Here’s what late artist Ram Kumar said in one of his last interviews
One of India’s foremost abstract painters passed away on April 14, 2018art and culture Updated: Apr 20, 2018 22:01 IST
It was in early February that I met the late artist Ram Kumar at his home in Delhi’s Bharti Artist Colony for an interview. Little did I know then that this would be among the nonagenarian’s last interviews and that he would have passed away before it was published. At his age – Kumar would have turned 94 this September – death is not unexpected. But with his passing away on April 14, an era ended in Indian art, an era that had also seen the genius of MF Husain, SH Raza and Francis Newton Souza.
It was a quiet house I walked into that February day, a quiet that was perhaps reflective of the calm of its occupant. The renowned painter sat in the drawing room, unshaven, a handkerchief clutched in one hand, a walking stick resting nearby to his left. The famed Delhi winter was on its way out. But the artist was doubly guarded against the chill by the electric heater that radiated warmth into the room and the zipped-up cardigan that he wore. The perfect host, he pressed sweets and mathri on me as I sat down.
The once world-traveller was now house bound: “I have stopped going out,” he said. But his art still kept him busy and he would paint, he said, “for five-six hours every day.” This dedication was one of the traits that fellow artist Krishen Khanna found so remarkable about Ram Kumar. “He never wasted time and painted regularly,” said Khanna. “He had a vision, which few have. He was very truthful to himself. I wish I could paint like him.”
Yet, art had come late to Kumar. A contemporary of artists like Satish Gujral, he had a Masters in economics and had worked at a bank. He also wrote and published short stories in Hindi before devoting himself to art. “When the art increased, I stopped writing,” he told me, when I asked him about his writing.
In the beginning, he learned under artist Sarada Ukil, before going on to Paris to study art under Andre Lhote and Fernand Leger in 1950-51. He had no contacts or money and the two years that he spent in Paris were a struggle. Fame and prosperity would eventually come to him, but during his student days in the French capital, he would, he remembered, often go hungry – living on bread and vegetables because meat was so expensive. “I had no energy. My stomach protruded, but the hunger remained,” he recalled.
The tempting fragrance wafting out of a pastry shop on his way to the university made him change his route since he couldn’t afford such delicacies. “Cheap food – priced at about Rs 5 - was available to the regular students in one part of the university, but you had to have a pass to avail of the facility – something I didn’t have. It was far from my quarters. But sometimes I managed to get in if they weren’t checking the permit card, or tell them I had left the card at home by mistake,” he said.
Most days though, he did his own cooking. “I had a nice French landlady and she told me I could pay her whatever I could afford for the rooms. I gave her Rs 25 a month,” said the artist, who gave Hindi lessons for Rs 20-25 to make some money. He was asked to stay on after he completed his studies, but he chose to return.
He would, however, revisit Europe in later years and also travel to USA and Japan, among other places. Within India, the one place that influenced him deeply as an artist was Banaras. It was from here that his work in abstracts started. “MF Husain told me that we should go to a new place to sketch,” remembered Kumar. “We went together and stayed in the house of Shripat Rai, Munshi Premchand’s writer son. I returned after a week but Husain stayed on. Later Shripat too became a painter,” he added. Both Kumar and Husain had been associated with the Mumbai-based Progressive Artists Group and Husain was among Kumar’s personal list of artists whose work he appreciated. “Picasso, Husain and Raza. Husain saab had talent, while Raza got stuck to the bindu [the dot is a recurring motif in Raza’s works],” reflected the artist when I asked about his favourites.
For himself, he couldn’t pick the moment or even year when he can be said to have ‘arrived’ on the art scene. “It was a gradual process,” he mused. “At first my paintings sold for ~3,000. Later, slowly, they went up to ~ 3,500,” said the artist, who received numerous awards and felicitations in his lifetime, including two Lalit Kala Akademi awards (in 1956 and ’58), an award at the Sao Paulo Biennale in 1961, the Madhya Pradesh government’s Kalidas Samman in 1986, the Padma Shri in 1972 and the Padma Bhushan in 2010.
He gave few interviews. Reticent by nature, he chose to live quietly with his art and his reading – the artist especially enjoyed going through the works of Nobel laureates. “When I went to journalist Sham Lal’s house after his death, I was asked to choose something for myself from his books. I chose a book by Tennessee Williams,” Kumar said when I asked him about authors he liked. He forged deep bonds with his contemporaries and was well-liked in both the artistic and literary circles. One of these associates had been Sham Lal, who, in a monograph he had published on the artist in 1958, had described Ram Kumar as someone who had no slogans and no poses to strike, a man who hated to put on a mask.
Perhaps his disinterest in social acceptance and labels helped him give himself fully to his art. As Shruti Parthasarathy, head of archives at the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG), who will be publishing a book on Kumar, notes, “He was an important Modernist, significant for a kind of art. He painted what he wanted, was always unique and depicted what he saw. His abstraction started in Varanasi, an influence that lasted very long. He had always been an important painter and remained all through true to his vision. He did not want or look for easy answers. His journey was largely within. He was authentic and very true to himself.”
An artist’s contribution to society, Kumar believed, is to show “a different world, apart from religion and politics”. It was to the creation of this world that he bent his efforts. His death is no doubt an irreparable loss to the world of art, but the artist leaves behind a rich creative legacy that will continue to provide future generations the promise of an alternate reality and the release from a world that can often be too harsh or disturbing.