Some artists are now like perennial brands when it comes to building an art collection and, depending on your taste, this could include the mighties of the Bengal School, the heavyweight Progressives and at least some of the contemporaries, especially among the younger generation. Whether or not you like Jamini Roy, think of M F Husain as gimmicky and F N Souza as misogynistic, wonder at Ganesh Pyne's obsession with death, desire a Tyeb Mehta and love/hate Subodh Gupta, chances are they will figure in your wish-list in varying degrees. Some rankings haven't changed all that much - most collections begin with the acquisition of a Husain painting - and others follow the current lodestar, which could be a rare V S Gaitonde for some, and the resplendent geometry of S H Raza for others. But if there is one artist whose star has been on a discreet ascendant in recent years, that would have to be Ram Kumar.
Ram Kumar's works are well enough known, as is his affair with Banaras. Brother of the noted litterateur Nirmal Verma, Ram Kumar was drawn particularly to the hopelessness of human spirit, picking on urban loneliness in his early figurative works before it was replaced with distorted paintings of Varanasi's riverine landscape till they reached a distillation point of complete abstraction. In the build-up to the frenzied art market till 2008, his works soared alongside those of most modern artists, but witnessed a dip thereafter. Maybe the prices had heated too fast; whatever the reason, stagnancy was inevitable.
But Ram Kumar appears to have made a gradual turnaround with his market showing strong trends in the last year. Partly, this is because his prices haven't yet touched the stratosphere of some of his peers, which makes him almost "affordable" by comparison. Perhaps it is also on account of a growing assertion for abstract art in which, inevitably, Ram Kumar's name crops up among the top five in the genre. The recent auctions in particular have provided evidence of his growing popularity with several lots bearing his name, and most of them achieving the higher estimates, if not exceeding them. More than the prices, though, it is the hunger for his works that is a marker of a building appetite that is currently being met with an equally robust supply. It is when demand peaks and supply ceases that prices will consolidate further.
Collectors - and viewers - recognise the artist's work from his pale blue and sienna palette alone, and his distinctive style is the result of impatient looking flat planes created by carefully articulated brushwork. Those with lateral planes tend to have a quiet, almost lulling atmosphere, but it is when he slashes the plane diagonally that he imbues his paintings with a sense of energy that is palpable. Collectors have their own favourites, but it is these that seem to rule the roost.
Ram Kumar's secondary market has much to do with recognisability - not just of his style and technique, but also of his abiding ode to Banaras. Though he has painted Ladakh as well as New Zealand (which briefly tempered his canvases with jewel-like colours), it is the cultural associations arising from his Banaras series - and many works are so attributed, whether or not they depict his imagination of the City of Light - that endear them to most Indians. The emotional high of re-living the artist's journey and his relationship with temple, ghat and holy river is as central to the collector's takeaway as it is to the artist's practice. The implication then is that cultural context can often be the defining point in any artist's work.