Ramkumar, in his illustrious career encompassing seven decades, has created hundreds of enchanting works in the genres of drawing and painting. These works make us rejoice and observe the singular way in which he has used lines and colours – diligently and imaginatively, to explore the ‘tales’ and persona of a figure, a landscape or of an ‘abstract’ feeling or just the tale of a remembrance from the past, supposedly. This he has done not in any narrative manner, but in a manner where a line or a pigment proceeds hesitantly or affirmatively and extends itself to the happenings the way they occur, in the heart and mind, and starts recording them. Here in lies the purity, the serenity of his art which fascinates and makes us more curious about his creations. While viewing his works, we tend to follow each line, and every move to get to the core of the ‘tale’ which is always aesthetically pleasing and satisfying. It is also to be noted that viewing his works becomes increasingly interesting, as in the process, we start our own tale(s) as well. Thus, the whole process of looking at his art becomes a journey, and each line, each stroke, every move, each link and each joint of line and colours, leads to a soulful research of the topographical map of this journey. The works appear to be throbbing and lively to the core, as each and every step bears an approach which is truly reflective and meditative as well.
All this becomes more evident in the small format works done on paper with ink or pastel. Moreover, these are the works, which we will be discussing in this essay exclusively. But first I would like to refer to the material, to the ingredients which have played a special role in the making of these drawings and paintings done in small format. Apart from using loose sheets for such works as is normally done, he has used the sheets for a lot of his works in small sizes- the sheets of hard-bound Bahikhatas(account books). In an off-white slightly creamish colour and smooth surface of these sheets; line and pigment find an ‘attractive’ space to move and ‘travel’ with ease and are able to create a fine texture of their own, unhindered from any existing texture of the paper itself. The fact that all the various media - the ink, pastel, charcoal or watercolor are friendly to this paper becomes obvious when we find our gaze on these works. Even acrylic seems more dazzling and alive on the sheets of Bahikhatas.
Ramkumar recalls that these account books for drawing and sketches, were suggested initially to him by Maqbool Fida Husain himself, painter par excellence and friend. According to Husain Saheb,the paper of these account books is always strong and lasts for a much longer time, in its colour as well. The other consideration was that the account books were more affordable in comparison to other papers, for the artists who did not have enough resources to buy expensive paper at that time. And Husain Saheb was not wrong; the paper of account books from the early sixties has survived wonderfully, and it’s still strong. Ramkumar kept these account books with him to fill them, when the impulse to do a drawing or painting in small format was there. It is worth
noticing that without separating the sheets from their stitched position, Ramkumar used these account books like diaries and several works from these have some sort of sequential bearing as well.However, each sheet, each drawing and painting has a presence of its own when seen individually. For many years, these account books, these diaries have been hidden from the public gaze, since these were lying in the drawer of a table in Ramkumar’s studio; it is very recently-about three years back- that after much persuasion, he agreed to show them to art lovers separately. The stitches were taken out, and the drawings and paintings were framed. One can easily understand that these works are truly intimate. They were created in complete absence of any intrusion, and were done either in the privacy of his studio space, or in a lonely place during his travels. In comparison with large-size works which are kept on the easel, or on the floor or a table and can be viewed by anyone who visited the artist in his studio, these account books were not visible to the visitor ever. These are truly rare and had been unseen so far. Now these drawings and paintings have been exhibited/collected, and signs of stiches can be seen on the left of each work.
To trace the history of these works, one has to go back to the late fifties and early sixties when the art world got to know about the drawings and small-size sketches of Ramkumar’s. His drawings in black & white started appearing on the covers of prestigious Hindi magazines such as Kalpana, Kriti, Dharmyug and some were published in the travelogue titled ‘Europe Ke Sketch’ a book written by Ramkumar himself in Hindi about his travel in European countries when he had gone to Paris to study art on a scholarship. Many appeared in English magazines and journals as well. These were much appreciated, and the writer and readers who came across these sketches at that time still remember them fondly.Such works kept appearing from time to time, and later on, paintings in pastel and watercolors were also seen; and in his shows of large, and medium sized paintings, one would come across some paintings and drawings done in smaller formats as well, but the paintings in large and medium size have appeared more frequently, and these were the pieces most written about also. Hence the appearance of drawings and paintings done in Bahikhatas definitely need the focus and attention they deserve in the oeuvre of Ramkumar.
