Marginal Habitation, Spectacular Presences: Ramkinkar and the Elasticity of Margins

On November 28, 2023 by admin

Pradip Kumar Datta

In common usage the idea of the margins indicates a position that is outside the mainstream yet related to it. This provides a rich vantage point to critique the structures of the mainstream.  Very often the epistemic position is elided with the social constituency/position with which this is associated. Often neglected in the advantages of this critical positioning is that it is a mobile one. What is marginal may move sometimes to the mainstream and even if it does not, may then migrate somewhere to a position that is an ambivalent one. This is often true of movements of art or of individual artists with their works – and even of intellectual and ideological movements. Ramkinkar’s life and work appears to me paradigmatic of the mobility of the margins. This is not simply in terms of the fabled recognition (and market price) of the signature of a once neglected artist achieving success and fame. Elements of Ramkinkar’s career – specifically his life and environmental sculpture – suggest a trajectory that is more subtle.

Very little is known of Ramkinkar’s early years, but even the little information yields a life that was not tied to a fixed social position. Born in the little known Jugipara in Bankura district (now an urban area), he was from the barber caste. However, from his youth, he was attracted by the clay modelling of the kumars or potter caste and attached himself to one of its leading practitioners, learning by seeing them at work. It was here that his talent was first recognised by Anil Baran Ray, a touring Congressman who set him to work on nationalist banners and posters. The nationalist connection exposed him to Ramananda Chatterjee, editor of the Modern Review – an early nationalist journal that publicised a great deal of contemporary Indian art – and whose roots also lay in Bankura. A close friend of Rabindranath with institutional connections to Visva-Bharati, Ramananda arranged for Ramkinkar to formally study art in Santiniketan.

The turn to nationalist mobilisation which enabled new linkages between the elite and their social others, provided the conditions for leaping across social milieu. Ramkinkars’ social mobility ensured for him a position of autonomy – but it also marginalised him in relationship to the collectives around him.  Equally significant and far more decisive was the nature of the new milieu that he entered. While drawing primarily on the middle class, Visva-Bharati was founded on a dissenting vision of the world. It produced a new mode of marginality.

While Visva-Bharati has become a venerable – indeed a defining – institution of modern Bengal if not of independent India, it did not occupy the same position when Ramkinkar entered it as a resident student in 1925. It can be argued that Visva-Bharati emerged from Rabindranath’s dissenting position on the imaginary of the Nation-State which he called Nationalism, a critique that was crystallised by the Great War of European nations. Visva-Bharati’s location indexed its commitment. Situated about a hundred miles from Calcutta, then the second city of the Empire, it was connected to it – but from a distance. On the other hand, it also sought to service its surrounding villages for self-empowerment through collective functioning and technological infusions.  What we have here is an attempt to produce new kind of habitation drawing on an inter-embedding of the rural and the urban while creating networks – through Calcutta, with global connections. In other words, it sought to produce a marginal world with its own ecology that would provide an exemplary model for both the developmental needs of the colonised country as well as an outpost of peace and inter-connectedness for a post war world. To put it differently, its marginal position aspired to re-produce the mainstream.

Within Visva-Bharati, Kala Bhavana, the arts school of Santiniketan where Ramkinkar studied and then stayed on as a teacher of sculpture, occupied a significant position. Its art practices moved away from the preoccupation with mythology, history and portraiture that had characterised modern Indian art till then. Instead of working within studios, Kala Bhavana pioneered a move to outdoor painting, representing rural workers and landscapes. In doing this, Kala Bhavana consolidated and enriched the linkage between the middle class world of Santiniketan and the rural world that surrounded it. Ramkinkar occupied an interesting position within this practice. If he had lead a “normal” career his low caste status may well have qualified him to have been an object of this art practice; instead he became the artist who had the privilege to represent what could have been his people. The in-between position of Ramkinkar needs a little more elaboration.

I should mention here that Ramkinkar occupied an anomalous position in the actual middle class life of Santiniketan. It is true that he recalled the early days of Santiniketan with great affection, bemoaning its family-like intimacy. It is also true that he was given a great deal of support by Nandalal Bose who headed Kala Bhavana and recognised his talent; and it was Rabindranath who it is reported, upon seeing Ramkinkar working, promised to support him in sculpting massive figures and compositions despite the continuously cash-strapped condition of the university. At the same time, Ramkinkar left behind traces that indicated he was not quite comfortable in his environment. The social boundaries of Santinketan were never quite overtly asserted, but what Ramkinkar’s presence did was to crystallise these. In his memoirs he recollects having been asked about his name; his initial, awkward appearance clad in khadi also roused humour in his classmates. These were powerful intimations of the caste marginalisation that lay in store for him – and which is reflected in the fact that he changed his surname and once even hid his name.

