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Painting is the only thing that is there for Ram Kumar

It is difficult to hold a conversation with Ram Kumar, who will turn 90 in two months’ time, over the telephone without trying to imagine the impact of one’s questions — often routine, plebeian ones — reflecting on the fine but strong features of this artist. Ram Kumar is widely recognised as one of the trailblazers of Indian contemporary art along with M.F. Husain, Tyeb Mehta, S.H. Raza and Gaitonde. In his early black-and-white photographs, Ram Kumar with his aquiline nose, large, liquid eyes and chiselled cheekbones looks every bit the distinguished intellectual that he was.

He wrote short stories in Hindi even before he became an artist, and his younger brother is the Hindi writer, Nirmal Verma. Born in Shimla, Ram Kumar was already in his 20s when he was initiated into art by Sailoz Mukherjee who used to give lessons at the Sarada Ukil School of Art in Delhi. Ram Kumar received a master’s in economics from Delhi University in 1946 and was employed in a bank. He also tried his hand at journalism, but chucked up his job and sailed to Paris. His father had agreed to pay for the passage. There, like many other Indian artists of those times, Ram Kumar hobnobbed with leading French intellectuals and studied painting under none less than Fernand Leger.

He has travelled extensively, but Delhi is his home, although it would not be far-fetched to say that Varanasi is where his spirit resides. However vulgar, one cannot think of big names in the art world of today without recalling how much his or her works have fetched in recent international auctions, and going by such measures Ram Kumar is gold standard.

A clutch of pen-and-ink and brush drawings executed by Ram Kumar between 1961 and 1963, which he has never exhibited before, is now being shown at Aakriti Art Gallery, and that was my excuse for calling him. In these, Ram Kumar created intricate structures with a web of lines and markings that remind viewers of natural or harmonious architectonic forms. The last time that a one-man show of the artist was held in this city was in the 1980s. Going by his recent photographs, Ram Kumar has become frail, but he continues to paint, having given up writing altogether. “That is the only thing that is there. I don’t go out much. I do drawings or paintings but I don’t write. They do not go together. In the beginning I wanted to become a writer,” he said in the course of the interview.

Earlier, when I called, a man answered in Hindi. The artist was ready for the interview. His voice sounded tremulous but his speech was steady, his memory sharp and perhaps his sense of humour never allowed him to stray. Ram Kumar has no illusions about the status of Indian contemporary art on the international scene. He admits that Indian artists make waves when their works fetch record prices in sale rooms but their works are not part of the collections of the big museums in the West. No major exhibitions are held, Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde’s exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York in October notwithstanding. Curiously, Ram Kumar adds a “Mr” to his friend Gaitonde’s name, as if he were still around.

He admits that in his times there was a feeling of camaraderie among contemporaries. “Everybody was struggling to find one’s self. So they held discussions among themselves. It was positive. But once they started knowing themselves they stopped interacting.”

I had started the interview with a poser on the international art scene, aware though I was that it would evince too unwieldy a reply. Ram Kumar thought so too. So I had to fall back on the inevitable — the ascetic spirit of Ram Kumar’s canvases inspired by Varanasi. Not surprisingly, his personal views did not always concur with those of the critics.

“I consider art as very sublime and spiritual. If an artist is conscious of this it becomes apparent in his work. For example, I am fascinated with Varanasi. That spiritual quality is more psychological. It was an inner experience which I had never had before”.

He was acquainted with the holy city’s associations with old age and sanyas from childhood readings of Saratchandra Chatterjee. A friend of Ram Kumar’s had commented that the “spiritual in him was awakened in Varanasi”. Husain had confessed that while he “couldn’t stay in Banaras for more than 15 days, Ram went on talking to Banaras for years”. Ram Kumar discovered an “element of inner peace” there, something it had in common with the peace of the “solitary mountains” of his hometown.

Ram Kumar’s words on his fascination with muted tones are revealing. “From the beginning I was not fascinated with strong colours. I wanted to subdue them. That colour will speak for themselves I did not want. So I suppressed them”.

But how did they change from time to time, from greys to chrome and subsequently blue and green? “It is difficult to describe how. Whenever there are changes in form, the colours also change. They just coordinate with the subject matter. There was no deliberate effort”.

So is the “spiritual” a cachet of some painters of his time like Gaitonde? Ram Kumar says the glow of inner light in Gaitonde’s paintings was derived from a different source, Zen, and many other elements which the reclusive artist was interested in, like poetry and religion. As for himself, he is going back to the storehouse of his past experiences, which is natural for somebody of his age.