A Tale of Two Compositions

Saffronart will host a live Evening Sale on 12 September 2019 in New Delhi, featuring work by modern masters, including two works by K H Ara and Ram Kumar from significant periods in their artistic careers. These two paintings represent a crucial chapter in the evolution of modernism in Indian art. 

Even as they threw off the yoke of academic art, these artists and their contemporaries – including the founders of the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) – were seeking ways to assimilate the traditions of the past with the present. According to Yashodhara Dalmia, “They created their own mode of expression, and, in coming together despite their different backgrounds, the PAG also inadvertently symbolized the transcendence of divisions created by religion, region and caste.” (“The Rise of Modern Art and the Progressives,” Zehra Jumabhoy and Boon Hui Tan, The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India, New York: Asia Society Museum, 2018, p. 30)

K H Ara was born to a Dalit bus driver in a village in Andhra Pradesh, ran away to Bombay at the age of seven, and eventually discovered he could paint. His entry into and success within the Indian art world has been described as nothing short of “astonishing” by art critics and historians. “For in spite of the socio-economic burden of his people… he emerged as a self-taught painter who had dazzled the eyes of innumerable people with his colourful, imaginative, expressionist paintings.” (Jagmohan quoted in Yashodhara Dalmia, The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2001, p. 131)


Lot 13: K H Ara, Untitled, circa 1940s, oil, watercolour and charcoal on paper pasted on linen, 39.5 x 29.5 inches. Estimate: INR 20 – 30 lakhs. Image courtesy of Saffronart.

This work is likely among Ara’s early works from the 1940s, when he painted compositions based on human studies or everyday situations in society. Depicting a group of men, perhaps labourers, huddled around in a circle playing cards, it is characteristic of Ara’s style and subjects from this decade. 

Conveying Ara’s deep and abiding sense of humanism, it is similar to the artist’s works such as Untitled (Beggars), circa 1940s, and Bharata Natya, circa 1945, both of which were exhibited at The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India – a landmark exhibition at the Asia Society Museum in New York in 2018. Ara was one of the original founders of the PAG.

In many ways, Ara’s paintings of this period were a sociopolitical commentary of sorts, that captured the pulse of a newly independent India. It was a sentiment that was shared by fellow PAG members such as M F Husain, and artists practising at the time, including Ram Kumar and Krishen Khanna, who were similarly drawn towards capturing the prevailing atmosphere of political and economic uncertainty. 

This is evident in Composition, 1958, a painting by Ram Kumar that captures the existential anguish of humanity – a theme which preoccupied the artist during this period.


Lot 15: Ram Kumar, Composition, 1958, oil on canvas, 23.5 x 35 inches. Estimate: INR 1 – 1.5 crores. Image courtesy of Saffronart.

“As a young artist, Ram Kumar was captivated by, or rather obsessed with, the human face because of the ease and intensity with which it registers the drama of life. The sad, desperate, lonely, hopeless or lost faces, which fill the canvases of his early period, render with pathos his view of the human condition.” (Sham Lal, “Between Being and Nothingness,” Gagan Gill ed., Ram Kumar: A Journey Within, New Delhi: Vadehra Art Gallery, 1996, pp. 15-16) Kumar’s subjects were primarily the figures of alienated and disenfranchised youth in cities, “circumscribed by the constrictions of urban society and motivated by conflicts which ensue from dense population, unemployment, artificial relationships.” (Richard Bartholomew, “Attitudes to the Social Condition: Notes on Ram Kumar,” Lalit Kala Contemporary 24-25, New Delhi: Lalit Kala Akademi, 1981, p. 31)

Painted in 1958, Composition is an important transitional work. Even as he mastered figuration during this decade, Kumar was slowly departing from these forms, and embracing landscapes and abstraction in his art.

In this work, the landscapes and figures merge into each other, with the latter becoming more and more obscure. “The figure, which played so important a role in the entire drama of Ram’s odyssey, was already beating a retreat, slowly, hesitantly, receding into the margins, almost merging with the dark greys and browns of the horizons. And what till then only vaguely lurked in the background – the shadowy outlines of dilapidated houses, a floated glimpse of the city roofs, the vertical thrust of an electric pole – suddenly surged forward, pushing the figures on to the edges, occupying the central stage, as it were.” (Nirmal Verma, “From Solitude to Salvation,” Gagan Gill ed., Ram Kumar: A Journey Within, New Delhi: Vadhera Art Gallery, 1996, pp. 23-24)


Saffronart’s Evening Sale will be held at The Oberoi, New Delhi on 12 September 2019. The auction is preceded by viewings at the Saffronart gallery in The Oberoi, New Delhi from 6 – 12 September.

Cover image: (L) Ram Kumar. Image courtesy of the artist’s family. (R) K H Ara © Jyoti Bhatt

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