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.


Tagore, through no fault of his own, was called Gurudev. In this somewhat restricting climate of learning Ramkinkar’s robust individuality and spontaneity startled many people there. Tagore, however, was sure of the profound artistic inclinations of the village lad who was winning, at first grudgingly, the love, and yes, respect of the great Nandalal Bose. There was another art student in the same batch also of prodigious gifts, though less dramatic, Benode Bihari Mukherjee, from Behala, then a suburb of British-ruled Calcutta.

In 1932, Ramkinkar did a daring oil painting of a seated little girl Soma Joshi. If the painting revealed the well-absorbed influences of Japanese and Chinese art, it also contained a thoroughly modern sensibility, unusual for those times. The chubby child’s roundedness was integrated into the entire form of the painting where bright colours, among them yellow and carmine, hinted that the painter was possibly a sculptor of considerable merit.

He had already learnt to handle volume in a sensitive, even tactile manner. He was trying to absorb many seemingly disparate influences into his personality and integrating them into his sensibility to produce a highly individualistic art, modern and traditional at the same time. What surprised people—admirers and detractors alike—was that in his day-to-day dealings he continued to be a simple village boy.

Samaresh Basu, a controversial but very talented Bengali writer, wrote a biography of Ramkinkar that was serialised in Desh magazine, the largest selling publication of its kind in Bengal. His approach to the artist’s life was of course romantic but also rooted in reality.

Among the works of Ramkinkar accompanying the text was a miniature of Sati Behula, a character out of Hindu mythology. The legend revolving around the work is interesting. Students at Kala Bhavan, Shantiniketan, were in Ramkinkar’s days taught Indian miniature painting. Ramkinkar was expected, like his fellow students, to produce a number of them, which he did out of a sense of duty. Among those that have survived is the one of Behula.

It is said to have impressed Nandalal Bose sufficiently to grant his “difficult” student complete artistic autonomy. The truth was that Ramkinkar could turn his hand to anything. There were a few examples of his miniatures in the NGMA show, including a couple that were badly damaged and had to be pasted onto a separate sheet of paper; even in that condition, they gave a feel of his individuality.

His rendering of flora and fauna was close to that of such images found in manuscripts of the Mathura School of miniatures. The two students who stood out at that time were Ramkinkar Baij and Benode Bihari Mukherjee, each a fierce individualist.

Tagore, out of an inner need, had begun to paint regularly from his early sixties. Those who saw his paintings, drawings and doodles were completely taken aback. They did not overtly resemble any school of Indian painting of the past, the contemporary trend was—except at Shantiniketan, and with the sole exception of Damerla Rama Rao in the south—to imitate pallid British academic painting.

Rabindranath’s works done in coloured inks, watercolours, crayons and pencils were considered by many to be untidy, even ugly and amateurish. Someone even suggested that he could not be taken seriously as an artist as he would be hard-pressed drawing a box of matches. But his exhibitions in various European cities were widely admired.

Although many artists in the West could draw very well and render the world realistically, they were willy-nilly influenced by the turn of events in their surroundings, namely the overarching presence of cubism and expressionism.

Paul Klee, the Swiss-German master who freed the mind to draw and paint anything, had been a successful professor of anatomical drawing. The influence of the pioneering psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, impinged upon all kinds of writing, including the writing of fiction and indeed most artistic activity in the Occidental world.

Tagore’s paintings were appreciated by the cognoscenti in Europe because they were seen as an expression of his sub-conscious mind. By dint of personal example Tagore inspired the gifted at Kala Bhavan, Ramkinkar and Benode Bihari.

Ramkinkar used to say in late middle-age, “Oee buro taee toh dilo merey!” (That old man—Rabindranath Tagore—finished me off). Indeed his sole inspiration in life and art was Tagore, and like him he effortlessly bridged the gap between the two in his own life.

Tagore’s upper-class background freed him economically and socially to do pretty much as he pleased, although he never took advantage of this freedom, which was no doubt facilitated by the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. There was also his decision to return the knighthood conferred on him, in protest at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre on Baisakhi day in Amritsar. 

Ramkinkar’s bid for freedom was constantly questioned by people who had the advantages of money, class and hence power but did not possess an iota of his artistic gift or his generosity of spirit. One can safely say 71 years after Tagore’s death that his spirit was present in just two artists from Shantiniketan, Ramkinkar Baij and Benode Bihari Mukherjee. The wandering Baul minstrel in the grihasta (householder) Tagore found expression in Ramkinkar’s life and work. In Benode Bihari’s work one sees a reflection of Tagore’s sensitivity and delicate, subtle lyricism, apart from his own.

There were 350 works on display at the NGMA apart from video interviews with K G Subramanian, former Kala Bhavan student, artist and scholar of vast erudition; P Sivakumar, art historian par excellence; A Ramachandran, pupil of Ramkinkar or Kinkarda at Kala Bhavan (where he taught for close to 37 years) as he was called by his students, and a well-known artist to boot.

