Ram Kumar’s persona is more measured, much like his early abstract paintings
There’s a quality of restraint about Ram Kumar. Unlike his contemporaries and friends, Husain, Raza and Souza whose flamboyance and charisma were an essential part of their artistic persona and their art, Kumar’s persona is more measured, much like his early abstract paintings in which the interplay of dark browns, dull greys and muted yellow ochres created a drama whose essence was their subtlety.
With age — Kumar is 86 — that restraint has developed into something like reclusiveness. “I don’t go out much these days,” says Kumar, who is considered one of the foremost painters of his generation, “except to the India International Centre once in a while.” He was present, of course, at the Delhi Secretariat on the 23rd of last month to receive the Delhi government’s “Lifetime Achievement Award” from Sheila Dikshit.
We’re chatting in the sitting room of Kumar’s home in east Delhi, a modest three-storeyed structure in a quiet residential area fronted by a bare patch fringed by a few potted plants. Kumar and his wife Vimla moved here 15 years ago, and live alone, except for a male domestic help. Their only son lives in Australia.
Barring a visit to see Husain in Dubai three years ago and another to Egypt a year later, Kumar hasn’t stepped out of Delhi. Even contact with Kishen Khanna, one of his few remaining friends who lives nearby in Gurgaon, is limited to the odd phone call once in a while. “With age you become self-centred, more within yourself,” Kumar says reflectively.
What a contrast from Kumar’s hectic socialising with his friends among artists, critics, gallery owners in the 1950s and ’60s. “We would meet twice or thrice a week for a glass of beer,” he remembers.
Hanging around the walls of this room are four canvases — there’s one of Kumar’s own paintings from the 1960s; next to it hangs one by Raza, a close friend whom he followed to Paris in 1949 to learn art; then Gaitonde, and lastly, a Husain, a mid-sized work from the “Blue Head” series. Incredibly, Kumar says that these are the only three paintings, other than his own, that he possesses. But did he never buy any of the works of his artist friends? No, he says, one never considered buying their works then; these days, they are just too expensive to afford.
Of Kumar’s own paintings, there are many, neatly packed in bubble wrap and stacked in shelves that take up an entire wall of the basement down below. Here are works ranging from the 1950s, Kumar’s figurative phase, down to his more recent works. Clearly these are paintings that are close to his heart, that he’s never sold. Bare and a little forlorn in the weak winter light, the basement is also
Kumar’s work studio with an easel and tables strewn with tubes of paints and bottles of solvents.
Kumar continues to paint regularly, his daily routine, he says, being to start early around 7 am and then off and on through the day, and sometimes in the evening as well, “if I feel like it”. He’s jettisoned acrylics, which he’d used a lot of since the 1990s. “I don’t like acrylics. They dry up so quickly... only some things can be depicted in acrylic. I am working on paper and in oils these days.” Over the years Kumar’s paintings have changed in one important respect: his works from the ’80s onwards are far more colourful, with bright hues of blue, pink, green and orange, compared to the wan tones of his early works. “Normally it happens the other way around,” he laughs in agreement. “These days I feel like experimenting with lots of colours... maybe if I had done it right at the beginning I wouldn’t have,” he trails off.
While “the urge to paint has not gone,” Kumar says, with age has gone the desire is to sell or exhibit. As for his show last month at the Lalit Kala Akademi organised by Vadehra Art Gallery, “Sonia [Vadehra] was very keen that we have a big exhibition... one of the last exhibitions, ho...ho” he chuckles. But he’s less forgiving of buyers who come seeking him out at home to buy works directly from him. A few have come in and even tried to bargain saying, “I will buy four, five...[but] I don’t want to negotiate with anyone on prices,” Kumar says, the residue of distaste still evident in his voice.
And who can blame him? After all, the last few years’ boom in the art market has passed by these early masters who didn’t benefit from the crores and crores their works fetched at auctions. Just last July, Kumar’s “In the city”, a canvas from the year 1958, fetched a high £200,000 (around Rs 1.4 crore) at an auction. And as Kumar well knows, “auctions make a difference to your pricing”.