilizing structure which seems to transcend the painterly marks that constitute it. His landscapes manage this doubleness with deceptive ease, this simultaneous sense of equilibrium and disequilibrium in which the landscapes seem a sum of disequilibrated parts that do not add up to a whole and organically equilibrated whole that is more than the sum of any of its details.

•To locate the critical significance of his work and to understand what informs and motivates the artist, we need to look at some of the bruised landscapes, the browns, the greys and a streak of green that reveals an apprehension of something more disturbing – a threatened ecological disaster in the making. The artist reminds us that this degradation of a once fertile place is the inevitable result of human intervention, indifference and greed. He is not content to simply present a benign pictorial view; his purpose remains much deeper and more demanding for behind the seductive beauty there is an undeniable sense of fore brooding of destruction and loss in a once natural terrain. It is the radical particularity that ultimately makes Ram Kumar’s abstract works uncanny.

•Ram Kumar’s understanding and development of a visual language through abstraction encourages us to explore in our minds eye a landscape of transcendent physical beauty and creative potency. The artist’s process and evolution affirms the relevance of landscapes in contemporary art practice and leads us to a deeper understanding of nature and a powerful reminder of our own connection with the earth.

Analyzing Ram Kumar’s growth trajectory, art critic Ranjit Hoskote has noted in an essay: "He spent the first decade of India's independence, perfecting an elegiac figuration imbued with the spirit of tragic modernism. To this period belong those lost souls: the monumental Picassoesque figures packed into a darkened picture-womb, terrorized workers, emaciated doll-women and the bewildered clerks trapped in the industrial city."

His wonderful works have been showcased in India and internationally over the last six decades and more at major venues across the world, apart from several group exhibitions, including 'Paper Trails', Vadehra, Delhi; 'The Progressives & Associates', Grosvenor Gallery, London; 'From Miniature to Modern', Rob Dean Art, London courtesy Pundole, Mumbai; 'Master Class', The Arts Trust, Mumbai (2010); 'Indian Art After Independence’, Emily Lowe Gallery, Hempstead; 'Progressive to Altermodern', Grosvenor, London, and 'Tracing Time', Bodhi Art, Mumbai (2009). Retrospectives of his works have been held at NGMA (1994) and Jehangir Art Gallery courtesy Vadehra, Delhi (1994); Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal (1986), and Birla Museum, Kolkata (1980). Among his recent participations are '10th Anniversary Show', Tao gallery, Mumbai; annual exhibitions of Chawla Art Gallery, and Kumar Art Gallery, Delhi (2010); 'Paz Mandala', LKA, Delhi, and 'Moderns', Royal Cultural Centre, Amman, Jordan (2008-09).

The veteran artist has won several honors and awards, such as Officers Arts et Letters, France (2003); Kalidas Samman, Madhya Pradesh government (1986); Padma Shri, Government of India (1972); J. D. Rockefeller III Fellowship, New York (1970), and the national awards (1956, 1958). A visionary link seems to exist between his paintings and his stories. If his landscapes appear remote and alien, his stories are troubled, sad and brooding. Stylistically and thematically, Ram Kumar’s amazing oeuvre grips your mind and heart.