More consequential is the fact that he consolidated his marginal position himself. He quite openly drank liquor and had a live-in relationship with Radharani, a low caste widow who was initially his domestic worker and then became his model and muse [with difficult consequences for her as we come to know from interviews]. Ramkinkar chose to live in a mud hut instead of shifting to a cemented house, because he could see the stars and the sky through the gaps in the straw. He lived in Pearson Palli, named after Willie Pearson, an early activist companion of Rabindranath who was especially dedicated to the work of educating Adivasis. Located a little off the main road that comes down from the main buildings of the university, Pearson Palli was an Adivasi locality (peopled now mainly by karamacharis in the university), a fact that becomes significant in the light of Ramkinkar’s aesthetic involvement with the Santhals.

Ramkinkar’s relationship with Santiniketan was analogous to that of Santiniketan itself in its relationship with Calcutta as the synecdoche of modern urban life and of mainstream bhadralok culture. If Santiniketan sought to remake modernity itself from a distance, Ramkinkar sought a position of willed marginality within Santiniketan itself – but one that was also paradoxically supportive. It may be remarked that Ramkinkar experimented with working in the salubrious environs of Delhi’s Modern School, but could last here for only six months; it was in Santiniketan that he found his stable habitation. Santiniketan appears to have offered conditions that could accommodate its dissenting inhabitants even if it allowed for mutual self-distancing. This was of course possible because Ramkinkar traded his given social marginality as a non-bhadralok for a willed marginality as sculptor. It is the latter that opened up yet another kind of conversion by which the marginal position took on the trappings of monumental spatial presences.

Ramkinkar’s work is massive and his genres and styles continuously experimental. I will focus on the environmental sculptures that define the space of Santiniketan and zero in on two features. These are the spatial configuration of the sculptures and related to that, the centrality of labour. But before I proceed to elaborate this, let me make a prefatory observation on Ramkinkar’s relationship with the art object.  For Ramkinkar, the art object was far removed from the world of signatures and investments. Citing the example of Ramananda Chatterjee who had a library and school named after him, his Bankura friends proposed to set up a museum to house his works. But Ramkinkar repeatedly refused, simply reiterating that he was a poor man and did not want any museums. I had mentioned his predilection for living in huts with thatched roofs. One of the problems with these was that they allowed rain water to seep in. This was one reason why Santiniketan residences switched over to “pucca” houses made from durable materials. Ramkinkar of course bucked the trend – together with bearing its cost. When rain seeped in through the straw, he would cover up his mosquito net with his canvases. Of course this attitude did not help him improve his material comforts: he often gave away his paintings, sold them for a pittance and at times overlooked signing his paintings. The point here is that Ramkinkar was consistent in his acts of self-marginalisation and this extended to what was constitutive of his identity itself. He refused (or was, may be, indifferent) to accede to the fetish of the art work and the accompanying self-sacralisation that comes so easily to the modern artist.

This brings me to the central paradox of my argument. His marginality – both inherited and willed – corresponded inversely to the presence of his artistic practice. It did so through the monumental spatial presence of the latter. Parenthetically I need to make the point that one of the founding principles of Santiniketan was its physical openness. The open access to the skies that was a feature of wide expanse of the semi-arid region that made up Santiniketan, was one that was highly valued by Rabindranath; it was this feature that led Ramkinkar to proclaim that his aesthetic was based on what he called cosmic consciousness – which indexed a space bounded only by the sky, sun and moon. It may be noted that till recently Santiniketan did not have boundary walls or barbed wire around its many buildings. In its beginnings Santiniketan was an exercise in populating this open space without surrendering its openness. It was this challenge that Ramkinkar met through his outdoor sculptures.

