BACK IN 1960, the artist MF Husain made a suggestion to Ram Kumar. “One day Husain came to me and said, ‘Let us go to Benaras and sketch,’” Kumar recalled this incident a few years ago in an interview with the online auction house Saffronart. Husain was already an established name by then, whereas Kumar was a figurative artist still in search of his voice. The two travelled with Sripat Rai, Munshi Premchand’s son who owned a house in Varanasi and stayed with him. “Benaras was a very funny, funny thing,” Kumar recounted. Once the two artists reached the city, Husain had another suggestion. “Husain said, ‘You go in one direction and I will go in another. We will meet in the evening and see what we have done.’” But within a week, Husain had left the city. “He could not stick to one place for a very long time. After a week, he says, ‘Oh, I’m going back’. ‘Achcha, you go but I will stay on.’”
Most art writers agree that it was this visit to Varanasi that proved to be the turning point in Kumar’s career. He was a figurative artist until then. He had returned to India a little less than a decade ago after having spent a few years in Paris learning painting from two artists, while also being a member of the French Communist Party. Kumar’s figurative works were good. But they were apparently nothing like the pieces he would do later. Back then, he often painted refugees and labourers he encountered in Delhi, which he later dismissed as the art of someone who was just beginning.
Kumar returned to Varanasi again and again. The ancient city—its timeless quality, the dilapidated structures, and the suffering of the people within it—affected Kumar deeply. His attempt to capture that feeling—on canvases bereft of human shapes and in a range of colours—started what turned out to be Kumar’s journey to become one of the country’s foremost abstract modernists. Varanasi gave him his subject: landscapes. There were other landscapes which inspired him similarly, like Ladakh, but it all started with Varanasi. “That’s when I became a little abstract,” he said in that interview. His journey ended recently when he died at the age of 94.
Kumar, now universally acknowledged as one of India’s greatest painters, was part of independent India’s first generation of artists. Along with a few others like Husain, FN Souza, Tyeb Mehta, SH Raza, and the rest, he found a new language in painting, one that was uniquely Indian while also in conversation with what was happening globally.
But unlike his flamboyant peers like Husain, Kumar was quiet and reticent, someone who did not have much of a public face and who preferred to have his work speak for him. He had very little to do with painting initially. Born and raised in Shimla, he had completed his education in economics at St Stephen’s College in Delhi, and begun working at a bank, when while loitering around in Connaught Place one evening he chanced upon an art exhibition and later a notice for evening art classes. Kumar took up the classes so as to not waste his evenings. This new pursuit preoccupied him. He quit his job, became friends with artists like Raza, and soon found himself—after having borrowed money from his father to purchase a one-way ticket and earning a scholarship worth Rs 100 from the French embassy—on his way to Paris to pursue art.
A year later, two other young Indian artists, Raza and Akbar Padamsee, also travelled to Paris. When they reached Gare Du Nord station, Kumar was waiting for them. In a recent newspaper interview, Padamsee recounted his surprise at seeing Kumar. He told the two that when he reached Paris, no one had been there to receive him and he didn’t want his compatriots to feel the same way.