Shobhan Som interviews Ramkinkar Baij
Shobhan: Kinkarda—how does one learn painting and artistry?
Ramkinkar: First, you must learn how to observe. Your eyes and mind must be open and agile. This exquisite and brimming world of rupa wishes to witness her maya’s pratirupa through you. That pratirupa is your painting or sketch. The basic ways of artistry are line, tone, colour and texture. You create form with the help of these tools. These are like the alphabets of art—a, b, c, d. When spectators look at an art object, they perceive rupa, mediated through these elements. The sense of line, tone, colour and texture are present right within nature. The way to learn painting is to relate your power of observation to these basic alphabetical tools. If you are able to see correctly, then you will also be able to show it so.
Shobhan: The students of art school learn artistry by observing live models sitting at close quarters. You do not make such models sit in your class. But ask students to create from life itself.
Ramkinkar: Placing an inert human being in front of you and life itself are not the same thing. You cannot find life in self-conscious and tentative possibilities. Life is dynamic. Life resides in naturalness. One has to see the ease with which life moves; your job is to catch a glimpse of that, feel how the life force throbs. As an artist dynamism should propel you. If you cannot, if you make mistakes, watch life again and once again. Try to analyze where the error is being committed. Draw again, create one more time. Painting cannot be a copy of anatomy. Copying inert life in toto makes no art object, no sculpture.
Shobhan: In your classes on sculpting clay-model busts, instead of providing us with a common model, you have asked us to observe each other and sculpt the busts. Why this?
Ramkinkar: In case of creating human busts, one has to feel and observe the subject from every angle, in the round, not in relief. You all, my students, have for years in the past not only seen each other’s physical features, but have known each other deeply too. In such art one not only needs to respect the rules of verisimilitude but must bring forth and reveal the inner traits of an individual. Not just frontally; you have to capture the person from every angle. In the atelier, as you place the clay on the whirling-couch and move about, you can see each other from every side. And as you look at each other, the inner deities and demons of the other will become sharper and clearer by the very touch of your fingers on the clay. You will know your subject deeply, begin to feel his presence. Such dynamic, intimate observation and detailing is impossible if an inert model is placed in front of you.
Shobhan: There are issues of measurement and estimation. Can we use calipers?
Ramkinkar: Minimize the use of calipers as much as possible. Get a sense of the countenance and profile of the subject. The physical tool will give you accuracy but art is not about accuracy. Use your eyes for calculating proportion. Do use machines only when there is any scope for doubt. Or else do not. Your eyes need to be trained into this sense of assessment. Another thing, if you observe carefully you shall see that the two eyes of a human are not exactly the same. The face is slightly asymmetrical. This is most evident if you look at the two sides of the nose, cheeks and ears. Whenever you indulge in the art of portraiture, give special attention to this aspect. (He looks at a scroll painting being mounted badly and yells with a start). What is that, how…?
Shobhan: Why Kinkarda?
Ramkinkar: Eh, you have dressed the princess with a gamchha! Mounting is an essential part of painting. Just like the dignity of the princess is diminished if clothed in a gamchha, so also one cannot present a picture in any which way. Even a good picture gets a raw deal if not mounted properly. The painting is incomplete until mounted. It is not about expensive mounting. Have you not seen those ornate, foreign frames? One is not sure whether to look at the painting or the frame! Good mountings reveal the painting, not curb its potential. Gaganbabu (Gaganendranath Tagore) revolutionized things by putting a premium on neat mountings once he watched the Japanese. The top of the painting and the two sides must have equal measurement and the bottom one and a half times to that—this is how cut-mounting works. Frame ought to be thin, with a certain economy, and stark. Mashtarmashai (Nandalal Bose) has conducted lot of experiments with mountings.
Shobhan: What is abstract art? What is its objective?
Ramkinkar: Some art puts a premium on description, others instead of mimesis, endeavor to capture the inner lyric of the subject matter. Just like in music. One cannot copy the rupa of music. One cannot copy a cuckoo and papiya in order to catch the musical sense of the season of spring. One must feel the season and set out to create the form of spring in music. That is how the ragas are shaped, or are set free actually. One is only then able to catch a glimpse of the aseem within our finitude. Abstract art is the harnessed music of our feelings about the great outdoors. There is a deeper symmetry in all successful abstract art. The rhythm of the lines shall sing aloud. Listen deeply to our classical music and feel the strains—you shall realize how abstraction plays out. And its objective will become clearer to you. Tradition and abstraction are not always at loggerheads.
Shobhan: But when one of our students works on some abstract form, you smash and shatter such sculptures. Why do you do that periodically?
Ramkinkar: It is not a game! Not with abstraction, no. Abstraction is not to be created thus. The artist ought to reach a certain level of consciousness himself first. That stage of consciousness is abstraction. As in Mashtarmashai’s (Nandalal Bose’s) Mahishasuramardini—you can feel the uprightness and sheer power of it. You can see that the artist is free. He traverses his own path now—having faith in his power of creation. But you all are now learning the ropes. You have to first see more and work harder. You have to train your eyes, fingers and mind. That takes time. These are the esoteric secrets of art. Have patience. One needs to crawl first before one can become a long distance runner.
Shobhan: People say that you are a modern artist. They say that you do abstract art.
Ramkinkar: I do not know whether I am a modern artist in the popular sense of the term. I traverse my own path. My feelings get transferred to my art, it isrupa that I try to enact. In my own fancy I work. There is not much explanation for all of this. In Russia, at one point, a kind of state art was being patronized. All ideologues began to support such art. The result was its opposite. So, we saw that the most powerful modern artists from Russia began to work from outside of the country. In our nation too, you have to at least once do an artwork that must concern Gandhiji. That does not mean that I won’t deal with Gandhiji in art. But if that is to happen, it must come from the artist’s own volition and will. One needs to feel a kind of thirst and a certain pull before one embarks on any art work. That propels you. An artist is a rover and a pilgrim. Nothing can bind him. Mashtarmashai has not ever been static and fixed in life. Hence the varieties through which he is able to capture the panoramic verities of life. So many diverse facets to his art!
Shovan: Many people have different and differing opinions about Rabindranath’s art works. What is your opinion about his paintings and sketches?
Ramkinkar: Gurudeb used to have the deepest vision, sense of rhythm and the most resolute and subtle sense of feeling. He had immense knowledge about lines and colour. And about design too, he used to have deep knowledge. In each art form, he gave us new directions. His art work is neither poetic nor academic. We gradually begin to come close to an intimate world of forms through his art. Often the starkness is startling.