RAMKINKAR BAIJ: AN UNDEFINED GENIUS?
RAMKINKAR BAIJ: AN UNDEFINED GENIUS?
I had no intention of writing on Ramkinkar Baij. But after going through a catalogue book ‘RAMKINKAR BAIJ: RETROSPECTIVE 2012’ curated by K.S.Radhakrishnan & Text by Prof. R. Siva Kumar it is perhaps relevant to raise a few points regarding the art-language used to define or position Ramkinkar Baij as an prominent 20th century artist. The 437 page hardcover book with text and nearly 400+ photographs was Published by Delhi Art Gallery & National Gallery of Modern Art (ISBN 978-93-81217-24-5). The book effectively starts by referring to a remark made by K.G.Subramanyam a good 40 years ago-“A comprehensive retrospective of Ramkinkar Baij’s work is well-nigh impossible because he is one of the artists who are an art historian’s despair.” Professor Siva Kumar opines that even after 40 years and more exhaustive compilation of Ramkinkar Baij’s works, art historians are not really any better placed now; effectively suggesting that Ramkinkar is an artist difficult to analyze.
Let us ponder on the personality of Ramkinkar Baij as he appeared to us in Santiniketan. Ramkinkar expired when I was 21. As he was a senior colleague of my father in Kala Bhavan; he was a fairly familiar figure to me right from my childhood days when I often visited Kala Bhavan after my school hours. He always appeared to be pretty interesting a character with a wittily content smile hanging on his lips. But ofcourse none amongst our family, and friends, ever discussed Ramkinkar’s art. We were also much familiar with his loud rendition of Rabindrasangeet at late evenings on his way back to his Ratanpally home from the studio at Kala Bhavan. It was a regular and prominent feature of him for a long time. Personally I also vividly recall my surprise as a child when he pulled out quite a few of his trademark water colours from underneath his shabby looking bed mattress when my mother and me visited his house at Ratanpally, probably 100 meters away from our residence. He always appeared to be a jolly good fellow, always typically in his mood; in fact he was least unpredictable in his behaviourial patterns among many other more dignified (well, apparently!) characters of Santiniketan. He was certainly a very lovable character, behaved in a unique chemistry of equality with all and sundry, maintained no hierarchy and most importantly always appeared to be one amongst us. He was very much an integral part of Santiniketan psyche of those years. And most remarkably he was very consistent in this approach; and I just can’t recall any incidence seen or heard where he behaved in a un-Ramkinkar like manner! He was a consistent character to the core.
Some people have fashionably termed Ramkinkar as a bohemian, and an out-of-sync kind of person vis-a-vis Santiniketan due to his fondness of liquor and the live-in relation he maintained. The novelists and essayists tried to highlight those characteristic traits to add some spicy colours to his personality. But I can distinctly remember, with names, several other characters with about the same qualities in Santiniketan of those days. A single department of Santiniketan, the Philosophy department, for example, harboured a number of such people through generations, and none of them appeared out-of-sync with Santiniketan at any point of time. Santiniketan always had that resilience to soak in all such diversities with magnanimous grace. So, such traits of Ramkinkar were nothing new and hence not an unusual phenomenon in Santiniketan. The only difference Ramkinkar had, among all those uniquely colourful characters, was that Ramkinkar possessed a hearty and infectious smile! He was certainly more humane and earthly a character among the luminaries of Santiniketan from that angle! He was definitely a part of our psyche, an integral part of Santiniketan, perhaps as always. Incredibly, such a simple and lovable character, absolutely conceivable and deeply appreciated by the universal language of life, suddenly becomes a subject of ‘despair’ for the art linguist!
After going through the whole book of pages 400+ flat in 3 evenings; reading it again in parts-from the middle, from start, from back pages time and again, almost every night after the book was gifted to me by none other than K.S.Radhakrishnan himself; I am absolutely startled to find Ramkinkar Baij to be almost alien a character as per art text! That’s too funny a concept not to notice with alarm. My straightforward objective inference would be ‘the inability of the art language itself to conceive Ramkinkar Baij’. If the defining parameters are not set properly the result is bound to be confusing. Having said this, I would like to tackle the dimensions of art language from different perspective than from purely the technical, simply because I am not versed with technical art appreciation language, and perhaps more importantly because I am not too sure about the techniques applied!
