The abstractionist: Ram Kumar’s art

The opening sequence of Laurent Bregeat’s Ram Kumar: Nostalgic Longing, a documentary on Ram Kumar, shows the ageing artist, bent over his easel, drawing lines and curves with charcoal on a white canvas. “Ultimately nothing may remain of these shapes, but this is just an exercise in trying to find out something (…) important,” he says, as the camera zooms in on his face. Through Bregeat’s 48-minute film, the camera returns to this painting as it comes to life with every successive dab of oil paint. It’s fascinating to watch layers of yellow and green, dulled cream and translucent white fall over Kumar’s canvas and get shaped into abstraction with his palette knife.
 

Ram Kumar in a still from the film by Laurent Bregeat.

Kumar, now 91, is one of India’s most renowned abstract modernists, whose oeuvre evolved from figurative to abstract landscape over a successful career spanning more than 60 years. In the film,, we see one phase segue into another, each distinct for its colour palette as for the evolution of the artist’s thoughts and inspirations.
The first screening of this five-year-old film in Mumbai will take place as part of an event planned around an exhibition of Kumar’s works at the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), Mumbai. The film was made in 2010 as part of a series on four modernists—Akbar Padamsee, M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza, were the other three—commissioned and produced by the Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi. Dadiba and Khorshed Pundole, who run Pundole’s auction house, asked the director to make another four films on other Indian modernists. The new films by Bregeat are on Krishen Khanna, Rajendra Dhawan, K.G. Subramanyan and Krishna Reddy, the last of which has only just been edited.

It’s a valuable endeavour, especially since the moderns drive Indian art auctions worldwide.
Kumar’s story however, refers to none of that—shop talk is eschewed in favour of artistic practice. The film begins with Kumar talking about the first time he saw a painting, as a final year postgraduate student of economics in New Delhi. He began taking evening classes under Sailoz Mukherjee, a prominent modernist in whom Kumar found a “profound and sensitive” teacher. In 1949, the artist borrowed money from his father and travelled to Paris on a princely scholarship of Rs.100 from the French embassy. There, he studied art from Cubist painter Fernand Léger and sculptor and figurative painter André Lhote. Unsurprisingly, when Kumar returned a year later, his first flush of works were figurative paintings. But the landscape of the city with tall buildings with squarish windows filled the background. Italian film-maker Roberto Rossellini told Kumar that these figures reminded him of Franz Kafka’s stories. “My figuratives were more of the urban predicament, fuelled by socialist realism,” says Kumar. In 1958, another visit to Paris, where he spent six months staying with close friend Raza, yielded further changes to his figures, but all that changed when the artist visited Varanasi shortly afterwards.
The historical city in Uttar Pradesh was, then as now, crowded, colourful and bustling. Kumar went with Husain, and the duo would spend all day—separately—roaming the ghats, sketching what caught their fancy. The effect it had on Kumar was “not just visual, but also psychological,” the artist says, adding that he made it a point to visit Varanasi several times afterwards. The landscapes that emerged in this prolific phase of the artist’s life depict a vivid range on the colour palette: from dull greys and mustards, to bright bursts of greens, blues and yellows.
Kumar says he never studied the science of colours, but his later works—inspired by the bare greens and browns of the Himalaya in Ladakh—prove his uncanny sense of achieving maximum visual effect from the colours he chose to deploy on canvas. Painting, says Kumar, who also wrote short stories in Hindi as a young man, is not like a novel, which has a definite ending. “Painting is a continuity. One painting leads to another. What you want to say is not finished with one painting,” he says.
 
Ram Kumar: Nostalgic Longing will be screened on 23 June, at 5.30pm, at the Visitor’s Centre Auditorium, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Kala Ghoda, Mumbai.
 
A new biopic on one of India’s last great moderns explores his ideas and artistic practice
Dhamini Ratnam
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