Ram Kumar’s restrained portraits of the 1950s are permeated with an unqualified sense of loss. Through their muted palette and forsaken figures, these paintings express the artist’s despondent reaction to the harsh realities of urban life that he came face to face with at the time in France and India. As Ranjit Hoskote notes, Kumar “spent that decade, the first decade of India's independence, perfecting an elegiac figuration imbued with the spirit of tragic modernism. Infused with an ideological fervour, he drew equally upon exemplars like Courbet, Rouault, Kathe Kollwitz and Edward Hopper dedicating himself to the creation of an iconography of depression and victimhood [...] To this period belong those lost souls: the monumental Picassoesque figures packed into a darkened picture-womb, the bewildered clerks, terrorised workers and emaciated doll-women trapped in industrial city. Rendered through a semi-cubist discipline [...] these fugitives are trapped in a hostile environment and in their own divided selves.” (R. Hoskote, ‘The Poet of the Visionary Landscape’, Ram Kumar, A Journey Within, New Delhi, 1996, p. 37)
Kumar was acutely aware of his urban surroundings and the pervading sense of disillusionment and alienation he sensed in those around him in India. In this painting, the central figure, a young man in a grey suit, becomes a universal symbol of this disenchantment, his faint features perhaps indicative of any sense of individualism being subsumed by the anonymous homogeneity of the city Kumar portrays him in. The block-like architectonic structures in background, a few highlighted in a small but vivid window of crimson, foreshadow the next phase of the artist’s work, when, following a lifechanging visit to Varanasi, he would remove all recognisable figuration and narrative from his paintings turning to semiabstract landscapes inspired by the riverbanks of the holy city instead. Thus, in addition to being a rare example of Kumar’s early and short-lived figurative period, this portrait captures a moment of inflection in the artist’s career as he stands on the threshold of abstraction, offering both psychological and technical insight into his creative process.
This painting was acquired directly from the artist by the eminent author and critic Shamlal, who once described Ram Kumar’s paintings of the 1950s, writing, “The sad, desperate, lonely, hopeless or lost faces, which fill the canvases of his early period, render with pathos his view of the human condition.” Shamlal’s home in Ashoka Apartments, Bombay, in the late 1960s and early 70s, and his later home in Gulmohar Park, New Delhi, were always beloved ‘addas’ or gathering spots, frequented by artists like Husain, Padamsee, Gaitonde, Krishan Khanna and Ram Kumar. In Bombay, Shamlal authored a series of monographs on some of these artists for the publishing house Vakils. Known as the Sadanga Series on Modern and Contemporary Indian Art, each monograph included a few colour plates of the artist’s work and an essay and notes on each work by Shamlal. From 1950 to 1977, Shamlal also reviewed art exhibitions held at the time for the Times of India, and retired as Editor of the publication.