As I am a graduate of science, a bit of commonplace scientific analogy might be a useful concept to dwell on. Most of us are familiar with Mendeleev’s periodic table as taught in common school curriculum these days. It says that most elements behave in a pattern, and they can be grouped. This kind of ‘groupism’ led to a problem when an element possessed half the characteristics of one group and the half of another! The element was jokingly but very poignantly termed the ‘Rogue Element’ by the scientists. The art linguist in context of Ramkinka Baij in fact tells us that Ramkinkar Baij was actually a ‘Rogue Element’, a kind of misfit to any ‘ism’, sometimes he is a post-cubic, some times Cézanneic, at other times undecided! Now the several ‘ism’s of art, created over periods of time and the sets and subsets interestingly appears very similar to the famous Periodic Table of science.
Is it mandatory for an Artist to belong to the Periodic Table of Fine Arts that was primarily built on Western concepts? Cannot he simply belong as an individual? This is the first question, which rattles me. Though the term ‘Modernist Individual’ was coined several times in the text; the individuality was not probed seriously enough to define the ‘individual’ in the ‘modernist’ group. Ramkinkar remained as elusive as admitted at the start of the book –always an art historian’s despair.
The second question will naturally be, is the Periodic Table of Fine Arts complete with all possible definitions of art? This can never be possible even theoretically, as, if all parameters of art get defined, philosophically art would simply cease to exist without any new characteristics to sprout forth! Repetition of existing defined verses of art, can not exactly be called art, barring perhaps being called ‘copy-art’.
Again, referring back to the scientific analogy, the Periodic Table of science got modified several times and is probably still under modification, and the possibility of error is an scientifically acknowledged systemic defect of the scientific Periodic Table. So, even if we believe in western parameters set in the Periodic Table of Fine arts, like Cubism, Post-Cubism, Post Rodin, Modernist Individualism, Post Modernist Eclectic etc, a possibility of error must be a conceptually accepted reality in art language as well.
The possibility of error, however, was never explicitly acknowledged in the book as an intrinsic character of the theory of Art History. Only it was elaborated quite a few times that defining Ramkinkar was a tough job, chiefly because he expressed in different styles! Accepting established theories to be a final say on any artist, is in itself a bit harsh a treatment, I reckon. Artists after all do not create according to any theory, though contemporary artists, in a natural process of sharing, may influence others. It is apparent that Ramkinkar liked Picasso and Cézanne, to name a few; but he might have liked the idol makers of Bengal, Nandalal Bose, Khajuraho Temples or ever Rabindranath’s paintings! There can actually be a long list of artists he liked; all of them after all shared the same passion!
On a personal preference, the several attempts, or to put it mildly, the several suggestions made in the book about possible linkage of Ramkinkar with western art styles appeared pretty ironic in taste to me. Where as Rabindranath Tagore was always open to the West and the Orient; and in his times on his own initiative many exchanges with Western and Oriental ideas took place in Santiniketan including in the world of art; Rabindranath never allowed Santiniketan to be defined by Western parameters. It is rather odd to feel the desperately futile attempt to apply Western grammar to interpret Ramkinkar by Prof R Siva Kumar, himself an integral part of art consciousness of Santiniketan as on today! Frankly speaking the idea did not gel with me at all; but at the same time I would say it is very much a personal observation, and hence prone to errors of subjective interpretation. I would have very much liked if Santiniketan could develop a unique verve in its art history department to position Ramkinkar as a unique artist; and I feel in a way it is also a duty to do so.
Now what was actually Ramkinkar’s fault(?) to be in an ‘Identity Crisis’ even within the art history circle of Santiniketan? To me it appears a straightforward matter of western bias and the colonial legacy in our thought process. Technically, Ramkinkar’s fault (?) was that he more or less excelled equally in three mediums of fine arts-Sculpture, Water Colour and Oil Painting and his treatment in one medium varied substantially from other mediums. This is a very broad analysis, but won’t be too wayward as far as I can grasp art. The absence of a singular pattern of expression in all three mediums made Ramkinkar belong to a no man’s land! By that logic Rabindranath Tagore would have been a fantastically weird wizard as he handled so many different mediums- religion, philosophy, literature, music, dance, art, education, social reform and perhaps a few more! Rabindranath Tagore would have then become a human being in a perfect no man’s land, without any definition, in a perpetual identity crisis, an absolute misfit in any sort of a periodic table! That did not happen, and thankfully Rabindranath Tagore remained ever present as one whole respectable entity, as he was never attempted to be evaluated by alien Western norms! In fact a mere English translation of Gitanjali was good enough to fetch him the Nobel Prize! It is sad then, to find Ramkinkar trifurcated into three mediums and then analyzed by colonial text to catapult the crisis. I honestly feel there is a genuine fallacy in setting the grammar to read Ramkinkar.
