Ode to a man who loved water lilies

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By Ramkinkar Baij wanted to sculpt Tagore and Gandhi together - but his dream remained unfulfilled. A retrospective and a slew of books bring to light little known facts about the sculptor-painter, reports Sonia Sarkar
  • Published 19.02.12
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Art takes its time to unfold. Not surprisingly, six years after sculptor-painter Ramkinkar Baij’s centenary, the artist’s works and life are being celebrated with a retrospective and a slew of books.

Last week, the retrospective opened at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Delhi. The inauguration coincided with the release of six books — including Ramkinkar and his work by K.G. Subramanyan and Ramkinkar: The Man and the Artist by A. Ramachandran.

“Our idea was to present his work in the most comprehensive way. Some monumental, open-air structures at Santiniketan that were not possible to transport to Delhi have been represented through large blow-ups,” says NGMA director Rajeev Lochan.

Many of his paintings are missing, and several are in a state of disrepair. Subramanyan pointed out at the inauguration that when Baij could not afford to buy canvases, he would paint on bedsheets. Several of his works, he added, were eaten up by white ants.

The exhibition, however, brings together a fine collection of 350 works, including an oil painting of a Santhal family moving with its possessions and a bronze sculpture of a famine-hit mother and child.

The organisers point out that the event is for people to not just know his work, but to know the artist as well. “He never documented his work. At times he would use his paintings to plug leaks in his roof during the rains,” says sculptor K.S. Radhakrishnan, curator of the retrospective. “Many of his works are lying scattered here and there,” he says.

Baij’s retrospective was to have been organised in his birth centenary year in 2006 but took longer than expected because tracing his works was a daunting task. “We have borrowed around 10 works from private collectors. These include the painting Girl with a Dog, which Baij drew when an Indonesian girl visited the campus with her father and portrait of a Visva-Bharati student Mira Dhar,” says R. Siva Kumar, professor, history of art, Kala Bhavana, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, who worked with Radhakrishnan on the exhibition.

Radhakrishnan, who went to Visva- Bharati in 1974 to study art and later focused on sculpting, spent six years with Baij before he died in 1980. “(Sculptor) Sarabari Roy Chowdhury introduced me to Kinkarda. He had told me that Kinkarda loved water lilies and if I presented him with a bunch, his doors would be open for me,” Radhakrishnan recalls.

The exhibition, which will eventually travel to Mumbai, Bangalore and perhaps to Calcutta as well, also highlights the artist’s unfulfilled dreams through notes put up on the corridors of the art gallery. There is a reference to his desire to create a sculpture of Gandhi and Tagore together which he envisaged would be as tall as the trees of Santiniketan. The work remained a dream, for Baij could not procure the required material. But his sculpture of Gandhi is showcased in the retrospective.

“Done immediately after Gandhi’s assassination, it is the Gandhi of Noakhali, the man who walked courageously into a zone of communal violence trying to calm religious hatred and finally paid for the pursuit of peace with his life,” says Siva Kumar.

Baij’s much talked of work Sacrifice — depicting three men dragging a sacrificial human-headed goat for Kali Puja — is also on exhibit. “It resonated with his sympathies with the Naxalite movement and the sacrifice of Bengali youth for an egalitarian society,” says Radhakrishnan.

Along with the exhibition, several books on Baij have been released. These include, apart from the tributes by Subramanyan and Ramachandran, Ramkinkar Baij by Siva Kumar and My Days with Ramkinkar Baij by Somendranath Bandopadhyay (translated by Bhaswati Ghosh).

“The book consists of Bandopadhyay’s interviews with the artist about his life — ranging from his younger days in Bankura where he grew up watching local craftsmen and image makers at work to his association with Kala Bhavana from the age of 19 and his experimentation later with various art forms,” says Tultul Niyogi, director of Niyogi Books, which published the volume — selling almost 1,000 copies in a week.

Delhi-based art curator Johny M.L.’s Straight From Life Ramkinkar Baij focuses on Baij’s animal series. “It shows his deep attachment to animals and birds. He was like a father to them,” says Johny, who gave curative assistance to the project.

Also throwing light on the artist and his work is Radhakrishnan’s Ramkinkar’s Yaksha-Yakshi — which recounts the trips he made to Baijnath in Himachal Pradesh where he found the stone he was looking for to erect his now famed figures that guard the Reserve Bank of India building in Delhi.

But Radhakrishnan points out that Baij was not happy with this project. “It was supposed to have been done on a single stone but the stone had to be transported in pieces because it was not possible to carry a huge piece all the way from Himachal Pradesh,” he says.

The exhibition also throws light on other aspects of his life. The former teacher of Kala Bhavan was the stage designer for a 1946 production of Rajshekhar Basu’s play Bhushundir Mathe and the 1959 Bengali film Khudito Pashan.

The Baij celebrations will also include films. Radhakrishnan’s short film Ramkinkar – The Sculptor was shown on the opening day.

For art lovers who can’t have enough of Kinkarda, the show and the books are a celebration of a life extraordinary.