Ramkumar, in his drawings, charts a journey which bears his signature, yet takes a different visual course in thin and refined lines resembling web or net or a topographical map. In fact this network, this mapping has such an aesthetic feel, and a cerebral quality that one immediately becomes curious to enter into their space, their world.
It would be interesting to recall here what Ramkumar himself has to say about drawing per se; for the catalogue of ‘Drawing 94’, he had written a short piece on ‘Drawing’, and I quote from there, “Drawing is like writing in your diary. In perfect relaxation with full freedom for mind and hand, one can express something very deep, intimate and profound, exploring new patterns where one can communicate with oneself. No colours, no brushes, no pallet knife only a pencil or a charcoal stick or a pen, one can freely concentrate on one’s imagination.”
In his words, the free imagination relates to the freedom of lines also; as in his drawings, generally there are no identifiable objects, figures, places or landscapes. What one sees are just lines- moving, stretching, hitching in different directions. And if one is able to get to some form which resembles a figure or an object from the real world -man made or from nature, it only assumes a status of a form seen or imagined in a fleeting moment. The next moment it may disappear altogether and then again one is left with just the lines. But soon one realizes that there are not just pure lines, they do carry weight of some tangible/intangible things; there are perhaps memories from certain landscapes, certain places and traces of emotions and experiences, which can be read in the postures and positions of lines, and of course, there is certainly the role of the free imagination, which gives the lines a ‘free hand’ to enjoy and move as they wish. All this makes these lines not only beautiful but substantial as well. Infact, it is their substance which keeps attracting us to them, and to cull out the felt or desired meaning from these, becomes a kind of pleasure, even a play for us.
The Bahikhatas of Ramkumar include drawings from the early sixties to mid-seventies to nineties and are still being used (in the remaining blank sheets) for the purpose of drawing and painting. The early sixties and the visit to Varanasi are very important dates in Ramkumar’s journey as an artist.This importance has been referred by the artist himself and by many others. It was in Varanasi that Ramkumar’s pictorial language moved towards abstraction, and his lines and colours both entered a new perception of the reality- objects.Figures, realistic landscapes, cityscapes, all were left behind; and it was through lines and colours only that the images and forms got created giving an aesthetic feel, a feel for sublime and a realization of reality at a higher, finer level to them. Nothing was described or narrated; the communication was only suggested. And later on, Ramkumar had this to say about the way an artist communicates. He has observed, “An artist shows the entry point to his creative world and the rest depends on the onlooker, what he sees, feels and interprets. He has to make an effort to find for himself what he is seeking and what the artist wants him to see.”
Ramkumar’s drawings and paintings may be rated as abstract works, but they are suffused , and at times, even loaded with feelings and an emotional upheaval which clearly gets through in the directional use of lines and colours. The way the wind blows in a certain direction, the waves, the current also has directional “moves” or the paths have twists and turns. Ramkumar’s lines and colour-sketches also have directional variance surging forth, going upwards, taking U-turns, sliding and rising again. And all these moves, all these directions bear a testimony to some realization, to some uplifting experience, one can decode for oneself as suggested by the artist.
Thus the ultimate formation created in these drawings of crisscross, merging and submerging lines , have a reality of their own ,which attracts us. And we want to revisitthem again and again . Sheer beauty and refined shape of thin and not so thin lines is captivating and even without `distilling’ any signifiers from them , we can rejoice in their aesthetic substance itself . These drawings form separate areas, then create their own bridges which join them . Thus in the sojourn, a viewer passes
through many winding and unwinding paths and bridges . The drawings are mostly in black & white only , with the touch of a gentle , soft colour here and there , and do not have any consciously done tonal variations . Ramkumar succeeds each time in giving an organic and natural look to these drawings . This aspect of Ramkumar’s drawings subtly transmits into us a Saundarya of a rare quality.