K S Radhakrishnan, the sculptor and another Kala Bhavan alumnus, deserves the heartiest congratulations for curating this show of seminal importance.

The retrospective also had highly expressive photographic portraits of Ramkinkar and friends and colleagues, and a couple of his muse, Binodini, a student and a princess from the royal family of Manipur. There were also black and white and colour photographs of large sculptures that could not be transported from Shantiniketan for the exhibition.

A video documentary on the artist featuring the contribution of many contemporary artists and a video-loop of his twin sculptures Yaksha and Yakshi outside Reserve Bank on Parliament Street, New Delhi, were running continuously.

The truth is that during his lifetime Ramkinkar’s versatility and brilliance was taken for granted, and he, was indifferent to fame and its trappings. After his death in 1980, his work lay in neglect.

The exhibition provided a comprehensive view of Ramkinkar’s oeuvre. It was tiring to take in the whole show at one go; those who went once again or more had the pleasure of discovering the artist in greater depth and also to understand why there was so much fuss over the man’s work, albeit rather late in the day, and why there wasn’t any earlier.

The truth is that during his lifetime Ramkinkar’s versatility and brilliance was taken for granted, and he, was indifferent to fame and its trappings. After his death in 1980, his work lay in neglect.

His monumental sculptures in Shantiniketan obviously could not be moved out of their environment so that people elsewhere could see them and appreciate their true value; however, they could be left out in the open to be damaged by the elements because Kala Bhawan in particular, and Shantiniketan University in general, was indifferent to the man and his priceless legacy. As for his paintings—oils, watercolours, and, drawings and other graphics—they were left to rot until P Shivakumar and KG Subramanian stepped in.

Ramkinkar’s earthiness and protean creativity—one is using both words with responsibility—is there in all his work. Nakul Sinha, peerless water colourist, raconteur and bona fide eccentric, dead these two years, and also Kinkarda’s favourite pupil whom he called “Natraj”, used to tell a story about a 1949 oil titled “Road to Konarak.”

There was a digital print of this painting in the retrospective. Even in this state it impressed a great deal; the turn of the wheel of bullock cart, the ghostly pilgrims seen in profile and captured expressionistically added up to express both the “illusive” and the “elusive” ideas associated with the notion of pilgrimage.

Nakul Sinha, who had seen the original, once said, “The mystery and the desire of attaining fulfillment associated with the idea of making a pilgrimage is spontaneously expressed in the brushwork on the wheel, the touch of orange and yellow that create a sense of speed and urgency...” The technique was of course expressionist but its enunciation was completely Ramkinkar’s.


He would, over time, naturally pursue a sophisticated eclecticism. There were a few oils in the exhibition that were a bow to Picasso in his pre-First World War Cubist period. However, these, like the others on display had a surging energy that was evident in any work by Ramkinkar Baij. His serious experiments with Cubist aesthetic principles can be seen in certain watercolours, mainly landscapes, where exquisite colour is married to the well integrated geometric construction of the composition. In these he is closer to Braque and Jacques Villon, the distinguished Cubist painter and brother of Marcel Duschamps.

Ramkinkar, even when he did Cubist watercolour landscapes, treated space and the flora-fauna within it as a living, organic entity rather than a purely mathematical proposition as most of the western artists did. He made serious efforts in this direction probably after 1945 when World War II ended and a trickle of books about modern art in the West came into Bombay and Calcutta, from where they found their way to Shantiniketan.

His concern about the interpretation of volume in painting of any kind— portraits, human and animal figures in a landscape or just landscapes without people or animals—had a rounded sculpturesque feel—usually.

It was not an unusual quality to have in his painting and to some extent his drawing, because his sculpture had a dynamism regardless of size, not seen then in Indian art and very little since. His paintings did feed off his sculpture to a fair extent. Many of Ramkinkar’s oils indicate a clear connection with sculpture. This singular ability to comprehend volume also came from a deep study of nature or the physical world.

Watercolour landscapes, with or without figures, were his forte.

His handling of the medium, in its traditional transparent western form, as opaque gouache, and as a mix of transparent and opaqueness, compares with the best in the 20th century. He did not seek abstraction in his rendering of Nature as did the American John Marin, but he attained it nonetheless while giving the flavour of a place or a person. His watercolours of the areas near Nepal, and of Nepal, give a feel, a flavour of the place and have a sense of mood that often conveys a melancholic romanticism, most affecting, even in this age of heartless consumerism.

He did not approach the landscape most assuredly in his watercolour, as his fellow master watercolourist Gopal Ghosh did, in the spirit of making love to the imagined woman guiding his destiny. Rather, Ramkinkar saw his task as conveying the subtle energies at work in the process of Mother Nature constantly transforming herself. It would be inaccurate to say that his works, particularly watercolours, did not have sensuality; they certainly did, but Ramkinkar’s response to nature was at once both earthly and sensual, bordering on the carnal.
He lifted the idea of carnality out of his stultifying middle-class context, and gave it a purity and a sense of joy, perhaps because of his roots, physical and spiritual, in the rural society of (now West) Bengal which had its own response to creativity governed by the natural world and not distorted by undue human intervention of the pseudo-intellectual variety. One encounters constantly an engaging mix of carnality and sensuality in all his work.

