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  • Apr 16, 2018

Obituary: Ram Kumar (1924–2018)

RAM KUMAR, a seminal abstract painter associated with India’s Progressive Artists

Ram Kumar, one of India’s Modern masters and a seminal abstract painter associated with the Progressive Artists’ Group—the first generation of post-colonial artists who advocated for an Indian form of modernism—died in New Delhi on April 14. He was 94 years old.

Born in the North-Indian city of Shimla, Kumar did not venture into the realm of art until his mid-20s, when he stumbled upon an exhibition of paintings while studying for his masters in economics at St. Stephens College in Delhi. Intrigued by the works, he signed up for evening art classes at the gallery, and later joined the Sarada Ukil School of Art. 

Studying in the city, Kumar met like-minded artists such as the prominent Modernist and co-founder of the Progressive Artists’ Group SH Raza, with whom he developed a close friendship. In 1949, with a desire to pursue his art education abroad, he moved to Paris, where he studied under the Cubist painter Fernand Léger, as well as sculptor and painter André Lhote, honing his skills in figurative painting during these formative years. There, he also met another of India’s Progressives, FN Souza, and later, upon returning to his home country in 1952, MF Husain—all of whom were engaged in the discussion to develop a distinctly Indian Modernist language.

In the early 1960s, after visiting Varanasi—a city on the banks of the Ganges in Northern India—Kumar’s work underwent a pivotal change, abandoning the figure and transitioning from representational depictions to favor more abstract compositions made up of lines and geometric forms. He revisited the city many times after, cultivating a lifelong relationship with its spirit and architecture, and created a body of work based on the locale that achieved critical acclaim.

Over his almost-seven-decade-long career, Kumar would continue to attempt to capture the ethos of Indian cities. His paintings blur landscape and abstraction with sweeping strokes of bold blues, reds, ochers and blacks, and reflect the various states of the human psyche, as well as universal themes of violence, inequity, loneliness and destruction. 

Kumar’s work has been included in biennales across the world, including the Biennale of Tokyo in 1957 and 1959; Venice Biennale in 1958; and Sao Paulo Biennial in 1961, 1965 and 1980. A retrospective of his works from 1949 to 1993 was presented by the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi in 1993. Among many awards, he received the Rockerfeller III Fund Foundation Fellowship in 1970; the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian award, in 1972; the Kalidas Samman arts award from the Madhya Pradesh government in 1986; and the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian award, in 2010. 

Of his death, Vadehra Art Gallery, which had hosted over 20 exhibitions of the artist’s works, wrote in a statement to New Delhi Television Limited: “It is with a heavy heart that we bid a final farewell to one of the greats of Indian art and a dear friend, Ram Kumar. For us at Vadehra Art Gallery, we mourn the loss of a mentor and passionate supporter who has been part of the birth and growth of our gallery.”

Kumar was cremated at Nigambodh Ghat on the banks of the Yamuna river coast. A prayer meeting for the late artist will be held on April 17 at Chinmaya Mission in Delhi.

Julee WJ Chung is the assistant editor of ArtAsiaPacific.

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