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Ramkinkarís People Live Again
Updated:Sep 15, 2012
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Geeta doctor

Book: Ramkinkar and his Work

Author: K.G. Subramanyan

Publisher: NGMA

Pages: 102 + plates

Book: My Days with Ramkinkar Baij

Authors: Somendranath Bandyopadhyay Bhaswati Ghosh (tr.)

Pages: 316 + plates,

Publisher: Niyogi Books/NGMA

Price: Rs 2,995

You see them all the time, the invisible people who migrate in small groups carrying their belongings on their heads. Indentured labour, families seeking a better life in the cities, cutting through mountains, building dams, creating enclaves of industrial productivity. They are Ramkinkar’s people. The most famous of them, ‘The Santhal Family’, is an epic piece of work created and installed at Santiniketan in 1938.

They have been brought back to life in the three books under review, memorialising the work and personality of Ramkinkar Baij (1906-1980). He was known as Kinkarda to all those who worked and lived in Santiniketan, colleagues and devoted students. Under the aegis of NGMA Director Rajeev Lochan, K.S. Radhakrishnan, himself a highly successful sculptor, has curated a retrospective exhibition of Ramkinkar’s Baij’s works at the NGMAs at New Delhi and Bangalore.

But it’s in Somendranath Bandhyopadhyay’s monumental enterprise (superbly translated from the Bengali by Bhaswati Ghosh) that we can listen to Kinkarda’s distinctive voice and peer over his shoulder, as it were, to catch a glimpse of both the sheer joy and the intense struggle of a creative spirit who has been recognised as the father of modern Indian sculpture.

He would have laughed at such a pompous title. For what comes through in the accounts of all three authors is that Kinkarda retained the unpremeditated vitality of his upbringing as a village boy from Bankura, who never stopped referring to himself as a ‘tribal’. For him, even Krishna was a tribal boy appropriated by the Aryan gods.

When he was conferred the Padma Bhushan, he sat quietly for a while as the ceremony was conducted with due solemnity. Then, as Bandyopadhyay describes it, he suddenly announced that he wanted to sing. Much to the discomfiture of all present, he launched into a completely uninhibited and at times incoherent monologue of song and poetry in the manner of the Baul singers who, he declaimed, were at their best when raising their voices in appeal to the spirits of the earth, wind and air. The organisers left the venue.

K.G. Subramanyan describes his method of working: “Even the earliest drawings of his that I have seen, done in pencil and crayon, had a rhythmic vitality all their own. Being the intuitive kind of artist, his response to things was immediate; he fell upon them like a beast on its prey. This figure of speech is his own or, as he used to say, Rabindranath’s, who had once impressed upon him the necessity of dealing with a work in hand with such single-minded aggression. The results were closely structured rhythmic images.” His drawings, watercolours and portraits are nonetheless full of delicate textural effects.

Ramachandran describes his methods even more vividly, describing how he would throw himself into the armature or skeleton of a work and claw it into shape with his bare hands. He worked with the most basic materials, since there was hardly any choice in those days. As he says (to Bandhyopadhyay), “Since I had no choice. I began with just clay. Clay, cowdung and tar. Later, from that clay itself I took other ingredients such as Birbhum’s sand and pebbles; whatever was available free of cost. To that I added some cement and iron. Back then, good cement cost four-five rupees a sack.”

‘Santhal Family’ and all the successive works made after he started teaching were done in concrete. As he goes on to reflect, even concrete degenerates with time. For ‘Santhal Family’, he had used pebbles with the concrete, creating a textured effect that was both like a coating of rough cowdung and the branches of local thorny shrubs.

It is engaging to learn how closely the other great artists of that time watched the progress of a particular piece of work. Kinkarda happened to be working on ‘Santhal Family’ when a stray comment by Mastermoshai, as Nandalal Bose was addressed, inspired him to turn the head of the male figure in such a way that the movement of the group became charged with the energy that he wanted to create.

“He would often explain to me that every art form, whether painting or sculpture, had a focal point like the central character in a story,” writes Ramachandran. “That is why in most of Kinkarda’s paintings and watercolours, one finds the background, tree or sky almost closing around the central figure. This is best exemplified in the painting, ‘Woman Bathing in a Pond with Palm Trees’. Like his teacher Nandalal, Kinkarda believed that the ultimate aim of an artist was to capture the life rhythm of the image, which could be done through a few minimal strokes rather than excessive usage.”

Then again, we must add that the central character in the canvas of Santiniketan around which the artistic community worked with verve and passion was of course Rabindranath Tagore himself. Kinkarda was a tribal Krishna adding his own unique lustre.

Geeta Doctor is a writer in Chennai

Indian Express, 15 September 2012

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