It is really unusual that Ramkinkar’s work, practically from the start, revealed such a modern sensibility, a fact that surprised even his admirers, and of course riled detractors, who had no other way to pull him down than to repeatedly point out that he was a peasant and he lived like one. Moreover it was said he had the morals of a barnyard fowl!

He was always an unusual fellow. He intensely disliked the British academic art tradition which was instilled assiduously in the art schools in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta.

Though British art scholars-administrators like Percy Brown and E B Havell had seen the wonders of Ajanta, which had been reopened after centuries, and also the Ellora and Elephanta caves, they were clear that basic art education—in terms of technique imparted to students at art schools—would be of the kind taught in London.

Ramkinkar evolved his own methods of studying and mastering human and animal anatomy and of perspective drawing. By the time he was in his 30s he was already handling volume in painting and sculpture like a master.

It must be noted that in Ramkinkar’s student days at Shantiniketan, anatomy and drawing, painting of the female nude was not taught. His drawings of the female nude are accurate and swift. He probably had access to Gray’s Anatomy, a classic medical text book and some other books on drawing the female and male figure.

He had enough enterprise to organise female models and draw, later paint them to perfect his technical knowledge of the human figure. His mastery of western perspective drawing came from studying reproductions of old masters—Renaissance and later—in a few books on European Art found in the Kala Bhavan library.

The art department at Kala Bhavan was run by Nandalal Bose, who had made very creditable copies of the Buddhist frescos in the Ajanta caves in Maharashtra, which he visited as part of the cultural expedition led by Havell and Brown.

Bose felt that in order to realise the true worth of the glorious Indian visual tradition, students ought to be taught the techniques and aesthetics of miniature painting and ancient frescos.

Drawing or painting of the human figure for non-idealised reasons was taboo. Ramkinkar had mastered what was taught in Kala Bhavan and also decided for the enrichment of his art to study anatomy and perspective drawing as taught in the West. The end result was uniquely his own.

In his 1932 oil of the seated child, he merged seamlessly the vertical treatment of space in Indian miniature painting along with the sculpturesque expression of volume. He struggled through the 1930s, often with very interesting results in his painting. His sculptures had a startling note of originality very nearly from the start.
Consider his two portraits of Rabindranath Tagore: one in a completely modern Western Cubist manner a la Jacques Lipschitz, the Pole of whom Ramkinkar had not heard, leave alone seen his work, and, the other in the psychological ‘mode’ of the Frenchman Charles Despau, whose work too he had never seen.

The first in bronze, is distorted for the sake of greater dynamism in form but is recognizable as being that of the poet, the second shows a melancholy, bent old man weighed down by the treacheries of the so-called civilised world.

Ramkinkar’s sculpture can be broadly divided in two categories, portraiture and large monumental works, among them “Mill Call”, the most lyrical and sensual work of a Santhal family going off to work at the local mill.

Its depiction of the surging forward movement of the group in consonance with the modelling of the mother’s body, that recalls the female figures at the Sun Temple, Konark, Odisha, makes it a magnificent work.

Another sculpture, “Harvesting” with a huge headless torso, arms held high and back with a sheaf of paddy, is masterly and can hold a place of pride in 20th century world sculpture.

His favourite medium was cement mixed with stone chips which he used in always surprisingly expressive ways. He achieved his most memorable work as a sculptor in this medium.

One time Ramkinkar needed two bags of cement and stone chips for a certain sculpture. He felt deeply humiliated when Sudhiranjan Das, retired Chief Justice of India and then vice-chancellor of Shantiniketan, sent a curt note saying that the Public Works Department could not spare the required materials!

Complete lack of money-sense, or for that matter worldliness, led to financial disaster when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru commissioned Ramkinkar to do the massive sculptures of Yaksha and Yakshi at the entrance of the Reserve Bank of India on Parliament Street.

He spent the entire budget buying and transporting stone from Sarnath. Despite two more allocations of fairly generous amounts of money, he was still short. The end result was very powerful but not what he wanted.

Mackettes (models) of Yaksha and Yakshi on display at the exhibition revealed his profound preoccupation with plastic expression and the need for an amalgamation of the spiritual and the worldly.

He wanted to work a little more on the finished Yaksha and Yakshi; however his manager and student Raj Kumar Jaitley very rightly stopped him, saying that if he (Ramkinkar) did not desist there would be no money left for the carvers or for the train tickets to go home.

Ramkinkar’s art was visionary. His paintings and sculptures would place him among the most enduring artists of the 20th century, East or West. In a country that takes pride in its artistes, for instance France, there would have been a busy boulevard named after him. Important art museums would have displayed his work, considering them national treasures. He would have been financially secure.

His own lack of worldly success speaks poorly of a society that often failed to provide him with the bare necessities of life while hailing him as a genius, possibly as a salve to a collective lack of social conscience.