Ramkinkar Baij: Pathbreaking sculptor who scaled heights with passion

Published on Feb 24, 2021 04:36 PM IST

Renowned modern Indian artist, Ramkinker Baij, was a key figure of the school of contextual modernism. He was conferred the Padma Bhushan Award in 1970.

Ramkinkar Baij was the earliest artist to experiment with abstract, modern sculptural forms. Illustration: Biswajit
Ramkinkar Baij was the earliest artist to experiment with abstract, modern sculptural forms. Illustration: Biswajit
By, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

Born on May 25, 1906 in the Bankura district of West Bengal, he abandoned the family surname of Poramanik during the mid 1920s and adopted the name Baij, derived from Boidda (Baidya) and Boijo. By dint of sheer determination, Baij grew into one of the most distinguished early modernists in the arena of Indian art.


In 1925, on the advice of journalist and nationalist publisher Ramananda Chatterjee, who announced the advent of a new art movement in India, Baij enrolled at Kala Bhavana, the art school at Santiniketan. Refusing to allow creativity to be hemmed in by the university’s norms and artistic standards, Baij’s work stood out for its spontaneity. A brief introduction to clay modelling from a visiting French sculptor spurred his creativity.

Baij’s artistic skills and intellectual horizons acquired new depth and complexity at Santiniketan, guided by eminent artist Nandalal Bose and encouraged by the liberating intellectual environment provided by none other than the great poet, painter, writer, composer and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore who also transformed Santiniketan into one of the most vital centres for modern art during the period that preceded India’s independence.

Artistic flair

At the Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan, Baij was the earliest artist to experiment with abstract, modern sculptural forms. He introduced cement concrete casting as an alternative to expensive plaster and used Santhal wraps with packet colours thinned with linseed oil to create oil paintings and drew figures on silk with a shoe brush. Working at a time when traditional art was transitioning to modern art, his work proved crucial to Indian art history. He went on to head the Department of Sculpture at Kala Bhavan.


Since the early 1930s, he began to fill the campus with sculptures which were innovative in subject matter and personal in style. His first magnum opus in this genre was the Santhal Family, made in 1938. In the larger-than-life sculpture, he represented tribal peasants of the region, giving the figures iconic presence and dignified grace that was till then limited to the images of divine figures and rulers. In a country where all public art was undertaken only after it was commissioned by the government and executed in accordance with the taste of conservative ruling elites, it was a radical departure. His works are part of several private and public collections. A retrospective of Baij’s works was held at the National Gallery of Art, New Delhi in 1990. His works are part of several private and public collections. The Union government had commissioned Baij to make two huge sculptures at the Reserve Bank headquarters in Delhi in 1970.


In the years 1950 and 1951, respectively, Baij was invited to take part in the Salon des Realites Nouvelles and the Salon de Mai. National honours, too, began to come his way one after the other. In 1970, the Union government conferred the Padma Bhushan on him for his contributions to art. In 1976, he was made a Fellow of the Lalit Kala Akademi. And in 1976, he was conferred with the Desikottama honorary doctoral degree by Visva Bharati and in 1979 with an honorary D.Litt by the Rabindra Bharati University. The celebrated sculptor passed in Kolkata on August 2, 1980 following a period of illness.

Interesting Facts

1. Ramkinkar Baij was a pivotal figure of the school of artists named contextual modernism who made a departure from the historicist moorings of the earlier nationalist movement in Indian art. Other celebrated member of this group included Rabindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee, They were sensitive to the physical and cultural environment, as well as to the historical moment in which they lived.

2. Renowned filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak made a documentary on Baij titled Ramkinkar (1975) in which he featured the sculptor as a political icon. Ghatak himself disclosed the secret behind this fearless observation of this Padma Bhushan winner in the documentary. Samaresh Basu’s unfinished novel Dekhi Nai Phire (I did not look back), cut short by the author’s death, is also a classic piece based on Ramkinkar’s life.

3. Ramkinkar’s renowned sculptor disciples include Prabhas Sen, Shankho Chowdhury, Avtar Singh Panwar, Madan Bhatnagar, Dharmani, Balbir Singh Katt, Rajul Dharial and Susan Ghose.

SOURCES: Wikipedia, ngmaindia.gov.in, jnaf.org

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