Some of the drawings show the traces of architectural constructs and some images, shapes and figures emerge in certain drawings , some contain a geometrical familiarity but even these have a germinal essence of their own and do not seem to carry any external weight of the `seen’ objects . A lightness of being pervades here , yet this `lightness’ has the capacity to carry in it , a `discourse’ and dialogue created out of the lines , to remember and to be taken forward .
Ramkumar creates a meditative space by the use of lines ,where one can also build and re-build one’s own `space’ to ponder over one’s feelings and thoughts. And along with that can cherish the feel one gets from thesesuperb lines . In our modern/contemporary art scene ,lines have been used by many artists , including the artists of Ramkumar’s generation and by the younger ones , in various ways – strikingly , stunningly , violently andovertly. But in the lines of Ramkumar , Gaitonde and likes of Nasreen Mohammadi , one finds a refreshing course, and that is to use line in a sophisticated , delicate and mild manner , to chart , to map and to navigate the inner feelings and emotions in an unobtrusive manner . Here the line truly becomes a `script’ of visual signs and signifiers, to bring the viewer closer to their `convincing’ and graceful presence .
Infact this presence , this graceful ` anatomy’ , agog with goodwill , starts communicating with the viewer immediately and makes him at ease to cull out the `substance’ of the drawings . In the lines of Ramkumar there is a certain `musicality’ as well, where they assume the role of notations . And the whispering, mild notes emerge out of these lines to harmonic heights .
I would like to recall the observations made by Ranjit Hoskote in one of his essays titled “Parts of a world : Reflections on the Art of Ramkumar”.Ranjit states ,“Ramkumar’s art which has proceeded through an alteration of joyous expressivity and brooding reticence , plays out a crucial polarity of emphasis in the context of Indian culture : that between sansara, the sensual participation in the world of events and nirvana , the ascetic blowing out of desire . Having renounced the active engagement with the state and civil society that had earlier characterised his position, the artist has turned gradually inward, choosing to be an internal exile of the spirit. This withdrawal affords him the space in which to reflect upon the great natural forces that have enthralled him since his childhood, to gauze their metaphorical import: in their workings , he senses the deeper intrigue of time as Kala, the destroyer of worlds . Attentive to the ceremonials of decay, alert to the processes of the transformation, he stands on the threshold where the anguish of the private self is sublimated into the universal rhythm of creation and destruction.
Ramkumar’s continual awareness of this rhythm produces a specific effect of deconstruction in his aquarelles and Japanese ink paintings from the mid 1990. The intimacy of reduced scale permits the
artist to conduct himself as though he were a stranger to the world he has composed carefully over the decades: he dismantles its coherent grandeur into fragments. Even as he strums upon the basic images that have long preoccupied him, he adopts the notation rather than the composition as his structural principle in his watercolors; which is why we are seized, in these works, by the pleasure of renewed encounter”.
I have quoted this analysis of Ramkumar’s art for two reasons, the first being Ranjit’s observation about `the intimacy of reduced scale’ in Ramkumar’s work , as it is relevant to the drawings and paintings of Ramkumar in small format, which we are discussing in this essay and the second being the `encounter’, which needs a focus –whenever ,wherever we are in front of the works of Ramkumar. His works from different periods, different series , different sizes and materials, reveal themselves in certain new forms and intents which are not to be missed . And once we get the feel of this `newness’, the pleasure occurs. The changes in Ramkumar’s work are never overt and forced, hence their subtlety and nuances in terms of change have to be comprehended with sensitivity of the gaze.
His style , his manner and his approach always have his distinct `signature’ and those familiar with his works , never fail to recognize them irrespective of the medium and material used , thus his drawings attain only a faint similarity to his paintings but have a marked impact/impression of his art and his core . We celebrate this impression and then proceed to discover the `difference’.
