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Portrait Of An Artist

Ram Kumar's sorrow-smeared oeuvre: a critique and reminiscence
Ram Kumar : A Journey Within
By Gagan Gill (Ed.)
Vadehra Art Gallery Rs. 2,900; pages 240
HIS book could turn a lay man into an art lover. The writing is crisp, meaningful and lucid and is uncluttered with critical jargon. The personality of Ram Kumar comes out vividly . The subterranean stream of his creativity and its subtly changing course as he gets on in years is transparent. And yet the converse is equally true. Ram Kumar indeed hides himself in his paintings, as Sham Lal tells us. His presence there is "so shy and unobtrusive as to come very near to an absence"

The reproductions are excellent, each stroke of the brush visible, as it were. The paintings exhale that air of muted tones, of silence rather than clamour, of introspection rather than dialogue. Yet there is a dialogue of sorts. A Varanasi cityscape seems to be lost in meditation and yet carries on a muted conversation with its own image in the still river.

Those who write about Ram Kumar write with abiding affection. He is that kind of a man. Sham Lal finds the word 'tragic' inappropriate for Ram Kumar. For the Indian it is the "void at the heart of things", a "metaphysical anguish" rather than a personal misfortune that makes for sorrow and comes out in a work of art. Yet the earlier paintings are reflective of social themes and strong passions; with heads askew as in Orphans, nose curling in distaste as in The Woman. The figures tend to be rigid, their looks melancholic, the whites of the eyes prominent. Despite a glowing cross, Holy Night with its twisted heads leaves one cold. Perspectives lack depth as in The Dream. The backdrop is more often than not dark, the posture sad, and the figures seem to have been picked up from a tragic time. Yet in a painting or two, he is willing to experiment even at the risk of the canvas being dubbed as derived. The flowing curves of the three ! women on page 67 are very reminiscent of George Keyt.

Then in the '60s came the Varanasi paintings, each a meditation frozen in colour. And each painting seems to be smeared with a sadness all its own. As Ram Kumar says, the sadness comes from his relating the city "to old age, widows, the river Ganga and death". We watch his journey into the abstract and as the figures have sloughed off, his paintings touch both the surreal and the romantic, as Richard Bartholomew so aptly puts it. "What happens really is that the exorcised familiars, the protagonists that have been exiled, or put to sleep, disappear from the city environment merely to lurk in the shadow of the city of the mind."

All his Varanasi paintings are islands. The city, always pawing the river, seems to be emerging from a long dream. Reality is narcissistic here, looking at its face in the waters of the Ganga. Reality is diffused here, half lost on the edges of slumber. Each painting is like a dreamscape, shadowy, nocturnal, lost in its own reflections in the river.

In the '70s more light enters Ram Kumar's landscapes--that's all he is painting now, for he has already left figures far behind. Dull browns turn to lighted amber. White becomes more evident in his spectrum. In the '80s the colours get heightened and his palette becomes more striking because of contrasts. Dark blues and fiery reds and russets vie with patches of white. And there are two landscapes where he plays with the wind. The entire valley seems to lean with the wind.

The writings on Ram Kumar's work, from Nirmal Verma and Richard Bartholomew to Krishen Khanna, M.F. Husain and J. Swaminathan provide both serious criticism and a walk down memory lane. For the art student even reminiscence would have considerable value. As his brother, Nirmal Verma provides some excellent insights. Bartholomew's essay I found tile most perspicacious.

'Ram Kumar in conversation with Gagan Gill' is revealing of Ram Kumar both as writer and artist. His earlier novels Ghar Bane Ghar Toote and Der-Saber dealt with the struggle of the educated unemployed. He confesses that he was more "interested in the tragic aspect of human existence" He dismisses his involvement with the French Communist Party as a "romantic flirtation". He tells us that "Benaras" was"an overwhelming experience" and that it "refuted all logic". Gagan Gill draws him out on literature, art and his own life. Excerpts from his Notebooks complement the conversation, revealing his life in Paris and how he rubbed shoulders with the great--louis Aragon, Jacques Dubois to mention just a few, and his presence at a Paris auction when a Matisse drawing was sold for just Rs 150.

This book is a labour of love. Both Arun Vadehra who has published the book and Gagan Gill who has edited and compiled this volume have done a splendid job.

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OUTLOOK: 25 June, 1997
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