By Ram Kumar.
By Ram Kumar.

Know your Ram Kumar

A private collection showcases rare works of the modernist painter

Starting 25 April, the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation will be exhibiting the work of Indian modernist painter Ram Kumar at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS). The 90-year-old painter, who lives in New Delhi, is one of the most well-known modern masters and is a contemporary of Tyeb Mehta, F.N. Souza, and M.F. Husain.

The 20 works that will be on display for four months are from the private collection of the late Jehangir Nicholson, an avid art collector who lived in Mumbai. They span a significant period of Kumar’s growth as a painter and include a 1958 oil on canvas, from the artists’ early figurative period, and his later, more abstract landscapes, inspired by Varanasi.

Nicholson continued to collect art till his death in 2001. His vast private collection of over 800 artworks is now looked after by a trust formed by Nicholson’s godson, Cyrus Guzder, and lawyer Kaiwan Kalyaniwalla.

Ram Kumar is often cited as the reason Nicholson returned to art collection; he had stopped picking up works in the early 1980s owing to a sharp rise in the price of Indian art–from several hundred rupees to several thousand. Dadiba Pundole, whose erstwhile gallery represented Kumar, recounts an incident when Nicholson, a frequent visitor to the gallery, saw a Ram Kumar canvas and bought it for 18,000. The year was 1986. Now, Kumar’s paintings go for lakhs of rupees. At the second India sale of UK-based auction house Christie’s, held in December, Kumar’s Orphans sold for 4.82 crore.

Here’s a look at some of the evocative works by Kumar that will be on display.

The Dream, 1958

The Dream: By Ram Kumar
The Dream: By Ram Kumar

Varanasi, 1964

Kumar first visited Varanasi in 1960 on a 10-day trip with Husain. The duo stayed at Prem Chand’s ancestral home there, and would visit the ghats and paint. Kumar was struck by the mass of people and the faith he witnessed, besides the anguish and poverty, but it was the landscapes that truly drew him in.

Untitled, 1978

Kumar’s visit to Varanasi marked a significant shift. His works moved from being more figurative—populated by lone figures that the artist often identified with—to abstract. In a 2014 interview with The Indian Express, Kumar said cities attracted him, and propelled him to move the landscape from the background to the foreground. All the cities he visited had an impact on him, he said.

Untitled, 1984

Kumar’s shift to abstract cityscapes was unique among his contemporaries. Mitter noted the shift in Kumar’s canvases as “the colourful city reduced to stretches of clay, sand and sky". He pursued abstraction thereafter.

Untitled 1996

Kumar also experimented with medium, using acrylic on canvas. His 1990s’ works are evidence of his continuing preoccupation with the abstract cityscape.

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