As I have said, it was Rabindranath who, impressed by Ramkinkar’s initial forays into sculpture, asked him to fill up Santiniketan with his works. This led Ramkinkar to produce a remarkable series of monumental pieces that literally sculpts the openness of Santiniketan with sheer volume, playing with hollows and mass to produce a different geography without enclosing space.  The sculptural pieces stand independently, refiguring the architectural layout of Santiniketan that was improvised from the buildings that housed different departments and residences. These pieces refused to be housed within enclosed structures or become a part of it. They actively carve out distinctive place markers, entering into independent relationships with the other spatial structures such as the roads and trees. The pieces both blend into the surrounding environment and interrupt it by their own contours. Some generate a place around themselves. The early sculpture of Sujata with its eleven foot tall, slender, sinuous body walks towards a statue of Buddha that towered over it at a little distance. In an act of collaboration, Nandalal planted actual eucalyptus trees around Sujata. The rehearsal of the story of Sujata – who broke Buddha’s six year period of ascetic withdrawal by offering a pot of kheer – carves out a distinctive place through a sculptural narrative that fuses legends with a modern, interventionist aesthetic of nature. The entire choreography was consolidated when Ramkinkar rebuilt the original sculpture of Buddha after it had got destroyed.  On the other hand, the Mill Call is built around three bodies that appear to dance as they run, their rhythm anchored in a piece of cloth that floats in the wind from the hands of a woman. The entire piece plays with the dense mass of the bodies allowing for gaps between them. It is as if the sculpture is meant to vibrate in the air, celebrating the openness of a world where the wind can blow uninterruptedly.

For me, the most significant aspect of Ramkinkar’s work is labour. It is something that is embedded both in his art practice as well as the subjects that he chooses. Sculpture, especially the way Ramkinkar executed environmental sculpture, involved backbreaking physical labour. Working from a tent in the blazing heat, wearing a straw hat, at times drinking alcohol, he would perform a variety of operations on the material. Santiniketan did not have the financial resources to supply him with materials other than cement, a medium which Ramkinkar turned to his advantage but with the cost of a higher rate of degeneration than other materials. Ramkinkar would rework the armature, throwing in a mix of cement, gravel and sand, using cutting devices and sometimes a hammer to give it shape. But he always moulded the surface with his hands. Labour was an act of harshness but also of immense care: he compared making a sculpture to caressing a baby in the dark.

Most striking are the ways in which labour permeates his compositions and acts as a silent comment on the ethos of Santiniketan itself. The two most famous compositions of his which are regarded as the foundational acts of modernist sculpture in India, have subjects that feature Santhals. As I have said, he chose to live in an adivasi section of Santiniketan. The adivasis of Santiniketan region were Santhals who did not live in their traditional, settled villages. They were mainly migrant agricultural and industrial workers who had come from the surrounding Jangal Parganas and Birbhum district from late 19th century. Many of them worked in the rice mills of Bolpur, the town which provided the railway station for Santiniketan. They crossed the fields that lay between the buildings of Santiniketan for work or for other reasons. Ramkinkar’s representations derive from the labour of their lives: while Mill Call is the obvious context of the beginnings of a day of work, the Santhal family shows the work of movement itself, carrying babies and possessions however meagre they may be.

Labour is not alienated in Ramkinkar’s representations. Nor is there a romanticisation of labour. The sheer physicality – and specificity – of the Santhal figures indexes a self-possession of labour. They are the agents of their labour, working as they do in perpetual motion but also in difficult conditions that are a far cry from the middle class life of the cities and villages. Labour exudes from the rhythmic joy of their bodies. The Mill Call is not just a representation of the time discipline of the factory. The rush to heed the call leaves the child behind who clings to one of the women who looks backwards in an affectionate glance which is ambiguous: are they taking him with them or saying a hurried goodbye? In either case it’s the affectionate relationship that counts even as the women rush with a sense of joy towards their work; the second woman looking forward carries a pot on the head like Sujata but, unlike the latter it does not designate humility but the pride of a crown worn with a broad smile. It is the rhythm of working women who find freedom and joy in employment outside their homes, even as they experience the pressures on their relationships.

The underlying aesthetic of labour is one that is analogous to Rabindranath’s objective of introducing joy in the life of the peasantry. This is something that he outlined as the aim of Sriniketan, the other wing of Visva-Bharati that was committed to the development of village life. But there were other elements in the relationship of Ramkinkar with the Santhals. For one, there was a social specificity. Ramkinkar had a close aesthetic affiliation with the Santhals themselves. He admired the rhythm of their bodies as they walked, but he also laid a great store by their aesthetic judgement.  He recognised critical responses to his sculptural works by Santhals and low caste Majhis as signs of knowledge that his more cosmopolitan viewers may have lacked. It is said that when he had produced an English play, The Poetasters of Ispahan, he would not allow the premier to be staged till his Santhal guests appeared. On the other hand, there was also a sharp critical edge to his understanding of labour. His composition, “The Thresher” features a perpendicular figure with its mass compacted into a hard geometry of crosscutting limbs – but with no head. When asked about this absence, Ramkinkar famously replied that no head was required for the act of threshing. It is ironic not just in the sense of being a possible critical comment on the claims of intellectual labour; more importantly its very volume and the power of its backward thrust confronts the viewer with an alternative value altogether.

