Ram Kumar, Benares, 2015, oil on canvas, 36 × 24".

Ram Kumar, Benares, 2015, oil on canvas, 36 × 24".

Ram Kumar

Aakriti Art Gallery

Ram Kumar, Benares, 2015, oil on canvas, 36 × 24".

Ram Kumar is one of the last living artists from the triumphant period of painting that followed India’s independence. Along with contemporaries such as Akbar Padamsee and the recently deceased S. H. Raza, Kumar took the end of World War II as an opportunity to move to Paris; there he studied under Fernand Léger and André Lhote and briefly joined the Communist Party. Upon returning home in 1952, he was confronted by the post-partition refugee camps of Delhi; his response was a gritty, social-realist style of portraiture that sought to represent the traumas of his new countrymen. Meanwhile, artists like M. F. Husain and F. N. Souza endeavored to combine a cubist idiom with Indian religious and folk imagery, while the curator Ebrahim Alkazi inaugurated “This is Modern Art,” a series of widely attended exhibitions of prints of canonical European paintings. The new Indian art, like the new Indian state, would adhere to the directive principles of cosmopolitanism, nationalism, and socialist uplift of the lower class.

Kumar’s early work, drab and historic and accessible, has had unusual success within the market for Indian painting. One characteristic portrait, Vagabond, 1956, sold for over a million dollars in 2008. A recent show at the Aakriti Art Gallery, in Kolkata, exhibited a selection of drawings, pastels, and paintings from the nonagenarian’s intriguing development as an artist over his mature years. It included four highly accomplished recent paintings, one of which is among the most moving of his career.

In his late thirties, Kumar started to paint in an increasingly abstract style. The catalyst was a trip with Husain in 1961 to Benares, a sacred capital of Hinduism as well as a decrepit modern Indian metropolis. As the city’s tumultuous streets belie its spiritual timelessness for the faithful, so too did Kumar’s visit lead him to discern something beyond the world of appearances. Leaving behind the human figure and adopting a perspective of greater remove, Kumar’s paintings turned to the expressive potential of landscape. 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.

Since then, Benares has become one of Kumar’s most frequent subjects. Generally, he has sought to preserve the urban crush of the city, contrasting a sometimes-cartoonish jumble of buildings and ghats with muted gray and cerulean shapes suggesting land, sky, and water. In the paintings at Aakriti, however, and especially in the standout among them, Benares, 2015, Kumar reduces his characterization of the city to an absolute minimum. His perspective flattens to a single plane with two verdant juts of land, a light-blue strip of what must be the Ganges, and a half dozen earth-toned buildings. These structures, each composed of simple squares and triangles, sit atop one another without a hint of conflict; a thin white line separating their bases from the land imparts the sense that they are contentedly floating, an impression reinforced by the fanciful placement of one of them above two lone trees. Stripped of all other identifying marks, this is the platonic form of Benares, a rigorous deletion of the many contingencies of life in the city. Kumar has achieved a remarkable balance—between representational landscape and abstract expression—in which he retains both the specificity of this sacred setting and the sovereignty of his own harmonious vision.

The rest of the Aakriti show consisted of sketches from the ’60s through the ’90s that were torn out of Kumar’s old notebooks and framed. Five horizontal crease marks running along these pictures evince their casual former storage. While none of them accomplish the major effects of the recent paintings, some do provide a rare view of Kumar’s sensibility at ease, at play, giving something a try. This applies most of all to the sketches from 1961, the year Kumar took that formative first trip to Benares. One pastel shows a slim blue figure folded over itself as if contained in a womb. Though featureless, the body’s neck is craned, its head facing forward, expectant and ready, it seems, for a reinvention.

Alex Traub