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Ramkinkar Baij: The Story of India’s First Modern Sculptor
By Sakshi Batavia
24 May 2019
Ramkinkar Baij was born in Bankura, Bengal. There is a lot of uncertainty about the year of his birth. According to some sources he was born in 1904 and according to others in 1906 but a largely accepted date is the 25th of May, 1906. His journey traversed so far, that of being a child enamoured with drawing and making idols to finally becoming a student at Santiniketan is quite fascinating. Ramkinkar Baij was a man who played ‘with the fire of creation all his life’. Even though he aligned the concept of abstraction in his work, he maintained to connect the quotidian as a subject. Right from an early age, he showed an immense interest in art and he would go around finding scraps of papers and used natural materials like red clay and turmeric to add colour to his drawings. Apart from this his tryst with sculptors also began at an early age and was largely a result of the place he was born in. As a child, he would witness the idol makers around his area making sculptures of different gods and goddesses. This inspired him to start making idols of his own using clay. Over the years he even grew close to the reputed idol maker of Bankura, Ananda Pal.
Ramkinkar was heavily involved in the Non-cooperation movement of 1921. He was by then already known for his artistic talent, the local Congress leader Anilbaran Shah asked him to make posters and portraits for the various rallies and meetings held around town. “At the time of the Non-Cooperation Movement, I drew Portraits only in oil. Portraits of national leaders”. All this caught the attention of Ramananda Chatterjee who had come to Bankura to attend a meeting of the Brahmo Samaj. He was at that point the honorary Head of Santiniketan’s Undergrad section. Affectionately called Ramananda babu, Ramkinkar recalls how he played a huge role in changing Ramkinkar’s course in life. After seeing the immense talent that Ramkinkar displayed despite having no formal training, Ramananda Chatterjee decided that Kala Bhavan would be an ideal place for Ramkinkar and soon got him a seat there. Thus Ramkinkar arrived at Santiniketan in 1925 when he was 19 years old.
Before arriving at Santiniketan, Ramkinkar’s major source of learning was the popular art that he saw on calendars or the prints that he saw of various academic oil paintings. Once he was enrolled into Kala Bhavan he increasingly started emulating the themes and techniques of Nandalal Bose and Abanindranath Tagore. Santiniketan was a place where Ramkinkar thrived. He expanded his horizons by reading quite a lot, largely due to the influence of Nandalal Bose and Rabindranath Tagore. He is said to have read and really admired books by Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Bernard Shaw’s plays and prefaces. His interest soon spread to James Joyce and other modernist Indian writers. Despite the fact that the largely accepted style at Kala Bhavan during that time was wash paintings, Ramkinkar experimented and created his own visual vocabulary. His works are essentially diverse in style and he works according to whatever strikes his fancy. In fact, critics have even claimed that Ramkinkar’s work is extremely difficult to place. Unlike most artists for Ramkinkar, there is no gradual or linear evolution of style. The variety of work that he put out cannot be placed in a single category. He is now recognized as the first modern sculptor who succeeded in connecting ‘the indigenous modernism of pre-independence India with the more international modernism of post-Independence India.
He was the first artist in Santiniketan to use the oil medium and create modern and abstract works. Affectionately known as Kinkarda by all, Ramkinkar Baij truly personified everything that modernism stood for. Even his sculptures showcased his bold and expressionist style. He changed people’s perception of what sculptures meant. When he came to Santiniketan there was no tradition of creating sculptures and only paintings were in vogue. He made people realise that sculptures can be used as deftly as paintings for the artist’s self-expression. Ramkinkar was largely self-taught barring the influence of the western people who visited Santiniketan for a brief period. In 1928 Liza Von Pott, a Viennese sculptor came to Santiniketan and introduced to the students there, including Ramkinkar the basic techniques of modelling, mould-making and plaster-casting. With her help, eventually, classes were set up for sculpture making. Another important visitor that came to Santiniketan in 1929 was Marguerite Milward. She gave a lot of demonstrations and interesting lectures on the history of modern European Sculpture.
Ramkinkar soon completed the course at Kala Bhavan in 1929 and decided to stay on in Santiniketan eventually becoming the head of the sculpture department. He invented concrete casting as an alternative to the expensive plaster. Some of his really popular sculptures are Sujatha, Santhal Family, Call of the Mill and Harvester. The Call of the Mill made in 1956 stands right opposite the Santhal Family (1938) in the Kala Bhavan premises. These two sculptures provide a glimpse into the life of the Santhal tribe. Call of the Mill depicts a group of Santhal women rushing towards their workplace and the Santhal Family showcases a family of four and their dog trudging home after a long day at work. Ramkinkar was also commissioned to make sculptures for the Reserve Bank of India. His sculptures of Yaksha and Yakshi still stand there outside the gates of the bank. He himself explains how he gave a modern twist to the Yaksha and Yakshi sculpture. ‘MyYaksha is completely modern – with a machine and a money bag in each hand’. Another really popular sculpture of his that stands outside the girls’ hostel in Kala Bhavan is the Buffalo and Fish that he designed. When asked about the inspiration behind this sculpture he claimed ‘One day I was passing by the pond and saw a buffalo get in the water. It was sprinkling water on its back with the tail. It was the tail’s dimension that I increased’.
Thus Ramkinkar heralded a new stylistic practice where outdoor and open air sculptures would soon become the accepted norm. His sculptures always revealed a profound unity with nature, and he was also one of the very first artists who placed his work in the public realm for everyone to see and experience. In the year 1970, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India. Ramkinkar Baij breathed his last on the 2nd of August, 1980 in Kolkata. His presence is embedded in the earth at Santiniketan. The master sculptor’s works stand there as a brilliant testimony to his virtuosity.