Perspectives and Paradoxes: Two Paintings on Benaras

The city of Benaras (Varanasi), which lies on the banks of the river Ganges, is a popular subject in Indian art. Famous for its reputation as a site both sacred and profane, Benaras captured the imagination of many Indian artists over the decades, including Ram Kumar, M F Husain, S H Raza, and Manu Parekh, to name a few.

Our upcoming auction Alive: Evening Sale of Modern and Contemporary Art on 17 September features two paintings that encapsulate not only the various spiritual associations of this city, but also the nuances of a friendship between two of India’s greatest modernists – M F Husain and Ram Kumar.

A Journey to Remember

In 1960, Husain and Kumar took a trip together. Born out of Husain’s desire to explore landscapes, the two artists journeyed first to Allahabad – where they met Shripat Rai, the son of the famous poet Munshi Premchand – and then onward to Benaras, where they stayed at Premchand’s ancestral home. The city, with its bathing ghats and the haze of smoke and ashes from the religious rites performed regularly, was a metaphor for humanity for the two artists; tinged with sorrow and pain, but with an underlying sense of romanticism and joy. 

Husain and Kumar would pack up their materials and travel in opposite directions every morning, each on a quest to discover the city through their art. On returning in the evening, they would share their views and discuss new ideas. What was a merely short yet inspiring trip for Husain would become a lifelong obsession for Kumar, who repeatedly returned to the holy city in his paintings for decades. In an Urdu poem dedicated to Kumar – in the chapter “Four Friends” in his unpublished autobiography – Husain writes: 

In the beginning of the 1960’s, Ram Kumar arrived in Benaras. Not alone. Husain was with him. Two painters. Two brushes. One brush played with the waves of restless Ganga. The other was still – like a centuries’ old meditative trance of the Benaras ghats.

At godhuli, they would both watch, Ram and Husain, from the windows of Prem Chand’s haveli – cows returning home. Dust, like a sheet of muslin, rising from behind them, following them…

Husain couldn’t stay in Benaras for more than 15 days. Ram went on talking to Benaras for years.

Inside that city, there thrives another city. All roads lead miles away to a standstill destination.

No signboards anywhere for you to recognise it. 

No milestone for you to measure the distance.

No sun so the colours may throb.

Only a dim flicker buried in the soft light of early Benaras morning. The earth meeting the sky, a witness of the luminous dusk. 

Just two or three colours of peace and solace. 

This is the complete Ram Kumar.” 

(Artist quoted in Gagan Gill ed., Ram Kumar: A Journey Within, New Delhi: Vadehra Art Gallery, 1996, p. 209) 

Ram Kumar observed Benaras as a place of great tragedy and suffering, where he could explore both expressionism and abstraction in his portrayals of the human struggle. On the other hand,  Husain recognised Benaras for its dichotomies. He saw a place of creation and destruction, of ancient and contemporary traditions, of rapid movement and meditative stillness. 

Husain’s Benaras

The years before the trip to Benaras were a period of steadily rising success for M F Husain. From 1956 to 1961, he frequently travelled and exhibited in different parts of the world, including the Venice Biennale in 1954 and at various shows in Zürich, Prague, Frankfurt and Rome. In 1959, he received the International Biennale award in Tokyo. This global recognition was countered by a continued inward exploration of artistic experiences that were rooted in Indian subjects, themes, aesthetic traditions and practices. His vast travels through the country provided him with a large repertoire of images and motifs that appear on his canvases imbued with layers of symbolic meaning and emotive content.

