Ram Kumar first visited Benaras in 1960 to sketch his impressions and experiences of the famed holy city on the banks of the River Ganges. Of this trip, made with fellow artist M.F. Husain, he recalls, "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)
This everlasting impression that Benaras left on Kumar gave rise to a major transition in his painting in the early 1960s, perhaps the most significant development over the course of his career. Abandoning figuration completely, the artist sought to express through the unique landscape of India's holiest city the stark contrasts he had experienced there, particularly those between divinity and mortality, the celebration of life and the rituals of death.
In Kumar's early Benaras landscapes, the city is represented as a tightly packed mass of architectural forms, wedged between sky and river bank, almost wrestling each other for space. Devoid of any sign of human inhabitation, these scenes of the city's ghats or river banks defy chronology. Jagdish Swaminathan wrote, "Ram Kumar's Benares landscapes lift one out of the toil of the moment into the timeless worlds of formless memories. What he paints now is not what the eye sees in the ancient city, it is rather the response of the soul to the visual impacts. In these canvases he resurrects the images which have distilled into the sub-conscious, acquiring an authenticity and incorruptibility not of immediate experience." (Ram Kumar: A Journey Within, p. 73)
This particular painting was traded by Ram Kumar for a gramophone in Hong Kong, on his way back from his J.D. Rockefeller III Fellowship residency in New York in 1970. The artist recalls being introduced to the owner of The Radio People Company in Hong Kong, which handled specialized audio equipment, by his old friend Mr. Hayden the German Ambassador, who was previously posted in Delhi, and subsequently agreeing on the exchange.