Ram Kumar: The Visual Metaphorist

Ram Kumar’s existence in the art world was much like a peaceful mountain, exuding a sense of serenity and enduring presence. The reticent artist wielded both the pen and brush but ultimately embraced the latter as his mightier sword of choice. Born in 1924 in Shimla, Kumar’s meditative surroundings deeply affected his sensibilities as an artist. He imbibed a sense of calm from the silent mountains and the clear blue skies that found expression in his paintings. His affinity with nature, the serene flow of slow-seeping rivers, the allure of solitary spaces, and the haunting charm of abandoned structures would all combine to establish him as the foremost significant abstract painter in the Modern Indian art world. 

I spent my childhood in Simla where one could see snow-capped mountain ranges. Also, the desolation of long winter months, and the deserted mountainscape of those years - all left an everlasting imprint. Perhaps they will linger like shadows till the end.. [1]


Ram Kumar grew up in a large family of eight siblings. Due to his father's job with the Indian Government, Kumar spent half of the year in Shimla and the other half in Delhi. In the seventh grade at Sir Harcourt Butler High School, Delhi, Kumar initially rejected his first encounter with art and instead fostered a deep inclination towards writing. The storyteller’s creativity first came onto its own in short tales in Hindi. Kumar derived the artistic metaphor for the human condition in his early stories and novels. His writings laid the foundation for his initial explorations in paintings.

In 1945, while Kumar was pursuing his Master's in Economics at St. Stephen's College, he saw an art exhibition at the Sarada Ukil School of Art. Intrigued by the paintings he saw, he decided to enroll himself in evening classes at the school, where he received guidance from artist Sailoz Mookherjea. Mookherjea would encourage his students to do still-life portrait painting with models. During his time in Shimla, Kumar would create on-the-spot sketches and watercolours, while in Delhi, he focused on capturing the city's ruins and crumbling structures through his paintings.

In those early years, my enthusiasm to paint knew no bounds. In the verandah of our Kushak Roadhouse, I would paint on anything - paper, cupboard, even logs of wood, I painted all kinds of things - a human figure, landscape, still life.. [2]

His ardent love for writing continued to flourish even while his enthusiasm for painting was gradually blossoming. At St. Stephen’s, he would often write for his college magazine and also won a prize in the short story writing competition. After completing his degree in 1946, Kumar worked at a bank in Shimla. Around the same time, he visited Amrita Sher-Gil’s parents at their residence in Summer Hill. Soon after, he decided to terminate his employment at the bank to pursue art. 

Around this time, he was recreating and documenting the scenes of Shimla. Kumar began painting his immediate surroundings. The art exhibitions he attended, the hearty chatter between two women, and scenes from Shimla’s Lower Bazar. Alongside these vibrant depictions, some of his artworks carried deeper meanings, with titles reflecting existential themes like "Why Can't I Sleep" and others making powerful political statements, as seen in the piece titled "Oppression." This was also when solemn faces and desolate human figures began to emerge in his paintings. As said by Ram Kumar himself in an interview, “The terrible human conditions have influenced me the most.”

In 1948, Ram Kumar joined a Hindi daily newspaper as a journalism trainee and made acquaintance with artist J. Swaminathan who also worked there. Kumar left the organisation in 6 months, never to seek regular employment again. In the same year, he participated in a group exhibition in Delhi where two of his works grabbed artist S.H. Raza’s attention. This was to be the beginning of an ever-lasting artistic camaraderie between the two. After spending time with Raza in erstwhile Bombay, Kumar was drawn to the city’s art scene. Raza also introduced Kumar to artists F. N. Souza, K. H. Ara, and others. He began reading art-oriented publications such as Marg and Illustrated Weekly

In 1949, Kumar held his first solo exhibition of paintings at Y.M.C.A hall in Shimla where 4 paintings were sold to Dr. Zakir Hussain, then vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia University, and future President of India (1967-69). Another exhibition was held at Delhi Town Hall. J. Swaminathan commented on his works from that period saying: 