M F Husain, Benares Ghat – 2, circa 1960s, oil on board, 35.75 x 24 in. Estimate: Rs 70 – 80 lakhs ($94,595 – 108,110)

In Benaras Ghat – 2, circa 1960s, Husain separates the vertical composition into three parts: the upper third depicts the city, in the middle third are a group of people bathing at the ghats, while the lower third contains the dark, reflecting waters of the Ganges river. “Husain has captured this dome of color through his black backgrounds, against which white traced figures become sharply energised. Figures are further activated by Husain’s characteristic, shaky defining line… Figures and background are partly merged in that the figures are silhouettes filled in by background itself. There are no shadows; no light is filtered. The space seems cast as a dramatic enclosure where fate is being played out…” (Dr Daniel Herwitz, Husain, Bombay: Tata Steel, 1988, p. 17)

The earthy brown tones rendered in heavy, gestural brushstrokes suggest a sense of movement. Through a fluid combination of form and line, Husain blurs the distinction between the individuals and background, creating a uniquely singular work that is both figurative and abstract. “On the ghats of Banaras his bathers bathe in ancient lava, so thick and grey are the encrustations of his impasto, so acute his sense of the timelessness of the ritual he saw performed on those hoary steps on the river’s edge.” (Richard Bartholomew and Shiv S Kapur, Husain, New York: Harry N Abrams, Inc., 1971, p. 41)

Husain saw the artistic appeal of Benaras – a city whose ancient rituals endure even today – as the perfect canvas to bridge the divide between the tradition and modern. 

Ram Kumar’s Benaras

By the late 1950s, Ram Kumar had already begun to move away from figurative works in search of a new artistic journey, and he returned to his native Simla in 1959. Benaras fascinated Kumar, but rather than a literal representation of the sights around him, his depictions were emotive, negotiating the forms of the landscape with the increasingly abstract depictions of built forms and water.

Ram Kumar, Untitled (Benares), oil on canvas, 40.75 x 33.75 in. Estimate: Rs 80 lakhs – 1.2 crores ($108,110 – 162,165)

“Benares is important for me both as an artist and as a human being. The first paintings came at a point when I wanted to develop elements in figurative painting and go beyond it. My first visit to the city invoked an emotional reaction as it had peculiar associations. But such romantic ideas were dispelled when I came face to face with reality. There was so much pain and sorrow of humanity. As an artist, it became a challenge to portray this agony and suffering. Its intensity required the use of symbolic motifs, so my Benares is of a representative sort.” (Artist quoted in Seema Bawa, “Ram Kumar: Artistic Intensity of an Ascetic,”, online)

This work features a cluster of jumbled forms painted in an earthy palette, surrounded by blue water — possibly an aerial view of the vibrant city. According to Meera Menezes, over the years, Kumar’s depictions of Benaras would oscillate between “expressionism and abstraction,” as well as the city and landscape.” (Meera Menezes, Ram Kumar: Traversing the Landscapes of the Mind, Mumbai: Saffronart, 2016, p. 12) The artist’s unique vision of the well-visited and significant city — known to be “teeming with people” and with “myriad sounds, high pitched noises and melodious chants” — imagines instead a desolate place devoid of people. However, it is “not really deserted… What he was interested in depicting was not just the jostling crowds at the ghats; not the hubbub of rites; not the hope, or frenzy, or anticipated bliss of the people; but the silent waiting that underlay it all.’ (Geeta Kapur, Contemporary Indian Artists, New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1978, p. 75)

Benaras would affect Kumar far beyond this visit, and became a recurring motif in his oeuvre. He once described his preoccupation with Benaras as “a lifelong effort to find some harmony between a rich, throbbing ‘spiritually-visited’ nature and the secret, fleeting thoughts of an artist.” His early depictions of the city presented a somewhat more realistic portrayal of the patchwork of riverbank buildings, as seen in his works from the 1960s. Gradually, the landscapes would become more abstract and representative, as seen in the monochromatic Untitled (Benaras), 1982, also a part of Alive.

Ram Kumar, Untitled (Benares), 1982, ink wash on paper pasted on mountboard, 15 x 22.5 in. Estimate: Rs 6 – 8 lakhs ($8,110 – 10,815)

Saffronart’s upcoming auction Alive: Evening Sale of Modern and Contemporary Art will be held on 17 September 2020. The auction is preceded by viewings by prior appointment only at the Saffronart galleries in Mumbai (through 16 September) and New Delhi and London (through 17 September).

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Well written. The artistic perspective of Benaras indeed strike a cord and it reverberate to have an emotional connect. Really worth the time spend for reading.

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