Rare artwork by a pioneer of modern Indian sculpture
Sep 29 2013
One might ask why the word ‘legendary’ is so often used when Ramkinkar is mentioned. This is probably because many believe that he was an adivasi and rose to the stature of being a very important member of Kala Bhavan, honoured by the Deshikottom from Viswa Bharati University, the D.lit from Rabindra Bharati University and the Padma Bhushan in 1970. Considered one of the pioneers of modern Indian sculpture, Ramkinkar was born in ‘an economically modest family’ in the Bankura district of West Bengal on May 25, 1906. The Bengali family surname ‘Poramanik’, was abandoned by him in 1925 and he chose to be known as Ramkinkar Baij, which suited him better, as much of his work is inspired by the lifestyles of the rural Santhal communities who lived in and around Santiniketan. His chosen surname is said to be derived from the Boidda and Boijo — tribes that inhabited the surrounding area.
As a young boy, Ramkinkar had watched local craftsmen and image-makers at work and began making small clay figurines and paintings with whatever came his way. His talent, which was considered ‘prodigious for his age’, attracted the attention of local people, especially of the nationalists whose portraits he painted. When he was 16, he was spotted by the nationalist publisher, Ramananda Chatterjee, whose efforts helped him to join the Viswa Bharati University at Santiniketan, as a student of fine arts. After receiving his diploma from the university, he went on to become a member of the faculty and rose to the stature of head of the sculpture department. Along with Nandalal Bose and Benodebehari Mukherjee, Ramkinkar played ‘a decisive role in making Santiniketan the most important centre for modern art in pre-Independent India’.
R Siva Kumar, professor and authority on the ‘Santiniketan Movement’ wrote that “Ramkinkar…born into a family of little economic and social standing, grew by the sheer dint of talent and determination, into one of the most distinguished early modernists in Indian art”. Under the guidance of Nandalal Bose and encouraged by Santiniketan’s ‘liberating intellectual environment, his artistic skills and intellectual horizons acquired new depth and complexity’. Santiniketan, conceived as a place for experimentation by Rabindranath Tagore, gave Ramkinkar the opportunity to make monumental sculptures, mostly created at his own initiative. He began to fill the campus with sculptures in his own personal in style using cement and laterite mortar to model the figures. His first sculpture, the ‘Santal Family’ created in 1938, continues to be an important attraction for visitors to Santiniketan.
Of this sculptor we can say, he worked till his last breath. Ramkinkar died on August 2, 1980, aged 74 years and his last piece was created as he lay in bed at Kolkata’s Presidency General Hospital.
(The writer is an author and a former art gallery owner)