In addition to being recognized as a pioneer of modern Indian sculpture, Ramkinkar Baij is also credited with having connected the indigenous modernism of pre-Independence India with the more internationalist modernism that followed Independence. Born into a family of barbers in Bankura, Bengal, Baij was the first in his family to pursue a career outside the hereditary profession. While his family circumstances were not conducive to nurturing his artistic inclinations, he found stimulus in the folk and popular art scene of Bankura, a town that was home to several craftsmen. He acknowledges that his initial study of art involved watching idol makers and folk painters at work, rather than any academic training. Baij began his schooling in Santiniketan in 1925 at the age of nineteen, where he was greatly influenced by his proximity to masters like Rabindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose and Benode Behari Mukherjee. It was at Santiniketan that his work embraced a syntax that revealed a distinctly modernist leaning, even when his themes drew from the traditional.
The quick brush strokes of the artist’s watercolors, with bold black outlines and flat washes subsuming the frame indicate the spontaneity of his style. For Baij, watercolor was a medium that allowed free expression of form, and highlighted his quick and sensitive responses to the scenes of life that unfolded around him. His watercolors capture singular moments in nature, often depicting rural landscapes and peasants engaged in agricultural activities (lot 423).
Baij’s visual language took a more ideological turn in the 1950s, when his sculptures began to reflect and respond to social issues. The bronze study for Towards Kankalitala (lot 422), the last monumental sculpture the artist proposed to build, references an annual event of worship at a Kali temple in Santiniketan which involved the sacrifice of animals. Depicting a group of men leading an animal towards the temple, Baij planned to place the realized sculpture in front of the Faculty of Humanities at Santiniketan, to express his biting commentary on modern education. Unsurprisingly, the final project was not executed.