His paintings revealed a childlike directness of expression with no previous training in the Bengal School style or any other variety of traditionalism - the young artist born and brought up in the city painted as the painting came to him. Distinguishable even at that time in his works was that infinite melancholy of a sensitive soul reflecting on the sad plight of his fellow mortals. [3]

Kumar, after coming in contact with Raza had fostered a deep desire to go to Paris which was then considered a mecca for artists. He was hesitant because he had not done a 5-year course in art like most of his contemporaries, and also had to arrange funds for his departure. However, Kumar's first exhibition assured his father that he could take up painting as a whole time vocation and that one day he would make a living from art. Hence, in 1949, Ram set off for Paris by boat. The first museum he visited while on his way was the National Museum in Cairo. While on the boat, he learned French from a priest from Pondicherry!


Paris hummed with vibrant activity as Kumar immersed himself in the world of art under the tutelage of Andre Lhote, a renowned artist and art theoretician. Throughout an inspiring year of study, Lhote's teaching approach captivated Kumar, involving the interplay of straight lines and curves with a blend of warm and cold colours. His interactions with radicals such as Louis Aragon and Roger Garaudy, and Paul Eluardsuch further inspired his creative fervour. He also met with revolutionaries from various creative circles such as poet Pablo Neruda, and Indian artists living in Paris such as Raza, Souza, Akbar Padamsee, Paritosh Sen, and Nirode Mazumdar. This also caused his late association with the Progressive Artists' Group in Bombay. 

To support himself in Paris, Kumar undertook freelance reporting in Hindi for Indian newspapers. Alongside, he offered Hindi language tuitions and gave talks in Hindi for BBC broadcasts from London. He also took on the task of translating documentary film scripts into Hindi for UNESCO. 

The eager art student continued to learn even on his own, where museums served as teaching institutions. He was influenced by the works of Courbet, Rouault, Kathe Koliwitz, and Edward Hopper. What each of these artists had in common was their dedication to portraying the realities of the human experience. Kumar, inspired by their approach, eventually incorporated similar themes in his paintings. Influenced by Edward Hopper's portrayal of urban isolation, Ram Kumar's art at that time delved into themes of solitude and introspection. His paintings depicted lone figures in contemplative settings and empty landscapes, evoking a profound sense of isolation and quietude. While Courbet and Kollwitz's works helped Kumar develop a deep sensitivity in depicting the struggles and aspirations of ordinary people. He might have incorporated elements of social realism in his own work, reflecting the conditions and experiences of the less privileged sections of society. 

Kumar also studied under the atelier of Fernand Leger. He worked patiently to blend his emotions with his artistic vision, creating forms that merged harmoniously with the background. The melancholic figures now intertwined with the surroundings, accentuating the desolation. His subdued colors achieved depth through tonal variations. Ram Kumar's disciplined and diligent approach earned him recognition and a significant body of work. In 1950, he held a one-person exhibition at Gallery Barbizon, Paris.

Though he studied under the late Fernand Leger in Paris, Ram Kumar's style is very, very different from that of Leger's own dramatic, if semi-abstract, manner of expression. From Fernand Leger, he learnt that the tone of colour need not necessarily condition its volume. [4]

Ram Kumar travelled to Italy, exploring the cultural riches of Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan, and Padua. Here, Kumar was profoundly moved by the works of Giotto and Masaccio. Kumar recalls Paris's experience to be most inspiring since he also attended Picasso and Matisse's exhibitions. He imbibed the rich French culture and saw paintings of world masters in the museums from Renaissance artists like Leonardo de Vinci. He returned to India in 1952. 


On his arrival in Delhi in 1952, Ram Kumar lived near the refugee colonies of Karol Bagh, where people who had fled from their homes in Pakistan after the partition resided in slums and tenements. It was amidst this milieu that he wrote his first novel, 'Ghar Bane Ghar Toote,' a grim tale portraying the plight of the homeless and the profound sense of uprootedness experienced by those affected by the partition.

