RAM KUMAR (1924-2018)
RAM KUMAR (1924-2018)
2 More
RAM KUMAR (1924-2018)

Untitled (Benaras)

RAM KUMAR (1924-2018)
Untitled (Benaras)
signed in Hindi (upper right); further inscribed 'Ram Kumar' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
31 1/4 x 31 1/4 in. (79.4 x 79.4 cm.)
Painted circa early 1960s
Acquired from Sistina Gallery, Milan, circa 1960s
Private Collection, Brazil
Thence by descent

Brought to you by

Nishad Avari
Nishad Avari Specialist, Head of Department

Lot Essay

It was with fellow artist Maqbool Fida Husain that Ram Kumar first visited Varanasi (Benaras) in 1960 to sketch his impressions and experiences of the famed holy city on the banks of the River Ganges. Several years after this lifechanging trip, the artist recalled, “I had gone to Benaras for the first time about 35 years ago [...] Every sight was like a new composition, a still life artistically organised to be interpreted in colours. It was not merely outward appearances which were fascinating but they were vibrant with an inner life of their own, very deep and profound, which left an everlasting impression on my artistic sensibility. I could feel a new visual language emerging from the depths of an experience" (Artist statement, Ram Kumar: A Journey Within, New Delhi, 1996, p. 89). It was this philosophical experience that heralded a marked change in Kumar’s work in the early 1960s, perhaps the most significant development over the course of his career. Abandoning his figurative idiom, the artist began to concentrate on what the critic Richard Bartholomew termed "the mood and sensation of the landscape" (R. Bartholomew, ‘Ram Kumar’s hallmark of maturity", The Times of India, 10 December, 1977).

In the present lot, the intricate architecture of the city’s famous riverbanks or ghats appears flattened against the ethereal river, its abutting forms almost spilling over into the water, revealing the unique and complex urban grid that came to fascinate the artist. Here, the spectral city is emptied of inhabitants and yet full of depth and contrasts, as Kumar inserts jagged forms of brilliant white against browns, greys and blacks to provide perspective to the composition and reflect the cohabitation of swirling life and still, silent grief that he observed in the city.

In paintings from this period, Kumar represents his personal experience of the city rather than a literal vision of it. While this exceptional example retains recognizable architectural forms such as windows, rooftops and doors that mirror the dualities of the city, Kumar in subsequent years would abstract these forms even further, dissolving them into an impressionistic milieu. At once joyous and melancholic, fertile and desolate, the emotive landscape of Varanasi profoundly resonated with Kumar, described by Bartholomew in 1961 as “a quiet man, a quiet painter, and a painter of the remembrance of things past” (R. Bartholomew, The Art Critic, New Delhi, 2012, p. 135).

Kumar, also a writer and poet, would persist for over forty years in portraying the complexity of Varanasi in his painting through its timeless architecture and its stark contrasts, particularly that between divinity and mortality, the celebration of life and the rituals of death. He recalls “Why Benares and not some place else? It was at that point in my life, I happened to visit Benares and it was all there before me... Benares' uniqueness lies in its age-old associations and the faith of millions. During my several visits to this city, my effort has been to fathom a little of its mysterious depths which I could interpret in my paintings” (Artist statement, Ram Kumar: A Journey Within, New Delhi, 1996, p. 191).

More from South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art

View All
View All