Aaya Nagar is the southern end of Delhi and a few kilometre from there India’s current international trade hub, Gurgaon that falls in Haryana starts. The metro station that takes you to Aaya Nagar is Arjan Garh. Get down at the station, take a left turn and you hit the road that leads to Aaya Nagar. It is still a village dominated by Jat and Gujjar communities. No autos or cycle rickshaws ply on this road because village pay with lathis and fists than with currency notes. A few rickety Maruti Omnis provide the feeder service for the people, the ones who are ready to pay ten rupees. The side lanes are narrow as the villagers do not want their boundary walls to be broken down for widening the roads. Hence, often the traffic stands still on these roads. Local businesses thrive on either side of the road; from chana walla to fruit juice sellers, vegetable vendors to hardware dealers do well here. There is a pervading sense of non-belonging in most of the faces that you see on the roads. The local youngsters zoom past by their motorized mean machines and open jeeps that blare out Punjabi songs. That itself is a signal to keep off not only from the vehicle but also from the occupants in them. Migrants who live there have learnt to live with the reality and they just do not mess around with the locals. Even in this carefully created insular society a sort of multi-culturalism thrives. People from different parts of India have found their dwelling here. Aaya Nagar is a place trapped between the cosmopolitan Delhi and mega-polis Gurgaon. And one may feel that it would remain like that for centuries. Kumar Ranjan, a young artist from Jharkhand lives here.
Kumar Ranjan, for those who regularly visit art openings and discussions, is a familiar face. But all the familiar faces in the art scene are not well known artists. They are familiar because they attend most of the art dos not because they want to be a part of the glitterati and chatterati, but because they feel that they need to make up with what they have lost. They are the people who have been denied opportunities and chances to make it big and they are the people who have been even denied their right to art education in the established academies. Kumar Ranjan, however is not a failure amongst such visible yet invisible artists. He came to Delhi for the first time in 2002 and then came back again in 2008. Now he has chosen to be a Delhi based artist and it is his sixth year in Delhi. Kumar Ranjan is not a failure because he has a good studio in Aaya Nagar, though rented out from a banker couple from Jharkhand. He has made his own house in Faridabad and has put it on rent. He is married and has a nine year old son. He misses his wife and child who are with his parents in village. But he has made it a point to be in Delhi because it was in Delhi he finally found his vocation as an artist. All what he has earned so far is from art and he is proud of it. But all these do not make is story interesting because there are so many artists like him who has migrated to the big cities and become moderately successful. What makes Kumar Ranjan’s story interesting is something else besides his art. It is his story that I am going to recount here.
I like Kumar Ranjan’s art. When I first saw his works in the absence of the artist in one of the galleries in Delhi, I had asked the gallerist about the artist. The naive language and the playfulness of strokes seemed to hide the real angst of an individual that I had felt while seeing his works. I thought he was more like Bhupen Khakkar, who refused to be ‘realist’ because what he knew naturally was not realism. Bhupen could have trained himself to be academically perfect; he could have polished his skills. But his polishing act itself was his works and they were charged with the artist’s world view. I found such sincerity and straightforwardness in Kumar Ranjan’s works. Graphically they were not perfect, they were not figurative and narrative. But the works had it all in an entirely different way. A person with trained eyes could see that. In one of the openings, a few years back, Kumar Ranjan came to say hello to me. Since then I have been seeing him and his works in the galleries and outside the galleries. As I am genuinely interested in those artists who see more than they exhibit, or rather work more than they display, I took a special interest in Kumar Ranjan’s works. Those were confusing at time as they did not show a chronological development. I thought the artist was jumping fences of his own mood. As such there were no influences in his works so I could not have said that he was chasing a dream of success. The more I looked at his works the more I thought I needed to know the artist. Then finally I met him at his studio on a Sunday afternoon.
Hailing from a remote village in Jharkhand where the sonic ambience was that of the birds and animals than those of the horse power engine vehicles, Kumar Ranjan’s only familiarity with art while school was seeing some of the magazine illustration and some reproductions of M.F.Husain. His parents were school teachers and the four boys they had were of different talents. The eldest one aspired to be a writer; but at the age of twenty four he committed suicide. Parents did not interfere in Kumar Ranjan’s life after that incident even when he told them that he wanted to become an artist. A drawing teacher in the Navodaya school where he completed his higher secondary education told him of Santiniketan. So Kumar Ranjan packed his bag and found himself at the Bolpur Railway station. He walked into the Kalabhavan premises, sat for the practical examinations. Now in Kumar Ranjan’s own words, “If I could get the face right, the hands were not happening. If I could get the hands right the head was not happening.” Result was simple; he did not get admission in Santiniketan. The same ritual repeated almost all the major art institutions in India. He applied in Baroda and Delhi College of Art but in vain. He was not just getting it right. “Whenever they asked me to draw human figures, I was drawing some human figure in my mind, like a village artist,” remembers Kumar Ranjan.
