Monday 26 September 2016

Inaugural Post: Ramkinkar Baij

Ramkinkar Baij

On my Facebook page, I recently posted photographs of two sculptures by Ramkinkar Baij. A sculpture of Gandhi in his Dandi march, and a sculpture of Buddha in meditation.  Apart from the majestic beauty of these sculptures, I posted them in the context of recent 'scholarly' attacks on Gandhi and his humanist legacy. I asked if Ramkinkar would have changed his mind if he knew about these 'scholarly' discoveries from Gandhi's (remote) past. Curiously, the topic of tarnishing an image touches the great artist himself. We need to understand how to evaluate otherwise uplifting legacies.

These sculptures are located in the sprawling campus of Tagore’s university in Santiniketan, Visva-Bharati. Perhaps the greatest Indian sculptor in the 20th Century, Baij was born in a very low caste family of poor peasants in a remote village of Bengal. As a child, he used to make clay models of folk deities and other stuff. While Tagore was building up the institution in the early 20th century, he invited many eminent scholars from India and abroad to stay and teach in his impoverished village school. He also looked around for talent in rural Bengal. One of his ‘scout’s spotted the phenomenal talent of young Baij and brought him over to Tagore. Baij spent the rest of his life there.

After learning some basic techniques from senior artists, he started teaching in Visva-Bharati's art school, Kala Bhavana, and ended up as a professor of sculpture. I attended Tagore's school in the 1960s. In those days, the school blended seamlessly with the rest of the university. So, while in class 8 or so, we took our sculpture lessons in the studios of Kala-Bhavana itself. Ramkinkar and other great artists supervised our work. I remember Kinkarda, as we called him, walking over to my pedestal where I was trying to put together a clay model of a head. Looking at the neck, he said that I needed a human neck, not a pig's. With one deft touch, he straightened the neck up and left. I knew it wasn't my vocation.

He didn’t know much about his ‘academic’ career. At the beginning of the month, he would go to the accounts office, stand in line, and pick up his salary. After many decades of this routine, he was picking up his salary one day when the accountant told him that he need not come from the next month since he was retiring, and the pension would be sent to the bank. He didn’t understand any of this, and rushed to the vice chancellor complaining that the accountant had stopped his salary.

His biographer Somendranath Banerji recounted that, on one rainy evening, he saw Ramkinkar, the internationally renowned artist, a Padma Bhushan, lying on his stomach in his tattered clothes, obviously under local spirits, staring at the poodles of water by the side of the road, waiting for the clouds to clear, for the moon to cast its reflection on the water through the trees.

He lived with his life-companion Radharani in a thatched hut at the outskirts of the campus, and worked all the time while singing Tagore and folk songs, and drinking local stuff. Late in his life, his hut washed away during one heavy monsoon. The university almost physically dragged him to a university quarter. He was miserable and died soon after. Another artist of kindred spirit, Ritwik Ghatak, started making a film on Ramkinkar. The film remained incomplete as Ghatak died. 

Recently, there's been some narratives, including apparently a published memoir, that suggest that Ramkinkar was quite a philanderer. Allegedly, he sometimes so troubled young women in the campus--the expression sexual harassment could be used today--that they were compelled to give up their studies. Today, if such allegations are found to be true, they will attract the Visakha guidelines formulated by the Supreme Court of India; the accused may even lose his job if found guilty. Rightly.

Yet the tall statues of Gandhi, Buddha, Sujata, Santhal Family, and many many others, will continue to reach for the sky as generations of parched souls stand still in wonder.