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Ram Kumar (1924­–2018)

Indian artist Ram Kumar, a painter and writer who was integral to India’s modern art scene, has died. With a career spanning seven decades, Kumar is best known for his later works—expressive landscapes that strike a balance between both naturalism and abstraction.

Born in Shimla, in 1924, Kumar initially aspired to be a banker and worked toward earning a master’s degree in economics at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi until he abandoned his plans and traveled to Paris to study art in 1949. Under the tutelage of Cubist painter Fernand Léger and sculptor and painter André Lhote, he began producing figurative paintings.

However, in 1960, a trip to Varanasi, also known as Benares, with M.F. Husain marked a turning point in Kumar’s career. The city, located on the banks of the Ganges River, is considered the holiest of the seven sacred cities, or Sapta Puri, in Hinduism, drawing pilgrims from all over the world. His trip to the spiritual hub inspired his shift to landscape painting, and the city would become one of his most frequent subjects.

“Like other painters of abstract landscapes such as Richard Diebenkorn, who was also drawn to waterfront cities, he began to use the shoreline and the horizon as the barest elements of a painting’s intelligibility,” Alex Traub wrote in the November 2016 issue of Artforum.

Associated with the Progressive Artists Group and the Delhi Shilpa Chakra, Kumar would be featured in solo exhibitions, as well as major exhibitions, including a two-person show with Husain in Delhi and Prague in 1967, the Festival of India shows in Russia and Japan in 1987 and 1988, “The Moderns” at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai in 1996, and “Ramkumar: A Retrospective” at the Aicon Gallery in London in 2011, among others.

Kumar was the recipient of a J.D. Rockefeller III Fund Fellowship in 1970, for which he traveled to the United States, and was honored with Padma Shri by the government of India in 1972 and Kalidas Samman by the Government of Madhya Pradesh in 1986.

Kumar was represented by Vadehra Art Gallery in New Delhi, where he had over twenty-two solo exhibitions and was the focus of the gallery’s first publication, Ram Kumar, A journey Within (1996). Dealer Arun Vadehra said, “Ram Kumar’s life, as also his art, was a sadhana—an effort where the result was often forgotten or the result was not what mattered, it was the effort that did.”