In the 1960s, Ram Kumar abandoned figuration after a pivotal journey to Benares. With a cool palette of aquas, blues, grays and tawny yellows, the prime motifs within his oeuvre oscillate between his numerous visitations to this holy city and the open vistas that are in essence painterly mementos of his life's journeys. These works have stillness in common. The empty spectral city by the banks of the Ganges has an architectural formalism that in reality would be chaotically teeming with bathers and pilgrims. The landscapes on the other hand, with their jagged planes of colour, depict a barren topography of unbroken vastness bearing few manmade or natural markers. The Indian art critic, Ranjit Hoskote, describes this back and forth movement in Ram Kumar's work between the Benares cityscape and the mountain/desert landscapes as a metaphor for Kumar's shuttle between the duty and ritual bound householder (grihastha) and the peripatetic renouncer (sanyasin) who looks instead to nature for spiritual truths.
Though Ram Kumar lives in New Delhi where he also writes fiction, Benares as the Eternal City, has pre-occupied him for over four decades. He describes his first visit in a 1996 interview as follows:
It was the middle of winter. And I had reached the city late at night. The dimly lit lanes were deserted and gave the impression of a ghostly deserted city I thought the city was inhabited only by the dead and their dead souls. It looked like a haunted place and still remains the same. Wandering along the ghats in a vast sea of humanity, I saw faces like masks bearing marks of suffering and pain similar to the blocks, doors and windows jutting out of dilapidated old houses, palaces, temples. Sitting on the steps of Manikarnika Ghat, watching dead bodies some brought from distant villages in boats, waiting for their turn at liberation, I almost felt the disappearing boundary line between life and death. The temples of death, the smoke rising from funeral pyres, the wailing of the relatives of the dead, and the river Ganga flowing slowly without a sound I could not remain a silent observer. And then the mysterious steps on every ghat emerged from the river leading upward to enter the dark labyrinths of the city which was submerged in the stark reality of daily life. Every sight was like a new composition, a still life artistically organized 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. (Ram Kumar: A Journey Within, New Delhi, 1996, p. 89)
Ram Kumar's post-Benares landscape series are evocations of his flights to remote locales such as Ladakh in Western Tibet, Machu Picchu, and the nature preserves of New Zealand. After contending with Benares' contradictions of squalor and spirituality, the world of nature and its solitude may be both an escape and a return to Ram Kumar's childhood memories growing up near the Himalayan hill station of Simla. While memories literally and figuratively colour Ram Kumar's "landscapes," the paintings are tinged with the ephemeral, almost as a meditation on impermanence an underlying tenet in Indian religious philosophy. Ram Kumar's works embody a thought once posed by Marcel Proust, "The places we have known do not belong solely to the world of space in which we situate them for our greater convenience. They were only a thin slice among contiguous impressions which formed our life at that time; the memory of a certain image is but regret for a certain moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fleeting, alas, as the years." (Marcel Proust, Du Ctti de Chez Swann, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu).