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Rehearsals going on outside Mati Ghar, one of the venues where actors will walk through the space enacting and articulating several ideas. Photo: R.V. Ramani
Rehearsals going on outside Mati Ghar, one of the venues where actors will walk through the space enacting and articulating several ideas. Photo: R.V. Ramani

Ode to a master

The eccentric genius of Ramkinkar Baij is set to get a befittingly quirky tribute from arts collective Vivadi and artist Vivan Sundaram

“You are a crazy person, there’s no doubt about that," film-maker Ritwik Ghatak told painter-sculptor Ramkinkar Baij on film in 1975. Ghatak, who was interviewing the maverick artist and teacher at Santiniketan over four days for his documentary Ramkinkar Baij—A Personality Study, had asked Baij about his Buffalo/Fish sculpture during one of the many interviews on reel. Baij’s answer, that it was the tail of a buffalo enlarged many times over and designed to capture its movement, did not satisfy Ghatak.

“But what does it mean?" Ghatak pressed. It means nothing, Baij had laughed, but look how it captures the movement of that tail! Do you understand now? he had asked. That was when Ghatak told Baij that he was, without the shadow of a doubt, crazy.

Forty years on, artists Vivan Sundaram and arts collective Vivadi, headed by theatre person Anuradha Kapur, are paying tribute to Baij in a promenade theatre show, 409 Ramkinkars. The show is on in the Capital from 25 March-2 April.

The promenade piece can trace its beginnings to a retrospective of Baij at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi nearly three years ago. Sundaram had by then already created an ode to Baij, along with two other Bengal artists—Rabindranath Tagore and Binode Behari Mukherjee—in Structures Of Memory: Modern Bengal—Three Modern Artists of Bengal. Now the idea took root to highlight Baij’s many modernisms.

“Tagore was observing modern art movements around the world. He would talk to Ramkinkar about these. Ramkinkar was able to grasp these ideas with very little information, to develop a modernist idiom," says Sundaram on phone.

Sundaram’s idea was to present a performance-cum-art piece that would bring to light Baij’s many talents—as a painter who worked with watercolours and oils; a sculptor who could create art with cement and stone; an aficionado and singer of baul music; and a less-known aspect of his creative output—as a set designer, director, and actor in plays.

409 Ramkinkars will have more than 400 installation pieces made by Sundaram. With the help of five students from the College of Art, New Delhi, the mammoth task was completed in two years. These pieces, made with terracotta and defunct motor parts, among other things (in line with Sundaram’s own art practice of working with found objects), are a kind of doffing of the hat to Baij’s creative genius. They are not replicas but reinterpretations—and in some cases responses to—Baij’s art. In his interpretation of Baij’s Sujata—the sculpture of a tall, lean woman set among trees at Santiniketan—for example, Sundaram has given her wings as a means to grow further. “An older artist can inspire a leap into the unknown," says Sundaram.

Instead of being restricted to the gallery space, the installation pieces in 409 Ramkinkars dot different parts of the venue, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA).

Kapur, a former National School of Drama (NSD) director, and one of three directors of this performance piece, along with Aditee Biswas and Shantanu Bose, says the venue, with its many buildings, each with a distinct ambience, lends itself well to the promenade act, where the actors will guide 120-150 audience members through at least three different sections. The first section of the two-and-a-half-hour act will be in the Twin Art Galleries, where the artist and actors have recreated an imaginary studio and gallery space for Baij.

Sundaram says it’s all a reinterpretation, since nobody knows for sure what Baij’s studio looked like. “It has an aura of a made-up studio," he adds.

Here, the actors will interact with the art pieces. Make no mistake; this isn’t anything like a guided tour of a well-manned museum. There is no linear narrative. It begins suddenly, surprisingly, with an aerial act by actor Bandana Rawat, a 2013 NSD graduate. She climbs, hugs, slides down what looks like a totem pole with a Kinkaresque statue at the top. Other actors start their speech and action. Everything seems to be happening at once. At some point in the performance, it starts to sink in that this is an approximation of the world Baij lived in—the Santhal village where a porter is encouraging his horse to move, the women are husking grain, singing songs, and the artist is having a conversation with a student, perhaps.

The next segment will take the audience into Mati Ghar, where actors will walk through the space enacting and articulating several ideas. Snippets of a speech by Indira Gandhi, a fictitious conversation between Baij and his canvas, dogs prowling the streets at night—these tableaux seem to run even as Baij throws concrete on an armature to make one of his sculptures.

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Rehearsals for one of the longer sections of the promenade piece. Photo: R.V. Ramani

Sundaram says: “Ramkinkar would foreground the (creative) process and point to the limited life of (the art) objects. This production, too, is about process—moments and fragments coming from the artworks." Sundaram highlights another aspect of the stage production that is drawn from Baij’s own practice—he would invite the audiences to see his sets before the show. Here, too, the audience will be welcomed to look behind the scenes before the performance begins.

“The play isn’t a biography. There is an emphasis on Baij’s life, but only glancingly," says Kapur. “We wanted to show the different persons he was—as a student and then teacher at Santiniketan, but also as an artist, a musician, a director." Baij, says Kapur, had directed plays like Antigone and Muktadhara in Bengali.

Without a linear narrative and the potential confusion of a 100-plus audience walking the 80-odd metres across the venues, this one might be a marmite—you’ll either love it or you’ll hate it. Of course, those strong of heart—and mind—might take comfort in the fact that Kapur is at the helm of this production. If she could make Virasat—where the audience can change seats midway to see the performance from different perspectives—work, then this might too.

409 Ramkinkars will be held from 25 March-2 April, 6.30pm onwards, at IGNCA, CV Mess, Janpath, New Delhi. For passes, email vivaditheatre@gmail.com.

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