At the same time, I know very well, that people like us can do very little about this. It is for the art historians to sort the problem out. It would effectively mean evolving of a language by which Ramkinkar Baij could be read as an individual and that also primarily in the Indian context. Having little bit of knowledge in this regard, I accept it to be a daunting task. Indian language of interpretation of art, in text by Indians, is a fairly weak, if not completely non-existent verb right now. I hope somebody somewhere, or in collective groups, develop the subject. The tendency to look to the West for definitions can be a grave error from another angle too, as West then starts to think that artistic intellect of India is just an offshoot of trends created by them.
I would like to record here an eye-opener. A young but accomplished Katthak danseuse very recently observed to me her one bizarre experience while on a tour of Spain. Spaniards have their famous dance ‘Flamenco’. Once an expert in Flamingo dancing in Spain, was hell bent on proving to our young lady that Katthak was actually a derivative of Flamingo dance invented by the Spaniards! Our young lady literally had to fight hard to bust the ill-conceived idea in front of a number of foreigners! That is actually the price Indian intellect has to pay these days for affinity to the West. Gone are the days when the West produced serious scholars who came to the East and unearthed the treasures here; in present times West only exports Globalization and hardly anything else of substance! So, it is high time for India to develop our own language of our intellectual property! The East should be strong enough to define our own ‘Modernist Individual’ rather than borrowing from Western concepts of modernism. Sounds too nationalistic? Well, I am only trying to stress the point that it is ludicrous and horrific to discover that no exclusively Indian ‘art appreciation language’ exists in such an art-rich country like India, with so many varieties of art/music/dance styles (including folk) flourishing in many parts of India. The pluralistic collage of brilliant art forms is certainly pretty interesting than the comparatively monochromatic art history of the West.
Difference of perception is a very real phenomenon related to the text by Prof. R Siva Kumar. I failed to comprehend the very last six lines of the book, where he concludes by saying
’If his friend and colleague Binodebihari painted the starker side of Santiniketan landscape, and saw himself as a lonely palm tree in the middle of the barren and parched Khoai, Ramkinkar saw himself as the Palash in full bloom:’No leaves, bare branches, fully ablaze’. In spring the Palash in bloom in the arid Khoai is a manifestation and celebration of life in the most unlikely of circumstances.
The term ‘most unlikely of circumstances’ is a pretty confusing word, as scientifically arid laterite soil is the natural habitat for Palash trees-once I had the good fortune of observing a whole forest of Palash trees ablaze in a topsy-turvy, khoai like laterite soiled stretch of land at Santhal Parganas in then Bihar. It is actually a natural phenomenon. So, it is only natural that an artist would like to paint a natural phenomenon like that of Palash in Khoai, that would be the most natural manifestation and celebration of life on the lands of laterite soil! To us that should be the most natural response by Ramkinkar, I don’t know why it could be an example of ‘most unlikely of circumstances’. The colour of Indian culture, and above all, mother Nature allows music of such contrasting colours flow thick at times. That is probably the starkest difference of opinion that can ‘naturally’ be harboured about this book.
The book is a must for people interested in Ramkinkar Baij, as around 400+ photographs of Ramkinkar’s works are reproduced here with great care. The text, as I have already elaborated, appears pretty confusing to me. But at the same time, I must admit, that I have no formal training in art appreciation language: and Prof. R Siva Kumar is a respected Art Historian in India and abroad. It is most probably inappropriate for me to comment on his text. I have nothing against his scholastic views on Ramkinkar; he is perhaps right in his own way; but still I have serious doubts about the perspectives of evaluation. I have only tried to emphasize the need to evaluate a personality like Ramkinkar from other angles too, from ‘most unlikely of circumstances’, to the ‘most natural’!