The art historian Partha Mitter has noted that the "common thread" of modern Indian art has been "the insistent return of the figure, the perennial subject of India, set against the background of abstraction." One of the seminal and most long-standing exceptions to this rule is Ram Kumar. Although Kumar, like a number of Indian and Pakistani artists who studied in Paris, returned from Europe with a semi-figurative style that drew on post-cubism, he eventually chose to abandon the figure entirely and began working almost exclusively with the motif of the abstract cityscape, a move unique among his immediate contemporaries at the time. This shift took place in a series of paintings inspired by Benares, which was variously rendered as an amalgamation of shades and textures, or as Mitter puts it, "the colorful city reduced to stretches of clay, sand and sky."
In the 1960s, Kumar began another shift in his production, this time away from the cityscape, whose intensity conveyed a despairing urban alienation, towards the natural abstract landscape. Increasingly his works would be made up of forms, detached from his previously conventional figure-ground relationship, which coalesced in the middle distance to suggest a landscape. This focus on the abstract landscape, inspired by Benares, would lead the artist to pursue this singular mode of abstraction, almost exclusively, for the rest of his career.
What is at stake for an Indian artist in doing this? The question is a pertinent one because pure abstraction is rare in the work of Indian artists - many of those who experimented with abstraction soon returned to the figure to a greater or lesser extent. Ram Kumar's work, then, has become difficult to place within the more simplistic narratives that have developed around modern Indian art. Indeed, by insisting on the abstract, Kumar demands something that most of his contemporaries do not; a private, contemplative viewing experience. Like their counterparts in Western abstract art – the work of Rothko and Hans Hoffman come to mind – these works are less about transcendence and more about the visual encounter between the viewer and the painting in front of them. Thus the evolution in Kumar’s work that continues to set him apart from his contemporaries can be understood as the embodiment of a break between depicting something (the individual) and articulating the possible response of that something; between picturing something and being it, if you like.
Born in Simla, India in 1924, Ram Kumar studied painting in New Delhi and Paris. He is a vital part of first generation post-colonial Indian artists, a member of the fabled “Progressive Artist’s Group”, alongside F. N. Souza, S. H. Raza and M. F. Husain. Kumar has held solo and group exhibitions worldwide, including London, New York, France, Japan and throughout India. He lives and works in New Delhi. This retrospective spans Kumar’s oeuvre from his figurative abstract work in the late 1950s, through his move to abstract cityscapes and landscapes, culminating in a set of stunning new works exhibited for the first time in this exhibition.