This exhibition was a retrospective of one of India’s most respected abstractionists. The JNAF has a robust collection of works by Ram Kumar, 20 in all. Nicholson clearly admired the artist and collected his work right from the early period, beginning with a 1958 oil on canvas and continuing right up to Nicholson’s death in 2001 - the last Ram Kumar work in the collection is dated 1999. The range of paintings that were part of the exhibition reflect the core strength of the collection – that it brings together not only the work of the great Indian modernists, but traces the various stages in their development as artists.
The 20 works that were featured in the exhibition, largely covered the significant phases in Ram Kumar’s growth as a painter: the early figurative period, followed by the gradual drift away from the figure to the landscape, explored in the archetypal form of the eternal city –Varanasi, Hinduism’s most sacred centre. Several works mirrored his journey from the expressionist- abstract aspect that he employed in the late sixties, to the serene lyricism of the 70’s and the 80’s and later the dissolution of the landscape in a cosmic imagery.
Ram Kumar played a significant if unintended role in the story of the Nicholson collection, as gallerist Dadiba Pundole relates. By the 1980’s the Indian art market was finally looking up and some of the more respected artists, could command a good price for their work. Nicholson who was till then used to paying for paintings in the several hundred, was reluctant to make the upgrade to a several thousand and his collecting came to a standstill in the early 80’s. One evening in 1986 he walked into the Pundole gallery and spotted a Ram Kumar in the corner. After a few casual questions about its price, the Pundoles were surprised to find Nicholson pay for the painting and walk away with it. Ram Kumar put an end to the Nicholson drought and got him back to collecting with a renewed passion, after which there was no looking back.
Ram Kumar was born in 1924 in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh. While pursuing a M.A. in Economics from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, he chanced upon an art exhibition in 1945. “I saw paintings like that for the first time and it made me so intrigued that I returned several times”.
Ram Kumar took classes at the Sharda Ukil School of Art under Sailoz Mukherjee and gave up employment at a bank in 1948 to pursue art. Sailoz Mukherjee introduced him to still life painting with live models. While a student there, he met Raza at an exhibition. Raza and Ram became good friends. He convinced his father to pay for a one-way ticket to Paris and studied further there under Andre Lhote and Fernand Léger.
Ram Kumar has been one of the first Indian artists to give up figurativism for abstract art. He was associated with the Progressive artist’s group along with Husain, Raza, Ara, Souza amongst others.
He has participated in various exhibitions in and out of India, including the 1958 Venice Biennale and the Festival of India shows in the then USSR and Japan in 1987 and 1988. One of Ram Kumar’s latest solo exhibitions was in 2008 in Delhi. Ram Kumar also writes in Hindi and eight collections of his works have been published, as well as two novels and a travelogue.
The human condition is the main concern of the painter manifested in his early works by the alienated individual within the city. Later the city, specifically Varanasi with its dilapidated, crammed houses, conveys a sense of hopelessness. Increasingly abstract works done in sweeping strokes of paint evoke both exultation of natural spaces and more recently an incipient violence within human habitation.
Ram Kumar received the Padma Shri in 1972 and the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian honour in 2010. He passed away in 2018.