HOLDING ON

Read more below

By AVEEK SEN
  • Published 23.03.12
  •  

RAMKINKAR BAIJ: A RETROSPECTIVE, 1906-1980 (NGMA, New Delhi, and Delhi Art Gallery, Rs 6,000) is the massive catalogue of the exhibition now showing at the NGMA in Delhi, curated by K. S. Radhakrishnan. In terms of the beautifully reproduced images of what must be the entire body of Ramkinkar’s sketches, watercolours, etchings, oils and sculptures, together with many invaluable period photographs (photographers unidentified), this is the authoritative volume on the “prolific master” that was long overdue. Like the earlier NGMA retrospective of Benodebehari Mukherjee’s work, this is a wonderfully exhaustive (and exhausting) show, reflected by the weight of the catalogue, which makes it impossible to hold and read comfortably, and by its price, which makes the book impossible to buy.

“We were like a large happy joint family,” Ramkinkar recalls in his late years about his life and career in Santiniketan, “I knew nothing other than painting, sculpting and to live holding on to Santiniketan then. Also now.” This is the pleasure of a show and book like this, particularly for those who see Ramkinkar’s work in relation to not only the art of his teachers and comrades in Santiniketan but also the literature and lifestyle, the cultural universe, which blossomed there under Rabindranath Tagore’s giant shadow.

But the happiness of large families is, at best, ambivalent. So, Ramkinkar’s simile also points to the slight claustrophobia, sometimes bordering on tedium, of a show like this. It is as if the numerous works gathered here, representing more than five decades of an artist’s life, had all happened in a single, beautifully timeless ‘Santiniketan moment’, a golden afternoon of looking and learning and living and experimenting that had almost no need of the world outside. This gives a peculiarly pastoral feel to the modernism being lived out, played with and remembered by the members of this ‘happy’ circle. Even the legendary cosmopolitanism of this seemingly charmed little world becomes part of its idyll of self-sufficiency. (It is a sense that one never gets from Rabindranath’s oeuvre, though, or from the mature works of Benodebehari the former freed by an essentially distancing genius, and the latter by blindness, from this embrace of the familiar.)

Yet, what the book makes possible is a closer look into this world to get to the currents of restlessness and even rebellion that ran through it — Ramkinkar’s “dialectical engagements” with both his home and the world, with the horizons that open out towards the unmanageability of lives and careers like those of, say, Van Gogh, Picasso or Cézanne — especially Picasso. Perhaps this sense of the familial comes from the kind of art-historical writing that persists around figures like Ramkinkar, invariably written about from within the ‘Santiniketan family’.

R. Siva Kumar’s text is more descriptive than historically or biographically informative. One would have liked to know what Ramkinkar’s father did for a living, for instance, just as it would have been illuminating to read about the various women whose portraits Ramkinkar painted with such vital and fascinating engagement — especially his fellow-student and “comrade”, Binodini, the most luminous presence in the brilliant gathering of portraits. The tensions within Ramkinkar’s personal modernism come through in his depictions of the different kinds of women who sit for him — the Santhals versus the sophisticates. An entire history of sexuality in the art and life of Santiniketan comes through in the work of its artists, from the Tagores to Ramkinkar, Somnath Hore, K.G. Subramanyan and Jogen Chowdhury, the proper (or perhaps improper) exploration of which might energize and enrich the tired languages of social history and art history as they are currently practised around the Bengal School.

Left, Girl with Dog (Soma Joshi); centre, Comrade (Ramkinkar and Binodini); top right, Abarani-II; bottom right, Skull.