The ordinary artist, in an extraordinary frame- Walking with Ramkinkar Baij

An art lover’s tribute; walking into the thought process and work of artist Ramkinkar Baij at Shantiniketan. He would have been 110 on May 26

Maitreyee Chowdhury

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It was my third trip to the university township of Shantiniketan in Bolpur. I had strolled into a small bookshop named Subarnarekha. Like many small town book stores, the books aren’t really cataloged here, the room is a happy mess, but the person in charge somehow knows where everything is. Maneuvering isn’t really easy when you have stacks of books piled everywhere, so I parked myself in one corner towards the entrance. Instinct is a weird feeling, for even as I sat leafing through a book- I found my eyes strangely drawn to the wall next to me. As I looked up, I saw hanging there two small frames. Held almost callously by well weathered strings, were two paintings by Ramkinkar Baij- the man whose works I had been tracing for the last several years. The recurrent predominant blue, almost reassuring- I peered at the frame for the longest time, asked a few inconsequential questions to an irritated, overburdened shop keeper and went back to wherever I had come from.

I was still not sure whether the librarian had been serious when he mentioned that the carelessly ageing small frames held original Baij paintings. But somehow I wasn’t very surprised- for Baij lies strewn around in the oddest of corners in Shantiniketan. His presence unlike that of Tagore’s or even KG Subramaniam’s predominant murals, is subtle and blended in with the trees and the earth that surrounds the premises. In fact had it not been for the tin shades erected more recently to protect the sculpture pieces, you’d think that they’re more part of the environment than stand alone pieces of art.

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Standing in one corner of Kala Bhavan, shaded by large trees is a piece by Ramkinkar that I’ve tried to trace for the last three years. Sujata, was modeled after a female student in Kala Bhavan called Jaya Appasamy. A tall, lanky figure, the hands quietly merge into the body and in some ways she almost looks like one of the trees that are planted behind the statue- rising from the ground, just about to break into a walk. I wished I could have seen the statue without the cover of the small tin structure meant to protect it. But even with the shade hovering around Sujata’s head- that balances a small bowl (apparently added as a suggestion from Nandalal Bose), the statue doesn’t call attention to itself, and bears the same subtlety that is hallmark of most of Ramkinkar’s works.

I walked towards the studio that bears his name high above the wooden door frame; just next to the door is a bust of the artist himself. Tourists clicked selfies and posed here and there, giving me curious looks as I stood in front of the bust, fingering the single strand of hair that stood out. I have a feeling he would have found that hilarious and burst out into his characteristic roar. I like the fact that the single strand of hair stood out- very characteristic of the mischievous child like spirit that Baij’s personality reflected. Strewn around the same landscape are a lot of discarded figurines, half formed busts, a hand here, a broken ship somewhere, laughing masks and so much more. To my right, a group of vultures sat half stooped, as if chewing intently on some kill- which hands had molded these birds I wondered. Inside the studio, a young student was busy giving shape to a small frame that squatted on the work table. She didn’t seem disturbed at my walking around; I stood near her for a while and curiously asked what would become of the still shapeless form in her hands.  She said she wanted to depict a Chinese woman, bending down to plant paddy in the fields. ‘The field has to be ready first’, she said. I was reminded of what Nandalal Bose used to tell his students, ‘draw a tree but not in the Western fashion, not from the top downwards. A tree grows up not down. The strokes must be from the base upwards..’ Ramkinkar’s statues have always reminded me of the same philosophy, they seem to emerge from the same ground from which the clay or the stone was taken.

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Cost was always a concern for the sculptor. Making sculptures had not been a trend in Shantiniketan before Kinkar. To minimize the costs he would work a lot with clay, cow dung and tar to brilliant effects. The material was easily available in Birbhum, and it probably made more sense for him to use local products, probably also because his work mostly reflected the life that he saw around him. This in turn resulted in a lot of his works that are a part of the Kalobari in Shantiniketan. I realized then looking at his work in Kalobari, that colour had played an important role in the subconscious of the artist. His water colour sketches, predominantly feature a blue streak, I had seen it in the paintings hanging in the small book shop too. It reminded me instantly of the story of clay he had once narrated. ‘One day I saw the clay all of a sudden. Lashing rains had washed away the sand and pebbles. An amazing blue clay was revealed. I lifted it with my hands and brought it close to my eyes. Soft as butter; what a stunning blue shade! I brought it home. The Gandheswari river flowed nearby. That’s where the clay came from. I couldn’t wait to start work with it.’

As I walked out of Kalabhavan with Ramkinkar somehow embedded in my senses, a student appeared almost out of nowhere. ‘Didi amra Shantiniketan er opor ekta documentary toiri korchi. Aapni bolte parben Shantiniketan aapnake ki shikhiyeche?’ (Sister we’re making a documentary on Shantiniketan, can you tell us what Shantiniketan has taught you). Her question took me back to what the artist had once said, ‘every artist is like a mushroom, forcing his way out of the earth. One has to do it himself, who will teach? What will they teach?’but that was between us. In all seriousness I had remarked,Shantiniketan e theke shikhlam, hente berale ombol komano jay’( I learnt from Shantiniketan that walking reduces chances of gastritis).Had he lived today, he would have been a grand hundred and ten; somewhere he would have had a good laugh !

 

*Nandala bose’s quote from Ray’s essay –‘Calm without, fire within’

*All quotes by Baij from My Days With Ramkinkar BaijBy Somendranath Bandyopadhyay( Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh)

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