A restless genius

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The Art community in India is acknowledging the genius of Ramkinkar Baij as the father of Indian contemporary sculpture in a major retrospective being held at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.

“I was probably asked to curate the show because of my intimate personal association with Kinkar da as his last student at Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan, from 1974 to 1980 – the last six years of his life and my first six years there as a student”, says sculptor K.S. Radhakrishnan, who was a student at Santiniketan in the 1970s.

Ramkinkar Baij was born into a humble family in rural Bengal. Growing up in Bankura he was enthralled by the creative process of life and Nature that surrounded him. He soaked in the local artistic traditions and those of the indigenous Santhal tribes that later helped him to forge a language that was as rooted in his local habitat as it was universal.

In 1925 Ramkinkar was brought to Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan to be trained by two visiting European sculptors and later groomed by Nandalal Bose and Rabindranath Tagore himself. Ramkinkar revelled in the remoteness of Santiniketan and preferred portraying local life to staid statues of British rulers. His art flew against convention. It was rebellious, spontaneous and reflective.

For his outdoor sculptures he usually worked with cement and pebbles, because he could not afford other materials. He quickly molded the mix before it set and then chipped at the cast. Some of his sculptures were later cast in bronze. One of these is a striking abstract head of Rabindranath Tagore called “The Poet” (shown below):

Abstract sculpture of Rabindranath Tagore called "The Poet"

Ramkinkar’s largest sculptures are still in Santiniketan, the most notable of them is the “Santhal Family” which depicts members of the indigenous Santhal tribe that live in Eastern India moving with their possessions:

"The Santhal Family".This was sculpted in 1938, when the trend was to do viceroys' busts and static statues in the Western realistic tradition. Baij was then 32.

Another iconic sculpture is “The Mill Call” from 1956, which depicts a working class family setting off for work on hearing the the mill siren. Says Radhakrishnan of this great sculpture, ” … you can sense the speed with which the women are walking, the child running behind …Movement was a crucial focal point of Ramkinkar’s oeuvre: movement that happened outside and within. He managed to somehow connect both.”

The Mill Call was done in concrete and laterite pebbles. Ramkinkar would throw the concrete inside the armature, a technique he used for the last time in this sculpture.

Ramkinkar’s work was invariably triggered by a happening that made him enter a pictorial space from the real. Take the subject of Famine that he worked on extensively. “News of the death of Jagan at the tea shop that he visited often, opened up a new space in his mind, connecting it to the famine. He moved in and out of these two spaces incredibly – from the real to artistic sculptural space.”

With the splendid retrospective of Ramkinkar Baij’s now showing at the NGMA, it is hoped that the world and indeed Indians recognize that modern Indian art and sculpture is not represented alone by the elite Mumbai-based artists such as Syed Haidar Raza, F.N. Souza, Tyeb Mehta and the late M.F. Husain. These artists benefited from being in India’s commercial capital.

In contrast, the great artists of Bengal worked in seclusion and lost their rich patrons when the British moved the capital from Calcutta to Delhi. That is only part of the reason why works of Bengali artists never rival the prices Mumbai artists command. In fact Syed Haidar Raza established an Indian art record with an acrylic abstract painting that sold for £2.4 million ($3.5 million) at a Christie’s London auction in 2010.

For those who are visiting Delhi or who reside there, the Ramkinkar retrospective at the NGMA runs until March 31, 2012. Be one of the privileged to discover the restless genius of a little known India artist whose brilliance could rival the best in the world.

Radhakrishnan sums up what he hopes to achieve with this retrospective by saying,

” We all know what Picasso looked like or even Satyajit Ray, whose life was behind the camera. After this show people will know what Ramkinkar looked like. It is very important to me that the world knows what he looked like, what he was – India’s first modernist sculptor who believed in being universal by being local. Ramkinkar Baij was not part of any school of art; he was his own school.”

Other sources of information on Ramkinkar Baij are:

“Dekhi Nai Phire” a book written by Samaresh Basu, Ananda Publications and an unfinished documentary from 1975 by Ritwik Ghatak called “Ramkinkar”.

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