Though I wasn't directly involved with the rehabilitation of people who had come from Pakistan during Partition, I was involved in some way with the refugee settlements in Karol Bagh and that definitely affected me. [5]

Still inspired by the Social Realist works of Pignon, Kathe Kollowitz, and Andre Fourgeron, Kumar made figurative paintings depicting Indian urban life. Kumar's art reflects the themes and characters of his first novel and other works. The refugees and characters from his novel find their way into the shadowy squatters portrayed in his paintings, blending the painter and writer within him. As his artistic journey progressed, Kumar evolved into a painterly painter, moving away from being a writer. Hence Kumar's early paintings portrayed sad drooping figures, hauntingly lingering in desolate streets and houses. Early on in his canvases, one could see unemployed graduate youths; tortured faces; all reminiscent of Kafka’s world. Mellow and subdued colours heightened the melancholic atmosphere in which these figures existed. In awkward stances at the corner of his paintings, Kumar's subjects almost look apologetic for their presence. Some of Kumar's figures are clad in black suits and ties, with vacant faces, and eyes that become windows to despair. Here, Kumar reveals his understanding of the human predicament. He further went on to depict the effects of the early industrialisation of India. Ram Kumar’s dark colour palette would range between greys, yellow ochres, and browns. In 1952, Kumar participated in a group exhibition of the Delhi Shilpi Chakra. 

The proletariat often subdued the locale. Humanity, without the stamp of dialects, emerged. They had fewer slogans to shout, and they stood in the streets of loneliness that Ram Kumar has made us so familiar with - the intestines of the city that are a compound of European memories and Indian conditions. [6]

In his youth, Kumar was fascinated by the human face and its reflection of the drama of life. Desolate, dull, and lost faces populated his early canvases. These faces did not accuse, did not utter words of protest, they were not enraged but displayed the artist's view of the human predicament. This continued till before the mid-60s. 

When Ram Kumar's expressionist but figurative work is at its best, it has the simplicity of a puppeteer's motivation and animation. There is an unmistakable element of mime. [7]

After holding a few more exhibitions; Kumar's urge to explore took him to Moscow and Leningrad in 1955. Here, he saw Henri Matisse's The Dinner Table. In the same year, the artist was received as the very first ambassador of Modern Indian Painting in Prague. Here, he also held an exhibition of his paintings, and the National Museum acquired one of his worksKumar then stayed in Paris for 4 months. In 1956, he received the National Award of the Lalit Kala Akademi for his oil on canvas work Sad Town. On his way back to Delhi, he paid a visit to artist Krishen Khanna in Madras. In 1958, Kumar experimented with lithographs for the first time. Alongside his contemporaries Husain, Tyeb Mehta, and Gaitonde; Kumar participated in a Graphics Exhibition in Bombay. In the same year, he travelled to Paris. Here, he was slowly reaching a phase where his figures were becoming more and more obscure. During his six-month stay in Paris in 1958, Ram Kumar experienced a transformative phase in his art. The boundaries between figures and landscapes began to dissolve; seamlessly merging within his forms. 

Musing upon Ram Kumar’s work, a vast hinterland of images opens up in one of the corridors of my mind. As I walk along this corridor, I come across towns out of joint with forlorn people, lonely streets with lonely souls. I enter catacombs of brooding silences, I walk over wastelands. I see petrified cities. I see unending landscapes of greys and browns and at times I come upon the deep blue of a lagoon or the red flush of a dawn. [8] 


 "The feeling is more important than form. It’s deeper."

Ram Kumar

In 1959, while returning to India, Kumar visited Greece. The grey hills, white houses, and the deep blue sea formed a lasting impression in his mind, compelling him to paint landscapes. The lack of colour in Greece fascinated him, reminding him of the lonely, dismal figures in Kumar's paintings. Kumar had a sudden urge to focus on the feelings of loneliness, alienation, and abandonment no longer through figures but through the inanimate. Silent skies, truncated landscapes, and solitary dilapidated buildings exuded a universal sense of loneliness. On his return to Delhi, Kumar started working on his Greece landscape painting series. By now the figures were slowly receding into the margins - becoming one with the dark greys and browns of the borders. These figures that would silently haunt Kumar's landscapes slowly disappeared. The genesis of his abstract art lay in the artist's travels and myriad experiences. 

