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The mysterious Mr Ram Kumar

Kishore Singh  |  New Delhi 

The reclusive New Delhi-based artist remains in demand despite a recent hiccup in his prices.

When an early painting by Ram Kumar from his short-lived figurative phase came up for auction at Christie’s in March 2008, it was snapped up by collector Kiran Nadar for over Rs 5 crore. Vagabond, part of a series he did inspired by the homeless in Europe in the 1950s, is now part of the inaugural show at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Noida. It set a record price for the reclusive New Delhi-based artist at a time when no auctions were complete without his works, and a large body of his paintings was being traded by a collecting public not normally fond of abstracts but who couldn’t have enough and more of Ram Kumar.

Cut to 2010 and you wonder what’s taken the artist underground. It’s almost as if the clamour of the first decade of the 21st century was a chimera. The most the spring auctions served up by way of a Ram Kumar peak was Rs 78.91 lakh (Saffronart.

It was almost as if the Rs 1.37 crore (December 2006), Rs 1.44 crore (May 2006) or Rs 1.63 crore (December 2005) that the artist had commanded, amidst dozens of his works delivering if not as high, at least respectably high prices, was of the past. When oils that would have fetched Rs 70 lakh a few years ago struggled to scale Rs 20 lakh this month, one is forced to wonder: Was Ram Kumar over-valued? Is his story over?

To understand that, you first have to understand the artist — labelled curmudgeonly by collectors who have been sent off with a flea in the ear for breaching the lakshman-rekha he has drawn around himself and his East Delhi studio.

He does not like meeting collectors, he finds it difficult to be social with them, he will not sell directly (indeed, he deals almost exclusively through one gallery), and he seems not too bothered by either adulatory or monetary accountability. In the capital’s socially sensitive environment, this makes him an oddball, someone who breaks the rules of etiquette and doesn’t try to fit into notions of nicety.

If this was the only dilemma, there would not be a problem — other reticent artists have worn the sobriquet of being maverick and steered their own course.

The trouble began for Ram Kumar, whose oils on canvas used to sell for about Rs 5 lakh up until 2003-04, but who was suddenly catapulted into the Rs 20 lakh-plus class by 2005 when the international markets opened up for Indian artists.

It is interesting that the abstractionist V S Gaitonde, till then ignored by the majority collecting fraternity in the country, found his prices spiralling beyond all limits. It says something that in his wake, Ram Kumar — who had been identified by most for his Banaras series, before moving into complete abstraction — found himself being sucked into the same vortex. There were very few Gaitonde works to be had, but Ram Kumar had been rather more productive in his studio, and the market was soon glutted with his compellingly crafted canvases.

It was this flooding of Ram Kumar canvases that was responsible, in part, for a hiccup in his prices: there are but a handful of serious Indian collectors. Also, while it might be an unfair generalisation to make, for most others, one Ram Kumar is as good as another Ram Kumar. A Rs 30 lakh abstract is as good as a Rs 70 lakh abstract, particularly since most of them are Untitled, as a result of which it is difficult to build stories or myths around them (works by Gaitonde face the same problem).

Collectors didn’t want a particular Ram Kumar, they just wanted a Ram Kumar — any Ram Kumar. Not only did prices fall as a result, it also plugged the demand since most collectors were happy with the one, representative Ram Kumar in their collection and did not necessarily crave more the way one might want more Husains or Souzas.

Those dealing in his works insist that his demand and price remain strong but is not reflected in auction sales where the recent crop of Ram Kumar works has tended to be of an indifferent quality. The serious collector wanting works that are more unique has resorted to gallery sales that tend to be private rather than the public spectacle of auctions. But it does not rule out the prognosis that so long as weak Ram Kumars enter the market — and it is these that are being consigned to auction — the artist will find it difficult to arrive at his own public benchmark price again.

But as more collectors instruct themselves in the vocabulary of abstraction, and interest in his extraordinary works gathers strength, there is no doubt his popularity and value will deliver beyond what the unschooled might imagine.

These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which the writer is associated.  

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First Published: Wed, March 31 2010. 00:14 IST