In his drawings Ramkumar never directs his lines to create a form or image as such , it is only after the lines have moved in different directions with their intent, that a total form or image starts emerging and the point comes when the journey seems to be coming to an end and they stop . This stoppage brings to us a map of their travels, and we rejoice in the forming of this map because this `map’ offers us the clue to the intent of the lines individually, and of their collective journey. In this manner the whole process of their `movement ‘is laid bare before us, yet we sense that there is something more to them, which we will have to explore for ourselves. It is in this `exploration’ that a celebration of sort begins,and we reach out to fathom their substance and intent . Each viewing brings us closer to these `wandering’ lines and while encountering them, we realize that we are getting new signals from their multiplicity and thus their freshness, seems to be guaranteed each time with each viewing.
Ramkumar’s fondness for hilly ranges, rivers,lakes , trees and the open sky is well known and all these have their presence , not symbolically but characteristically in both his drawings and paintings . Indeed they get `abstracted’ in his art but nevertheless they are there in many forms with the essence of their `character’,bringing a kind of `realism’ to them . It is in this sense that his abstract `landscapes’ are never devoid of an earthiness, and the elements from nature to be seen and feltare mirrored in them. The surging strokes, the palette knife with layers of pigment fills the canvas withsomber hues . The blues, the reds , the yellows , the greenish touches become evoking and enchanting in many tones and shades . All this happens on larger canvases in oils/acrylics but the
small format works on paper painted with pastels in Bahikhatas , tell a different tale –here the patches of colors are applied close to each other or joined toeach other in a shape resembling a nest or a window or just an amalgam of colors bearing certain emotions and memories . These are soothing, comforting works--intimate to the core .
When we talk of Ramkumar, we must not forget that the elements from each period , keep appearing and disappearing. Hence a work from the nineties may remind us of a work from the sixties , this going back and forth is quite natural in his case, as the memory plays an intrinsic part in his stories and paintings both . His stories written in Hindi and some also available in English translation, do not relate directly to his paintings, but the roleof thememory connects them in certain ways.
Ramkumar is a keen observer of seasons - of summer , winter or rainy days, and relates to them with their colours and changes in moods they bring . This is more evident in his stories where he describes with sensitivity the ambiance of a house , of a park or a path and notes the characteristics or peculiarities of a particular season through the images of trees or sounds of birds or with any other sign denoting the season . This he does in softer tones and in a reflective way. The readers of Ramkumar’s stories, while viewing/observing his paintings notice `season-laced ‘ brush strokes rather easily, instantly, and those who are not so familiar with his writings also get the warm , icy or cool impressions/effects emerging from the colours, and the way they have been put or placed on pictorial space .This does not suggest that all this is done deliberately , consciously ,but it points to the fact that, if we keep the ‘season context ‘ in mind while looking at his works, we may enjoy the works even more. While interviewing him once, I had suggested that the appearance of more vibrant shades of red is a sign, that a kind of sadness of his greys is about to disappear;he replied “lal rang bhiudaas ho saktahai ‘’ (red can also be sad) hinting that a colour should not be looked at as a symbol of something , but it should be seen according to the feel it gives . Thus the feel of a colour is more significant in his paintings, and it is in this sense that we have brought the context of seasons in relation to his colors.
It is not only the memories, seasons, and certain terrains, which keep entering and transforming themselves, in his drawings and paintings. It is also the visits to a city or country which kept influencing his colours , and the very mode of paintings and drawings .Richard Bartholomew had noted the impact of such visits many years ago . He had observed, “in the work of the early 1960’s the close and scrutinizing view gave place to a depiction of what Ram felt about Banaras and what he remembered as the essentials of the eternal city. Banaras was distantly and almost indistinctly as a mirage , a wedge of intricate structure between expanses of what now appeared to be water and sky .The city appeared to be an emanation . Centuries of pilgrimages and generations of people who sought fulfillment in Banaras , their thoughts , voices and movement , their total anonymity the residue of their spirit, their passage through time , made Ram see the image of Banaras as a kind of crystallizing memory or as a congregation of echoes .This image of the city formed only a part of the
fabric of feelingly rendered pigment fluid in movement and in suggesting the prospects of water and sky and a prevailing, pervasive mood.