When an artist first learns to paint, he does figurative art like painting the anatomy, still life, as he must first follow a realistic pattern. Only after he finds his path he creates other things. In my case, I moved on to the abstract. [9]

The rooftops and landscapes that were backdrops in Kumar's figurative paintings soon took center stage as he dispersed the people. He still expressed emotions of loneliness, alienation, and orphanhood but in the image of the landscapes. 

In 1959, Kumar visited Shimla and spent 8 months there. Kumar painted landscapes amidst the silent mountains of Shimla where he grew up. Much like a meandering river, Kumar's mind roamed freely through nature, absorbing the beauty of its myriad features – from the serene expanse of clear blue skies to the majestic allure of the mountains. 

When I sit facing the Dhauladhar range, with the thick forests of the Shivaliks at my back, I start probing within myself, my mind full of memories and lost images. [10]

In 1961, Ram Kumar spent six months in Ranikhet, engrossed in painting landscapes. What sets his work apart is the seamless fusion of figurative and abstract elements in his piece titled "Mazes of the Mind." The term 'mazes' was coined by Richard Bartholomew in The Art Critic (pg. 135), further elaborated in his essay "The Abstract Principle in the Paintings of Ram Kumar" (pg. 538). Bartholomew describes these paintings as bird's-eye views of vast natural expanses, imbued with mist and mystery. Amongst these enigmatic landscapes, faint traces of mystical figurative forms can be discerned, while human presence has wholly vanished.

Ram Kumar, Mazes of the Mind/Family, circa 1960, Oil on board

This dual-sided oil-on-board artwork bears two distinct dates, 1960 on the figurative side and 1961 on the abstract side, suggesting that Ram Kumar likely completed them successively. This pivotal moment in his artistic journey occurred just before he embarked on his first trip to Banaras with fellow artists M.F. Husain and Sripat Rai. Consequently, "Mazes of the Mind" marks a significant transition from figurative to abstract in Ram Kumar's oeuvre.

Influenced by his childhood experiences in Shimla, the landscapes he paints appear barren and desolate, capturing a sense of isolation and vulnerability that resonates with the artist. Ram Kumar skillfully weaves an illusion of time and solitude, not as a deprivation but as an intrinsic state of existence. His adept ability to juxtapose loneliness and aloneness reveals a profound play with the concept of absence, imbuing it with meaningful depth.

The figurative side of the artwork showcases three figures, each bearing intriguing characteristics. The two adult figures exude empathy as they tenderly nurture the child. Their protective gestures convey compassion, while the positioning of the yellow figure suggests age. Ram Kumar's distinctive use of brown and reddish hues in his figures is a recurring trait.

This daring approach to rendering figures with primitive elements and naive expressions sparked a social predicament, challenging conventional artistic norms.


Ram Kumar, Banaras, 1993, Oil on canvas

In 1961, Ram Kumar visited Banaras alongside artist M.F. Husain. The city's nocturnal silence, interrupted only by the howling of street dogs, made a lasting impression on him. This absence of human presence became a recurring theme in his Benares paintings. Doorways, arches, and steps became his primary subjects, symbolising the passage of time and the philosophy of death. Although Husain's stay in Banaras lasted only 15 days, Ram continued his artistic dialogue with the city for years to come. The "Benaras Series" not only captured the collective spirituality of the town but also reflected Kumar's interpretation of the cyclical nature of life, birth, and rebirth.

The main purpose of coming to Banaras was to make some sketches on the spot and feel its depth and intensity. I had to see and feel the city in terms of lines and forms with a new visual experience. Wandering along the ghats in a vast sea of humanity, I saw faces like masks bearing marks of suffering and pain, similar to the blocks, doors, and windows jutting out of dilapidated old houses, palaces, temples, the labyrinths of lanes and bylanes of the old city, hundreds of boats, I almost saw a new world, very strange, yet very familiar, very much my own. [11]

Ram Kumar's paintings of Banaras exude a shamanic quality, with touches of white creating an ethereal atmosphere. The windows, resembling vacant eyes, silently observe the scene devoid of life, as if the city had been stripped of its bustling population of pilgrims, sadhus, sanyasis, and mendicants. Inspired by his visit, Ram incorporated architectural elements, houses, lanes, shadows, and reflections into his imagery, ingeniously using the very structures built by humans as the foundation for his abstract expressions.

