Basharat Bashir

Featured Artist-  Ram Kinker Baij

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One of the pioneers of modern Indian sculpture and a key figure of contextual modernism, Ram KInker Baij was born on 26 May 1906. Baij was from an economically modest family of Bankura district of the modern state of West Bengal in India. In that sense, he was a Bengali, not an Adivasi, as many people usually think. The surname Baij derived from Boidda and Boijo consequently. His family surname was Poramanik and was abandoned by him in early 1925. However, many of his artistic creations have been inspired by the lifestyles of rural dalit or Adivasi (Santhal) communities living in and around his place of work Santiniketan.

Ram Kinker Baij in his mid-teens used to paint portraits of Indian freedom fighters involved in the Non-Cooperation Movement against the British rulers of India. At age of 16th, he got noticed by the renowned journalist Ramananda Chatterjee. Four years later Ramkinkar joined the Visva-Bharati University at Santiniketan as a student of fine arts. After obtaining a diploma from the university he went on to head the sculpture department. Eminent painters like Beohar Rammanohar Sinha and Jahar Dasgupta, both students of Shantiniketan were his disciple.

Professor R. Siva Kumar, an authority of the Santiniketan School of Art wrote, “Ramkinkar Baij was born into a family of little economic and social standing, and grew, by the sheer dint of talent and determination, into one of the most distinguished early modernists in Indian art. As a young boy he grew up watching local craftsmen and image-makers at work; and making small clay figurines and paintings with whatever came his way. His talent, prodigious for his age, attracted the attention of local people, especially of the nationalists with whom he was associated. This led him in 1925, on the advice of Ramananda Chatterjee the nationalist publisher and apologist for the new Indian art movement, to mark his way to Kala Bhavana, the art school at Santiniketan. At Santiniketan, under the guidance of Nandalal Bose and encouraged by its liberating intellectual environment, shaped by Rabindranath Tagore, his artistic skills and intellectual horizons acquired new depth and complexity. Soon after completing his studies at Kala Bhavana he became a member of its faculty, and along with Nandalal and Benode Behari Mukherjee played a decisive role in making Santiniketan the most important centre for modern art in pre-Independent India.

Santiniketan was conceived as a locus for artistic experimentation and resurgence rather than as a mere centre for imparting training and knowledge. This allowed talented individuals to add social dimension and give public expression to their personal vision. Ramkinkar used this opportunity to make monumental public sculpture, undertaken entirely at his own initiative. Beginning in early thirties he began to fill the campus with sculptures, one after the other, which were innovative in subject matter and personal in style. His first magnum opus in this genre was the Santhal Family done in 1938. In this larger than life sculpture he represented the tribal peasants of the region, giving the figures iconic presence and dignified grace that was so far limited to the images of Gods and Rulers. In a country were all public art-work was undertaken only at the behest of Government commissioning and executed in consonance with the taste of conservative ruling elites, this was a radical departure. The use of cement and laterite mortar to model the figures, and the use of a personal style in which modern western and Indian pre-classical sculptural values were brought together was equally radical. With this seminal work Ramkinkar established himself as undoubted modern Indian sculptor.

The late 1930s and early 1940s saw his emergence as a modernist sculpture and painter with a unique style and approach. Already an admirer of the working class he was touched by the adverse impact natural calamities and political developments all through the forties had on their lives. And this led him to evolve as a committed artist with leftist leanings. The specter of human suffering he saw around him led him to transform immediate facts into allegorical, symbolic and occasionally even didactic images. This gave a new thematic focus to his works, as well as an element of drama and expressive-immediacy to his execution. Coming in a period that saw the emergence of Progressive movements and anti-Fascist expressions on the Indian cultural scene he came to be seen as a radical with a bohemian slant. But, despite his marked disregard for conventional ways and occasional expressions of vexation, he remained an irrepressible humanist who kept alive a sense of joy and faith in men deep within him. Ramkinkar was singularly reticent and otherworldly as he was single-minded in his commitment to art and humanity. But this did not stop his work from being noticed and appreciated by sensitive artists and connoisseurs, even if it were to remain a small group. Although his work was passed over for quite a while, gradually it began to get both national and international attention. He was invited to participate in the Salon des Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in 1950 and in the Salon de Mai 1951. And in the seventies national honours began to come his way one after the other. In 1970 the Government of India honoured him with the Padma Bhushan, in 1976 he was made a fellow of the Lalit Kala Akademi, in 1976 he was conferred the Desikottama by Visva Bharati, and in 1979 an honorary D.Litt by the Rabindra Bharati University.

Ramkinkar Baij responded to the natural zest for life, and took a great interest in human figures, body language, and in the general human drama. Modern Western art and pre and post-classical Indian art were his main point of reference. He used local material advantageously, and worked combining the skills of a modeller and a carver. His paintings too take on expressionist dimensions like his sculptures, which are filled with force and vitality. While Baij was making a portrait of Tagore, during one sitting, the old poet advised him to approach the subject as a tiger and through the observation suck into its blood. After this, in Baij’s own words, he “did not look back”.

Some of his sculptures are preserved and displayed at locations including Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan, Late Rani Chanda Collection & Academy of Fine Arts, Calcutta, H.K. Kejriwal Collection & Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat, Bangalore, Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, Reserve Bank of India, New Delhi, Jane and Kito de Boer, Dubai, and the Delhi Art Gallery in New Delhi.

A bronze bust of Rabindranath Tagore made by Baij was placed in 1984 at an outdoor monument in Balatonfüred, Hungary, on a promenade named for Tagore alongside Lake Balaton. Tagore had received cardiac treatment at Balatonfüred in 1926.

The bust had been sculpted as Rabindranath neared the final year of his life. According to one source, Baij regretted doing it because there was a belief that completion of any sculpture or portrait of living person might cause an early death, and Rabindranath died right after making the bust.

Ramkinkar was a bachelor throughout his life; he lived with Radharani Dashi. He didn’t want to have any bindings in his life and never married despite insistence by his parents. While he was in Shantineketon he used to have negative remark by his known faces for this kind of lifestyle. He had a melodious voice and good sense of music. Though he liked to sing Tagore song and Lalongiti he also listened to the western classics provided by Satyajit Ray (film maker). He liked animals as much as he liked children. He made Radharani and his nephew Dibakar Baij as his legal heirs. He came to Santineketan at the age of 19 stayed there till his death.

On 23 March 1980, Baij was admitted to P G Hospital. He was suffering from disease of the prostate gland and lost all sense of appetite. Doctors performed a shunt operation. Expenses of his treatment were borne by the West Bengal government and the principal of Visva Bharati. He died on 2 August in Kolkata. His body was cremated by his nephew at Shantiniketan. He made his last sculpture Durgamurti during his stay at hospital.

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