PROPERTY OF A DISTINGUISHED GENTLEMAN
Oil on board
28 1/8 x 23 3/8 in. (72 x 59.4 cm.)
Signed and dated 'RAM / 53' lower right
In the spring of 1949, shortly after the success of his first solo exhibition in Simla, Ram Kumar left India by boat and travelled to France. On his arrival in Paris, he studied painting under Andre Lhote, a well-known artist and theoretician. Ram Kumar remembers that Lhote's teaching method was unusual, and entailed sequential drawing of straight lines and curves and an alternating use of warm and cold colours. These exercises in restraint seem to have suited Ram Kumar's artistic temperament, and the basic structure of his later landscapes can be understood in part perhaps, as a belated response to this early artistic training process. Then in 1950, Ram went on to join the Atelier Fernand Leger, where he was taught by Leger himself. Whilst in Paris, Ram Kumar met several influential writers and poets, who may have also inspired him to consider his own writing career more seriously, for it was shortly after his return to India that he published his first novel.
Upon his return to India in 1952, Ram Kumar continued to paint and write. He focused on a series of figurative paintings, where he chose to portray the monotony and decay of urban existence in a style that was distinctly influenced by his years in Paris. The works reflect his personal disillusionment with society and Indian politics of the time, but also form part of a larger artistic commentary on the despair and desolation experienced by the middle class in post-Independence India.
1953, the year of the current painting, was an important milestone in the artist's career as he also wrote his first novel, Ghar Bane Ghar Toote, which dealt with the struggle of the educated unemployed in a refugee colony in the Karol Bagh area of Delhi. Both the figures in the paintings and the characters he portrays in his novel share certain similarities. 'In Ram Kumar's paintings of the 1950s one recognized the dramatis personae as city people in a city environment circumscribed by the constrictions of urban society and motivated by conflicts which ensue from dense population, unemployment, and artificial relationships. ... Somewhat marionette-like and angularly stanced with half gestures that seem to clutch at something precious, the boldly but starkly portrayed people relate to one another because of the pervading quality of introspection, of a searching for meaning, purpose, release which is written large on their countenances.' (Richard Bartholomew, 'Attitudes to the Social Condition: Notes on Ram Kumar, Satish Gujral, Krishen Khanna and A. Ramachandran', Lalit Kala Contemporary 24-25, New Delhi, 1977-78, p. 31)
The current painting, with its single female figure, is a departure from other examples of the artist's figurative works of the early 1950s. The ill-fitted-suit-wearing, office going, middle class gentleman, trapped in the mundane and unfulfilling routine of his daily life, has been replaced by a rather contemplative woman seated in an interior setting. While there are other examples of women protagonists in this figurative phase, they are usually shown against a backdrop of the crowded, urban landscape that the artist favoured during this period. Here, the woman is seated on a charpoy in front of a low table, gazing at her reflection in a table-top vanity mirror. The artist offers a sliver of the dark, brooding cityscape that exists outside of the four walls through the single window in her room, thereby establishing a connection to his broader concerns.
A woman admiring herself in a mirror is a theme that looks back to miniature painting traditions of the 17th and 18th centuries. Shringar, or the act of a woman adorning herself in anticipation of the arrival of her male lover was a popular subject within all schools of painting. The courtesan or princess would be presented sitting against an elaborate backdrop, a lady attendant holding up a mirror so she could gaze at herself while carefully making up her face. Other attendants would gather around her, oiling her hair, assisting with jewellery, and ensuring her general well-being as she readied herself for the arrival of her lover. The princess is often compared to Radha eagerly awaiting the arrival of Lord Krishna.
Ram Kumar's interpretation is one that is far more contemporary to his time. The setting is redolent of a more Western context, and could also suggest a woman getting dressed to meet her lover; a theme he may have encountered during his years in Paris. The lack of detailing within the figure and the starkness of the room complement each other. The mood of the composition is further accentuated by his use of sharp angles and straight, dark lines. The palette is a sombre one, similar to other works of this time, but is pared down to an even narrower range of colours. The mustard wall is echoed in the slightly darker floor, and the angular spatial planes makes it hard to decipher where one ends and the other begins.
The work intentionally juxtaposes several harsh angles, from the sharp edges of the mirror, to the pointed ends of the woman's knees and elbow, further echoed in the arrow-like corners of the table and the charpoy on which she sits. The overall effect is one of a slightly awkward figure, confined to a small, stifling space, once again highlighting the plight of the unemployed and disillusioned middle-class in post-independence Delhi. The irony of her current pastime is not lost; despite the tribulations of the time, certain themes are timeless. 'In the paintings of that period we see Ram Kumar's theatre sense growing. The decor became abstract, convoluted, and the locale symbolic. The faces were more eloquent, the stances more intimate and tender. There was passion and there was prayer, and though sorrow was a large theme, hope was not entirely absent.' (Richard Bartholomew, 'The Early Years', Ram Kumar, A Journey Within, New Delhi, 1996, p. 43)
The choice of colours and composition automatically makes the woman the focal point of the painting. Her reflection in the mirror is a slightly softer, gentler version of herself, perhaps an attempt by the artist to breathe some emotion and soul into the figure and create an air of introspection and vulnerability, something that was missing in most of the vacant-eyed, soulless figures that gazed out of his canvases at this time. 'If Ram Kumar's figures look so bereft, it is because they are bereft of all emotions, entirely de-emotionalised; frozen in their immobility they freeze us from within. Not that there is any willful distortion or dismemberment of the figures in Ram Kumar's paintings. With all his stylisation one can recognise the human contours of the bodies, their gaunt faces and staring eyes, they even have a certain kind of wan beauty.' (Nirmal Verma, 'From Solitude to Salvation', op. cit., p. 22)
The influence of Ram Kumar's years in Paris is visible in the elongated, narrow limbs, angular lines, dark face and small features of the woman that recall the figures of the artist Amedeo Modigliani. Modigliani also painted the common man in similar lines with muted, dark colours, placed against semi-abstracted backdrops.
About The Artist:
RAM KUMAR (1924-2018)