The Story of Indian Art #15: Ramkinkar Baij

A look at the life and work of Ramkinkar Baij. A sculptor and painter, he was one of the pioneers of modern Indian sculpture and a key figure of contextual modernism.

Ramkinkar Baij (26 May 1906 – 2 August 1980) was a sculptor and painter. He was one of the pioneers of modern Indian sculpture and a key figure of contextual modernism.

Ramkinkar Baij

Legendary Indian sculptor Ramkinkar Baij

Baij was born in an economically modest family in the Bankura district of the modern state of West Bengal in India. His family surname was Poramanik and was abandoned by him in the early 1925. Many of his artistic creations have been inspired by the lifestyles of rural dalit or Adivasi (Santhal) communities living in and around his place of work Santiniketan.

Early Ramkinkar

While in his mid-teens Ramkinkar used to paint portraits of Indian freedom fighters involved in the Non-Cooperation Movement against the British rulers of India. At age of 16 he got noticed by the renowned journalist Ramananda Chatterjee. Four years later Ramkinkar joined the Visva Bharati University at Santiniketan as a student of fine arts.

At Santiniketan, under the guidance of Nandalal Bose and encouraged by its liberating intellectual environment, shaped by Rabindranath Tagore, his artistic skills and intellectual horizons acquired new depth and complexity. Soon after completing his studies at Kala Bhavana he became a member of its faculty, and along with Nandalal and Benodebehari Mujhrejee played a decisive role in making Santiniketan the most important centre for modern art in pre-Independent India.

Santiniketan and Ramkinkar

Santiniketan was conceived as a locus for artistic experimentation and resurgence rather than as a mere centre for imparting training and knowledge. This allowed talented individuals to add social dimension and give public expression to their personal vision. Beginning in early thirties, Ramkinkar began to fill the campus with sculptures, one after the other, which were innovative in subject matter and personal in style. His first magnum opus in this genre was the Santal Family done in 1938.

Buddha Sculpture at Santiniketan by Ramkinkar Baij

Buddha Sculpture at Santiniketan by Ramkinkar Baij

In this larger than life sculpture he represented the tribal peasants of the region, giving the figures iconic presence and dignified grace that was so far limited to the images of Gods and Rulers. In a country were all public art-work was undertaken only at the behest of Government commissioning and executed in consonance with the taste of conservative ruling elites, this was a radical departure. The use of cement and laterite mortar to model the figures, and the use of a personal style in which modern western and Indian pre-classical sculptural values were brought together was equally radical. With this seminal work Ramkinkar established himself as undoubted modern Indian sculptor.

Style of Ramkinkar

The late 1930s and early 1940s saw his emergence as a modernist thematically well grounded in the local-present, in the best Santiniketan tradition, but also open to a full range of modernist linguistic innovations in art. Already an admirer of the working class, he was touched by the adverse impact natural calamities and political developments all through the forties had on their lives. And this led him to evolve as a committed artist with leftist leanings. The spectre of human suffering he saw around him led him to transform immediate facts into allegorical, symbolic and occasionally even didactic images. This gave a new thematic focus to his works, as well as an element of drama and expressive-immediacy to his execution.

Santhal Family (1938) by Ramkinkar Baij

Santhal Family (1938) by Ramkinkar Baij

Ramkinkar Baij responded to the natural zest for life, and took a great interest in human figures, body language, and in the general human drama. Modern Western art and pre and post-classical Indian art were his main point of reference. He used local material advantageously, and worked combining the skills of a modeller and a carver. His paintings too take on expressionist dimensions like his sculptures, which are filled with force and vitality.

Legacy of Ramkinkar

Ramkinkar was singularly reticent and otherworldly as he was single-minded in his commitment to art and humanity. But this did not stop his work from being noticed and appreciated by sensitive artists and connoisseurs. He was invited to participate in the Salon des Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in 1950 and in the Salon de Mai 1951. And in the seventies national honours began to come his way one after the other. In 1970 the Government of India honoured him with the Padma Bhushan in 1976 he was made a fellow of the Lalit Kala Akademi, in 1976 he was conferred the Desikottama by Visva Bharati, and in 1979 an honorary D.Litt by the Rabindra Bharati University.

Some of his sculptures are preserved and displayed at locations including Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan, Late Rani Chanda Collection & Academy of Fine Arts, Calcutta, H.K. Kejriwal Collection & Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat, Bangalore, Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, Reserve Bank of India, New Delhi, Jane and Kito de Boer, Dubai, and the Delhi Art Gallery in New Delhi.

Gallery of Ramkinkar

You can find some of his more famous work here.

Honours and Awards

1979 Doctor of Letters Award from Visva-Bharati University,Santiniketan
1977 Deshi Uttam Award by Viswa Bharti, Santiniketan
1970 Padma Bhushan, Government of India
1955 Government of India invited him to make Yaksha and Yakshi Sculpture for Reserve Bank of India (RBI), New Delhi
1945 Government of Nepal invited him to make Buddhist Sculptures

To read other editions of the series, click here.

Avinash Subramaniam

Avinash has been an advertising writer, fiction writer, poetry writer, freelance writer and serial wronger. Other roles he has been in include those of an editor, brand builder, and teacher. His interests include advertising, scrabble, body building, chess, cinema, making money, reading, internet culture, cricket, photography. To hear him air his thoughts, follow him on Twitter @armchairexpert.

1 Comment

  1. Avatar
    Anirban Hrishikes Biswas March 05, 2018

    M.F.Hussain?

    Reply

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