The Curator #13
We have seen different ways of curating artworks. Today we will discuss what are retrospective exhibitions. Have you heard about retrospective exhibitions? The word retrospective means looking back at the past events or survey the past or take a stock of an artist’s works in the past. Similarly, a retrospective exhibition presents works from an extended period of an artist’s activity. Most of the time, this task is done by a museum or gallery, after the artist’s death or at a time when artist’s career reaches a milestone.
The task of the curator in a retrospective is to present the works of an artist in such a way so that the general public can understand his contributions to not only to the art world but also to the history and heritage of that region. So the curator has to show the works in a chronological way to display how the works of an artist evolve and mature over a period of time. How this progression can be seen along with many other progressions in the art world and history. The curator’s task therefore is to understand the artist’s work from the early period itself. Here the curator becomes like a detective trying to piece together each and every work of the artist, sometimes works which were supposed to be lost, assembling a series of memories, exchanges, ideas, etc. of the artist for the viewer. As I said earlier this is not easy task. Imagine if the artist has not signed a series of works from a particular period and no one has a clue about it. Now, how will the curator identify it and put it in a particular sequence of the timeline. It requires a careful study and also tremendous amount of expertise from the curator’s side.
In today’s Art1st’s “The Curator” series we will discuss about such a retrospective exhibition which took almost five years to mount. The five years went in detailed research on the artist Ramkinkar Baij’s life and works done by the artist K.S. Radhakrishnan who curated the Ramkinkar Retrospective at NGMA Delhi. This was the first exhibition which brought together more than 350 works of Ramkinkar Baij in one place giving it an art historical context with commendable scholarly input.
The Curator #13
Ramkinkar Baij: A Retrospective, NGMA, 2012
At the outset, let me tell you that Ramkinkar Baij was India’s most prolific and acclaimed modern artists. He was a painter, print maker, sculptor, designed sets for theatre, and mostly was a passionate human being. He is also considered as the first modernist sculptor. At a time when the nationalist clarion call echoed a backward march to tradition and indigenous mediums and visual idioms, Ramkinkar carved a niche for himself from the rest of the Bengal School by constantly acquainting himself with the unfamiliar terrain than the familiar and the experimental to the banality of life. The most notable fact about Ramkinkar Baij is that he was prolific. He sketched, and did water colour paintings all the time. When he was not making giant public sculptures, he would prepare its studies in drawings or experimenting on it in maquettes. Many times he was not able to afford painting materials, so he would paint on both surfaces of a canvas. He will forget to sign his works. Baij also used to gift his works to whoever he felt like giving. He lived in financially poor conditions and some times during heavy rains he would use his canvas paintings to cover the roof form where the water was trickling down. Besides these personal aspects of Baij, let me also tell you that his experiments with different styles is very eccentric. Usually art historians are able to bracket an artist’s works according to a particular style he or she adopts during a period. A change occurs after a particular time. In case of Baij, if one day he would create a painting in Expressionist style, the next work would be Cubist, in appearance. He was rigorously experimenting with style and visuals. Therefore it is a curator’s nightmare to assemble the works of Ramkinkar and put it in a legible form as an exhibition.
K.S. Radhkarishnan is a prominent contemporary sculptor who has been part of important national and international exhibitions. He is known for his bronze sculptors. Radhakrishnan was trained under two important modern artists in Shantiketan – Ramkinkar Baij and Sarbari Ray Chowdhury. After Baij’s death he played an active role along with others in documenting his works which were scattered and archive them. In 2007, Radhakrishnan was selected by NGMA to curate the retrospective on Ramkinkar Baij. He says, “I started in 2007. I was commissioned by the Ministry of Culture. They asked if I would do it. I accepted happily because it’s like working on your teacher’s work. Also, Ramkinkar was a bachelor, so he had no children to look after his archive. In his case, it’s really his students who had to do that. I thought this would be a learning process for me. I knew I would be searching for things in a vast ocean, but I thought there was a big challenge in it. It’s always a great pleasure to work on someone who is so versatile and colorful. There’s much to be explored in terms of his life and work.”
Radhakrishnan notes that he started with the NGMA collection, which had documented a handwritten list containing merely titles, without any images. He started creating a database scanning every work and every page of Ramkinkar’s sketch books, most of which have never been exhibited. The idea was to photograph for documentation and also for publication purposes.
Since many of the remembered works at Santiniketan were missing, he started asking the people Kinkar da had associated with for leads. K.G. Subramanyan put me in touch with Nirmala Patwardhan in Pune, who directed me to her film-maker son Anand Patwardhan, who gave more names. It was virtually a house-to-house search. Like a detective he went around and found lost pieces of the greatest artist of modern India. In the absence of a chronology of works he went for subject and medium and used them as sub-categories. So you’ll find one room dedicated to drawings that led to the “Santhal Family” sculpture, then you’ll see oil paintings in another room. The corridors are like rivers flowing with watercolors, then there’s the two wings in between with the literature about him that then leads to the oil paintings section, then his life studies.
This excavation also resulted in the publication of a mammoth catalogue, with images of most of the documented works of Baij with years and titles. The text for the catalogue was written by noted art historian and curator R. Siva Kumar. Along with the main catalogue the exhibition also resulted in the publication of numerous other books on various aspects of Ramkinkar’s art. These were written by A. Ramachandran, Radhakrishnan, Johny M.L., et al. A documentary on Baij was also produced and screened along with an audio recording of Baij singing.
Radhakrishnan’s attempt was to rediscover Baij and present his entire oeuvre to the art world. He notes, “For a long time people knew of him as a sculptor, but they did not see his radical idiom in a larger context. That is getting established now. As a 32-year-old Ramkinkar made an integral structural composition of man, woman, child and dog (“Santhal Family”, 1938) at a time when the trend veered to viceroys’ busts and static statues in the Western realistic tradition. I would place him alongside Western masters such as Rodin. Today, many people know Kinkar da for his visible Yaksha and Yakshi figures outside the Reserve Bank of India on Delhi’s Parliament Street. Yet Ramkinkar was not happy with them since they ended up too rigid. By placing in the show a series of the sketches and models Kinkar da prepared before executing the final sculpture, I have tried to highlight the creative journey, which was always more important to him.”
Here is a link to a film made on Ramkinkar Baij by acclaimed director Ritwik Ghatak
Please share your thoughts about this article. Have a happy weekend.
- Premjish, Director-Outreach, Art1st