For Ramkinkar, labour is always physical. Its physicality opens up other avenues of relating to the body. The way he used the medium of cement, pebble and sand, gave to these sculptures a rough surface that possessed the dense unpredictability of an organic substance. Further, the vegetative and fecund texture of his surfaces also accompanied a sexuality that many in Visva- Bharati found hard to stomach. There are many such stories of violation and it is difficult to separate out the apocryphal ones. But certainly some did take place. His piece entitled “The Birth of Fire” was, according to Bagal, his helper, remained incomplete because many thought it was a nude. Indeed the nude became a sign of the conflictual element of Ramkinkar’s sculptures, an unacceptable remainder of his marginality in his monumental projects. This was not restricted to Santiniketan. There was a question in the Parliament in 1967 raised by Prof Siddhanatalankar, Vice Chancellor of the Gurkul Kangri Vishwavidyalaya, about the need to erect a nude statue of a woman in front of the Reserve Bank of India building in Delhi – the Yaksha and Yakshini that overlooks a major arterial road leading to the centre of Delhi’s market life. Tapati Guhathakurta has pointed out the negotiative elements of nudes in contemporary art practices. Interestingly Ramkinkar did not disavow the nude by invoking art. When asked about the Birth of Fire he defended himself by the common sense observation that no one is born with clothes. In the RBI sculptures, the ornamental belt divides the body of the Yakshini in two and highlights the sharply etched vaginal triangle as the fulcrum of a base; it also does the work of supporting the heavy power of the upper part and the strange, solemn head. Sexuality announces itself not as a fetish – but simply as part of the architecture of the body.

All these sculptural compositions are huge. They direct the eyes upwards and downwards and many of them motivate the work of perambulating around the compositions, for they unfold different experiences and meanings from different angles and perspectives. One of the Santhals who was passing by the sculptures at Santiniketan reportedly observed that they had made the Santhal into a deity. The sheer size and power of the sculptural pieces makes what was (and this can be corroborated by the many autobiographies and memoirs of that place) marginal to everyday observations of Santiniketan dwellers, suddenly dwarf the place, creating its own centres of ocular interest. In doing this, it confronts Santiniketan and its dominant concern with knowledge production with multiple “others”: the fecund body, the joy of physical labour and above all the Santhal, the figure that is so quotidian, that it escapes notice. The monumental scuptures makes what is marginal to Santiniketan one of its central features through which it can be recognised as a distinctive space and habitation.  Above all, in the retrospective acknowledgement of Ramkinkar as the pioneer of Indian modernist sculpture – with Mill Call and Santhal Family as emblematic of this claim – what we have is the centrality of the figure of the Santhal itself – in multiple relations with the physicality of the body – as the foundational representation of the Indian modern.

Ramkinkar’s life and work opens up the relational aspect within the poles of the margin and the mainstream. In Ramkinkar’s habitation, the individual margins corresponds inversely to the way his art objects reconstitute the spatial design of Santiniketan itself. In so doing, Ramkinkar’s life and work keeps alive a central tension, a dvanda, within the ethos of Santiniketan itself. If Santiniketan was shaped as I have pointed out, by a dissenting position towards the Great War and of the Nation in general, it was also populated by a middle class constituency possessing intimate links with the metropolis of Calcutta and of other cities in the country.  The accelerating popularity of Santiniketan in Bengal and beyond – of which the middle classes have been the main conduit – has had the effect of developing a trajectory of normalisation. This permits the forgetting of the founding conditions of dissent. Ramkinkar’s environmental sculptures kept alive the possibility of retaining a self-division. It may be said – possibly with hope more than certitude – that these compositions retain the energy of self-division even today in a changed milieu. In the new Santiniketan which has become inundated with tourism, real estate boom and the securitisation of the campus, the environmental sculptures are fenced off and caught in bounded spaces. The effect is that of an ocular marginalisation of what was once an organising principle of the space of the habitation. Nevertheless even in this condition, it remains a memorialisation of what was, what could have been, what may still be. Most of all, it retains the possibility that Santiniketan may still remain a habitation tolerant – if not encouraging – of dissent and the willed marginality that it entails.

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