Ram Kumar in 1993 © Yasbant Negi/India Today/Getty

“Sometimes glimpses of some unusual forms, moments of depth, rhythmic lines come to my mind. But they seem like some fragments . . . they have to be united with something more solid, something difficult to fathom. Some way has to be found out.”

Written by the artist Ram Kumar, who died in 2018, these words are a beguiling precis of the challenges posed by abstract painting. Kumar, like many of his peers, mapped that journey from fragment to whole through a committed drawing practice. Now, in a solo presentation in Art Basel’s Online Viewing Rooms, the New Delhi-based Vadehra Gallery will open a window on to Kumar’s approach with a selection of works on paper from the 1960s and 70s.

‘Vagabond’ (1956) by Ram Kumar © Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images

The display promises to whet the appetites of international collectors for whom Kumar may be a less familiar name than peers such as M.F. Husain and F.N. Souza. Although one of his paintings, “Vagabond” (1956), was sold for $1.1m at Christies in New York in 2008, the Simla-born painter is still the quiet man of the Progressive Artists’ Group. Founded in Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1947 by artists including Husain and Souza, the group aimed to fuse styles from Indian art traditions and the European avant-garde.

For Kumar, born in 1924, the experience of European art was deepened when he visited Paris in the late 1940s and studied under André Lhote and Fernand Léger. A member of the French communist party, the young artist immersed himself in the existentialist fervour that gripped the city’s intellectual and creative elites. (His brother, the writer Nirmal Verma, has recalled that during his French sojourn, Kumar sent him poetry by Paul Éluard and Louis Aragon, with whom he was good friends, and later took him to the Left Bank cafés where Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus once gathered.) 

Yet Kumar’s art is also steeped in the genius loci of India. After a period of concentration on melancholy human figures in the 1950s — Roberto Rossellini once told Kumar that his paintings reminded him of Kafka’s short stories — a visit to Varanasi in 1960 proved revelatory for the artist. Situated on the banks of the sacred Ganges, Varanasi is a holy city; a point of pilgrimage for millions who flock there to wash away their sins, cremate their loved ones, or die themselves so that their ashes may float away in the sanctified waters. 

‘Untitled’ (1960), (from sketchbook of 35 drawings) © Courtesy of the artist and Vadehra Gallery

For Kumar, the city was an architectural embodiment of his existential impulse. Paintings from the 1960s show how he rendered it, not in the vibrant colours traditional to Indian painting, but in silvery greys, bleached sands and earthy browns. Evoking Varanasi’s crooked alleys, crumbling buildings and sloping ghats as laconic, teetering, liminal huddles that float precariously between water and sky, they are the work of a painter whose first thoughts were that “the city was only inhabited by the dead and their lifeless souls. It seemed like a haunted place to me and still remains the same.”

‘Untitled’ (1960) © Courtesy of the artist and Vadehra Gallery

Sketches digitally on show at Art Basel show Kumar developing those ghostly intuitions through the intimate vocabulary of pen and ink. Intensifying their private character is the drawings’ location in one of the personal ledgers known as bahis or bahi-khatas that were designed for keeping accounts. Bound in faded red cloth with thick stitches on cream paper, the book’s humble aspect is a tantalising counterpoint to the artistic heft of the works within. (Although it’s likely that Kumar used account books for reasons of financial economy, it’s interesting to note that before he became an artist he worked in a bank.) 

Tight, inward conglomerations of line, shape and void, the drawings employ line and cross-hatching to weave knots of clotted darkness through airy, luminous lattices; the results are patchworks of gossamer-fine nets which rupture and collapse into diaphanous white holes. Clearly, Kumar’s Varanasi is an abstract metropolis, a city of the mind as much as the eye, although here and there a window or a ghat is faintly discernible. Virtuoso balances of line and space, light and darkness, the images are Kumar’s visual translation of that metaphysical threshold on which the city is poised. 

‘Untitled’ (1976) © Courtesy of the artist and Vadehra Gallery

According to Roshini Vadehra, for Kumar “blacks and greys” were a way of “tuning deeper into his existentialism”. As a result, he often “returned to drawings as a way of continuing the meditative and spiritual process of painting”. 

That Kumar’s flame was stoked in a spiritual crucible is not in doubt. Vadehra speaks of him as an artist possessed of a “unique sadhana”, the Sanskrit term for methodical discipline that is rewarded by a desired knowledge or goal. Yet he also observed the terrestrial world “with intensity and curiosity”, she continues. As a young man, he wrote short stories that pare down both people and landscape to their vulnerable, undiluted essence; his descriptions of Varanasi are sublime in their economy. 

‘Untitled’ (1971) © Courtesy of the artist and Vadehra Gallery

By the late 1960s, Kumar had relinquished both figure and city as evident inspirations. The drawings on show from the 1970s show him evolving towards the phase in his career when he turned, in the words of distinguished poet and art critic Ranjit Hoskote, to painting “abstractionist hymns to nature”. Perhaps nostalgic for his childhood in Simla’s hills, Kumar would make regular retreats to a village in Kangra valley, once writing in his diary: “When I sit facing the Dhauladhar range, with the thick forests of the Shivaliks at my back, I start probing within myself, my mind full of memories and lost images.” 

In the works on paper, what we see is an artist still conjuring a world through contrasts: sharp dashes clash with longer lines, awkward angles with athletic curves; there are sudden dips into whiteness, and upward swoops towards empty plateaux. Our eye topples into black crevasses, follows paths that vanish in a mist of whiteness, traverses obedient terraces. Could those tiny hyphens be birds? Or twigs swept up by a storm? 

‘Untitled’ (1971) © Courtesy of the artist and Vadehra Gallery

Kumar kept mum. Described by his brother, the writer Nirmal Verma, as “a concerned introvert”, his reticence and sensitivity — to others as well as to himself — are witnessed by all who knew him. Although he withdrew from the market-fuelled carnival of the contemporary art world, by his death in 2018 there was no question that Kumar was regarded as one of the visionaries of Indian modernism, with exhibitions across the world including Pakistan, New York and Venice (where he participated in the Biennale of 1958). 

This small cache of drawings offers just a glimpse of his gift. But in their fidelity to the line — a cornerstone of Kumar’s painting practice which he once said had “an independent life of its own” — they shed more light than their diminutive size and number might suggest. As for their “meaning”, it is best not to dwell. Kumar, after all, was an artist who once said that when one is young “one’s work is dominated by content, by ideas, but as one grows older, one turns to the language of painting itself.” 

This is a welcome opportunity to listen to his song.


Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article