Ramkinkar Baij, one of India’s greatest artists, developed a paradigm of his own. Marrying Indian techniques and western methods, he created a body of work—paintings, drawings, sculptures—that has few peers. A look at the man who was indifferent to wealth, and fame, which sadly eluded him in life and death.
TEXT BY PARTHA CHATTERJEE
PHOTOGRPAHS BY SUDHANSHU MALHOTRA
Ramkinkar Baij (1906-1980) was an artist’s artist, and therefore little known in his own country, where art is largely the pre-occupation of the microscopic elite. The National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, under the stewardship of its director Rajeev Lochan, has done a signal service to the nation by organising a huge retrospective exhibition of this great master, who had all but faded from public memory.
He belonged to the barber community and ordinarily there would have had little chance of becoming an artist. But he was fortuitously spotted in his late teens by Ramananda Chatterjee, editor of The Modern Review, painting on the wall of a mud hut in his native Bankura village.
Ramananda babu was sufficiently impressed to take him to the poet and thinker Rabindranath Tagore who had founded Shantiniketan, a university where students could learn in communion with nature. Ramkinkar impressed Tagore sufficiently for him to say, “Ekke Nandor kachey niye jao.” (“Please take the lad to Nanda”, meaning Nandalal Bose, already a major artist, who headed the department of art and craft.)
There was in the exhibition a line drawing of Pulin Behari Sen from 1925, clean and sure in its draughtsmanship, which indicated that Ramkinkar had already developed a strong artistic personality.
A few months later, Rabindranath asked Nandalal Bose how his new pupil was doing.
“He’s undoubtedly a very gifted boy but he doesn’t listen,” Bose said.
Tagore smiled indulgently and said, “Let the boy find himself.”
It must be remembered that Shantiniketan, although inspired by the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, both leaders of the “Back to Nature” school in 19th century America, had in its unspoken agenda the values enshrined in the gurukulas of ancient India run by rishis and munis. The teacher’s word was command. Absolute obedience, though implied, was expected to be practised by the students.
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