Kumar Ranjan’s real art education was done in court premises. You may be surprised to know how it happened. After a series of rejections, he had been informed by one of his friends that Patna College of Art could be the next place to try. He also told Kumar Ranjan that some bribing would make the things possible. Kumar Ranjan was ready to bribe anybody to get into a fine arts college. He did bribe, not the authorities but his friend. His friend forged a signature and made some attempts for admitting Kumar Ranjan in the college. Indian authorities are very diligent when the bribe is siphoned elsewhere. He was caught and the university filed a case against him. Now it was Kumar Ranjan’s responsibility to prove his innocence. To attend the court hearing he started visiting Patna regularly. It was here he came in contact with the local artists and art students. With them he started sketching and painting. He learnt the techniques of mixing colours, making canvases and also finding different qualities of art materials. Interestingly, he was living with the same friend who had got him into the soup. Finally in 2006, Kumar Ranjan was acquitted by the court after finding him innocent. But by that time he had learned the basic skills. In between court hearings, giving test in other colleges, Kumar Ranjan once walked into the Triveni Kala Sangham in Delhi where he was told that they did not teach the beginners but they admitted only those people who had the basic skill. Their job was to prepare them to be professional artists. Loaded with experience and a burning passion to become an artist, Kumar Ranjan finally reached Delhi, this time but with a determination to live in the city.
The earlier works of Kumar Ranjan were done in large jute clothes because he did not know how to prepare a canvas. In his village there was no possibility to get prepared canvases. So the easiest surface available was jute clothes. Patna had taught him about acrylic paints. He collected enough paints and started working. Initially the surfaces were filled with people or people like figures. Then slowly he started emptying out of the surfaces. It became a string and random human figures hung from them. It was then Kumar Ranjan found out that his visual images needed the support of some texts. He wrote some cryptic words on these pictorial surfaces, at times in speech bubbles and other times scattered in the surface. The figures were not having any hagiographic details. As he progressed in his working both in style and use of materials, he started bringing more and more defined figures into his canvases. Once he had shifted to Delhi, art material problem were solved and he started working in proper canvases. In Delhi he found something more, something which would become a defining feature of his works. While strolling along the streets of Delhi, near Mehrauli he found an enamel signage of a bone setter. In India the local wrestlers still double themselves up as physiotherapists and bone specialists. Their advertisement often showed a well muscled man in his underwear with limbs in bandages. Though it is the pahalwan (wrestler) who sets the bone, the signage showed the pahalwan himself as an injured person. Painted by local artists, these advertising enamels exuded a strange naivity verging into comedy. But Kumar Ranjan adopted this figure and also created a female counterpart for him, with more or less the same physical attributes.
In many of his figurative works, Kumar Ranjan portrays the protagonist with a pressure cooker attached either on his body or as an emblem on his clothes. Also he presents them having a torch light in their hands. Pressure cooker, according to Kumar Ranjan, is the emblem of the human emotions. Each human being is a walking pressure cooker, about to release all the pressures welling up in him or her. Torch is emblematic of a search for redemption though the image comes from his childhood memories. As a child he used to use the torch to look into the darkness and also to frighten the other children. When he came to Delhi, this part of his memory also came with him which he started transporting on to his canvases. Besides these figurative semi-narratives, Kumar Ranjan also takes a lot of interest in machine drawings and paintings where he converts the human beings and male-female relationship into certain mechanical devices. Human body gets extended to machinery and these machine parts are intricately connected often giving these drawing some sort of erotic charging.
Male-female relationship also comes to play a very interesting role in Kumar Ranjan’s works. He admits that his depiction of female figures is tinged with some sort of sadism. He also says that he does not see women as objects or he does not have any intention to demean them. But for him, female figure is something really enigmatic and it is his ‘failed’ attempts to understand a woman. “I am enamoured by women’s presence. I am not so keen about their body but I am attracted to their presence. This presence is an enigma. I become absolutely helpless before them. It is my helplessness that comes to appear as cruel treatment of female figures in my canvases,” says Kumar Ranjan. However, in his erotic drawings, which he does not do often but only on rare occasions, he is extremely sensuous and unapologetically open. What intrigues the viewer is his logical identification with gay and lesbian relationship. As many people see it in their lives, it is not a theoretical position for Kumar Ranjan. He says that he used to enjoy male company and has always been curious to know about the girls who like other girls not just as friends but as something more than that. Kumar Ranjan, however says that he is not a gay. But he believes that there could be very sensitive relationship between men as well as women even amongst the heterosexuals. One of my personal favourites in this series is ‘Anita’ where one could see two girls trying to measure up their physical beauty.
Kumar Ranjan has been invited to be a part of Vadehra Gallery’s FICA show and Raqs Media Collective’s Devi Art Foundation show. While he is happy with FICA and its attitude in promoting artists, he is not at all happy with the way Raqs Media conducted their program at Devi. “What Raqs wanted was their own promotion,” Kumar Ranjan does not mince words. He says that FICA participation has done a lot good to him. It was after the FICA show that he started getting invitation from other galleries to participate in group shows. Some of the collectors were very benevolent to him. Kumar Ranjan says that whether there is money or not, his whole aim is to paint; perhaps his life’s mission itself is to paint. “I am not thinking about living in a big house or buying big cars. They are good. But having a studio is important and decent amount of money to live. If I have these two things then I am happy.” He goes to art openings to see how people see art and also to see how he sees art himself. “I want to see myself from another person’s perspective. Galleries and openings give me that space to divide myself into two different personalities. I am often silent and I learn a lot from these occasions.” Kumar Ranjan however is not cynical about these openings. He enjoys these evenings and says that his aborted art education is still on even in these gatherings.
Kumar Ranjan, unlike many artists of his age (mid thirties), does not complaint about anybody. He is not anxious about the returning of art market boom. He does sell his works but never yields to the pressure of the gallerists who ask him to paint in a certain style. “I work two or three themes at once. I flit between ideas and rendering styles. It may appear different but the difference is only superficial. Inside all these works, it is the same spirit working; the spirit of an artist, that is me and my life in Aaya Nagar.”