 Benaras was something very new for me. Including the visual art as well as emotional. But because of Benaras I thought I could not paint a human being because the suffering of the human being was so acute, it could not be that. That’s when I became a little abstract and tried to show that agony in abstract forms It was almost too strong, too overpowering. But then you looked at the buildings, the construction of the ghats, and the city. Because I wanted to depict Benaras not by human faces but by other means. [12]

Ram Kumar's Banaras series represents a noteworthy transition in his artistic endeavors, transitioning from his figurative phase after Paris to non-figurative abstraction. He deftly infused the profound sadness of his figures into the very tones of his colours, resulting in an abstraction that radiates a soft, gentle, and hauntingly sorrowful essence.

In the Banaras canvases, Ram Kumar's figures vanished, leaving behind burning ghats and shadowy hovels. By deliberately banishing the human presence, he skillfully accentuated the void of humanity, replacing it with architecture and landscapes as powerful metaphors. With time, even the architecture began to fade from his paintings, and societal concerns took a back seat in his artistic journey. By the late 1960s, Ram Kumar's works transformed into hymns of abstraction, celebrating the beauty and essence of nature.


Ram Kumar's artistic focus shifted toward the landscapes of his childhood, particularly the forests and rivers of the Himalayan foothills. During this period, his paintings progressed towards complete abstraction, and he recognized the distinct presence of conception in Indian art, separate from Western influences. His visit to Banaras and later exploration of Machu Picchu's ancient ruins and Ladakh's barren mountains and monasteries enriched his sensibility as an artist. The haunting landscape of Ladakh left a lasting impression, inspiring him to create a series of paintings.

But after Benaras, once I visited Ladakh, there was no vegetation it was just black and white, But there was something, you know, without any colour. Something raw. Which inspired me to paint almost monochromic landscapes. [13]

This attraction to the mountains remained, as he frequently returned to Kumaon, Ladakh, and Andretta, finding peace and inner security in his childhood memories. Kumar's journey was a lifelong effort to harmonise spiritually visited nature with the fleeting thoughts of an artist. His artistic evolution can be traced from early melancholic and childlike figures to vibrant and pulsating abstractions, reflecting delicate variations of colour.

Kumar tirelessly continued his artistic pursuits till he passed away in Delhi at the age of 94. 

Ram Kumar's creative journey exemplifies a constant evolution of expression, from figuration to abstraction. It skillfully captures the essence of Varanasi's spiritual aura and the nostalgic charm of Himalayan landscapes, all woven together with a poignant sense of ambient despair, narrating the complexities of the human experience. In his art, he masterfully highlights the innate presence of abstraction in Indian art's traditional roots. Apart from Gaitonde, Ram Kumar stands as the only painter of his generation who did not revisit figural painting after 1960. He remained committed to his path of abstraction, exploring the depths of non-representational art throughout his career, setting him apart from his contemporaries.


[1] Ram Kumar. Interview with Ram Kumar. The artist at work. Ram Kumar: A journey within. 1996. 

[2] Ram Kumar. From Ram Kumar's Notebooks. A journey within. 1996 

[3] J. Swaminathan. Ram Kumar: A journey within. 1996.

[4] Richard Bartholomew. The Hindustan Times Weekly. 1955

[5] Ram Kumar. The Hindu. Friday Review, Delhi. 2010

[6] Richard Bartholomew. Ram Kumar: A journey within. 1996. 

[7] Richard Bartholomew.Exhibition Catalogue. Kumar Gallery. 1959

[8] J. Swaminathan. Ram Kumar: A journey within. 1996

[9] Ram Kumar. Ram Kumar: Beyond the Abstract. Vadehra Art Gallery. 2010

[10] Ram Kumar. The Poet of the Visionary Landscape.Ranjit Hoskote Ram Kumar: A journey within. 1996. 

[11] Ram Kumar. Ram Kumar: A journey within. 1996. 

[12] ibid

[13] ibid

Any questions?