Following this, there were simplifications of formal structure, bare suggestions of architecture surrounded by volumes of space viewed ,as it were , from different perspectives .The austere and purely abstract phase of paintings ended round the mid 1960s, when Ramkumar visited Kashmir and the landscape and the colour there mellowed his style and he returned to a somewhat semi – representational mode in which the structure of houses and the meander of waterways and streets became more apparent, or was suggested more definitely. These were gayer, brighter works, and pinks and mauves appeared reflecting the lyric mood, while the grey key remained supporting the quiet tonality.”
Likewise one may recall his visits to Greece ,to Peru, to Laddakh,to New Zealand ,and some other places inside the country ,and to the foreign shores; and one can note that each visit has changed something in his palette and ‘imagery’ .To name just one , the visit to New Zealand brought a fresh blue of the open skies and of the lakes . His eyes are quick to register the `colors’ of a landscape and of a mood or emotion as well . They get mingled in his strokes, and quite often we find that as in a foliage ,when sunlight falls and leaves of different colours and shapes get entangled there is a depiction of an array of bright and somber hues , so is in the case of Ramkumar’s many works .
Coming back to his small format works on paper , we find that the `continuity’ of time ,it’s flow brings forth a whole gamut of human perceptions and realizations. These are `circled’ and `nested’ for an intimate and closer observation . This is what makes them enchanting and emotively attractive. The shades of pastelin lighter and brighter tones are very sensitive and inherently so `touching’ that we are immediately moved by their presence. To conclude, I would like to state that the small format paintings and drawings both exist parallel in the oeuvre of Ramkumar. And thus should be seen and felt distinctively . They not only offer a rich variety of creative impulses, but also have an inspirational role to play for the viewers of his work, as they lead us to his ‘world’ more intimately and inquisitively .
KRITI : A literary magazine of late fifties and early sixties , published from Delhi , edited by Hindi poets Shri Naresh Mehta and Shrikant Verma . With this magazine were associated Maqbool Fida Husain, Ramkumar and many Hindi writers of repute and also writers from younger generation .
Kalpana : A literary monthly from Hyderabad published by Badrivishal Pitti, a close associate of Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia and Maqbool Fida Husain . The magazine also carried articles on art, music and other related mediums . Still remembered for its high standard and fine taste.
Dharmyug: A most popular prestigious Hindi weekly of Literature and arts, published by the Times Group till the nineties. Its editor for many years was Dharmveer Bharti, a poet and writer himself. He was a careful selector of artworks as well.
In Hindi about a dozen collection of Ramkumar’s short stories have been published and a collection of English translation of his short stories have been published by Vadehra Gallery , in which a piece by Prayag Shukla discussing his stories also appears .
RanjitHoskote : The essay written in 2002 has been reproduced in the catalogue of ‘Ramkumar: works in the Jehangir Nicholson Collection’, 2015 .
Richard Bartholomew has written extensively, on the art of Ramkumar on many occasions . His essays and reviews on Ramkumar are now available in the book ‘Richard Bartholomew ,The Art Critic ‘.
The passage quoted is from the essay “Nature and Abstraction: An enquiry into their interaction “ also included in the book The Art Critic pages 111-112 .( It was originally published in Lalit Kala Contemporary , no. 23 , 1977 – 78) .
Travelogues: Apart from his travelogue book ‘ EuropeKe Sketch’, Ramkumar also wrote from time to time about his travels, for magazines like Dinaman, published by Times of India group from New Delhi. His travelogue on Peru needs a special mention here.
Shows: Ramkumar’s drawings done in Bahikhatas, have been shown by Vadhera Gallery, 2012, New Delhi) and by Aakriti Gallery in Kolkota, 2014, New Delhi and in Mumbai in collaboration with Gallery 7, 2015. All these shows were curated by Prayag Shukla. Some more shows are being planned by Aakriti in Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru and Kolkata, in which along with drawings, paintings done in pastel in small format will also be included.