This summer has been an incredibly sad one for the Indian art community as it lost two exceptional artists. Indian modern master Ram Kumar passed away unexpectedly in April, closely followed by Indian contemporary textile artist Priya Ravish Mehra in the first week of May. While both the artists were years apart in age and were working on different mediums in their own way, they championed the nearly invisible life existing on the fringes of our cities.
Ram Kumar addressed the anguished and alienated life of the working class in a non-theatrical manner on his canvases and short stories. His portrayal of the working class of India — flinty yet pensive lines, sorrowful vacant eyes looking onwards, beyond the canvas, silhouettes tinted in muted tones under the glaring yellow or neon street lights — made his works stand out. Unapologetically direct and sincere in the emotions communicated; his style portrayed the emotions of isolated lives in the cities.
If, as an artist and writer, Ram Kumar was the champion of the working class in urban India, the delicate yet powerful works of Priya Ravish Mehra took the cause further. As a textile expert and weaver, Priya’s pioneering initiative to celebrate the invisible hands of the marginalised community of Rafoogars of Najidabad also brought her closer to her preoccupations as an artist. Her seminal solo exhibition Presence in Absence held at Threshold Gallery, New Delhi, last year, explored the philosophical and biological synonymity between human tissue and plant fibre in a cloth. It was a personal history of her time and other times, captured by the artist in the delicate stitches, the colour stains on skin like paper and patched up pieces of cloth.
As I think of these two masters, passionate in their cause and work, I am reminded of the verses of Rilke on Death:
Before us great Death stands/ Our fate held close within his quiet hands/ When with proud joy we lift Life’s red wine/ To drink deep of the mystic shining cup/ And ecstasy through all our being leaps/ Death bows his head and weeps/ They live on.
(Shruthi Issac is an independent art curator and writer)
Photo: Threshold Gallery (Priya Ravish Mehra)
The Raza Foundation (Ram Kumar)