Form of the formless
Ram Kumar’s muted colours and abstract forms reflected his quiet persona. Unlike many of his flamboyant contemporaries, he was a reticent artist who refused to have a public profile and wanted to speak entirely through his work. This was unusual for a man who in his twenties had quit the safe option of a white collar job in Delhi to travel to postwar Paris to learn painting, where he joined the Pacifist movement and the Communist Party. On his return to India, he engaged with the Bombay-based Progressive Arts Group, but embarked on a journey that took him farther from the figurative works of his early period to a world of abstractions. Like the modernists, he had a secular, cosmopolitan language of modernism that also reflected the dominant political ethos of Nehruvian India.
It has been said that a visit to Varanasi in the company of M F Husain in the 1960s led to a rupture in his art. He started to abstract the landscape of the timeless city in numerous forms and shades. It was the essence of the city, its ghats and alleys, the skyline of decaying buildings, frozen against the interplay of different shades of light. These canvases, bereft of human figures, ruminated over the silence that lies buried under the noise and chaos of Varanasi. It is interesting that when many of his contemporaries experimented with religious iconography as they embarked on their spiritual quests, Ram Kumar journeyed to the ancient urban space of Kashi. Of course, Varanasi, where eclectic spiritual traditions have co-existed for centuries, had enough and more to offer yet another seeker in search of a distinctive language and vision. The landscapes became more and more minimalist, a few lines and arresting shades, suggesting an artist at peace with himself.
The art market discovered Ram Kumar late, in the 1990s and after, when the artist was already in his seventies. That, of course, didn’t matter to him as he continued his meditations on line, colour and forms, on his own terms. As he told this newspaper once, “I always painted for myself, trying to find new forms”.