Ramkinkar Baij (May 26, 1906 – Aug 2, 1980) was an Indian sculptor and painter, one of the pioneers of modern Indian sculpture and a key figure of Contextual Modernism.
Professor R. Siva Kumar, an authority on the Santiniketan School of Art wrote, “Ramkinkar Baij was born on 25 May 1906 in Bankura in West Bengal, into a family of little economic and social standing, and grew, by the sheer dint of talent and determination, into one of the most distinguished early modernists in Indian art. As a young boy he grew up watching local craftsmen and image-makers at work; and making small clay figurines and paintings with whatever came his way. His talent, prodigious for his age, attracted the attention of local people, especially of the nationalists with whom he was associated. This led him in 1925, on the advice of Ramananda Chatterjee the nationalist publisher and apologist for the new Indian art movement, to mark his way to Kala Bhavana, the art school at Santiniketan. At Santiniketan, under the guidance of Nandalal Bose and encouraged by its liberating intellectual environment, shaped by Rabindranath Tagore, his artistic skills and intellectual horizons acquired new depth and complexity. Soon after completing his studies at Kala Bhavana he became a member of its faculty, and along with Nandalal and Benodebehari Mujhrejee played a decisive role in making Santiniketan the most important centre for modern art in pre-Independent India.
Santiniketan was conceived as a locus for artistic experimentation and resurgence rather than as a mere centre for imparting training and knowledge. This allowed talented individuals to add social dimension and give public expression to their personal vision. Ramkinkar used this opportunity to make monumental public sculpture, undertaken entirely at his own initiative. Beginning in early thirties he began to fill the campus with sculptures, one after the other, which were innovative in subject matter and personal in style. His first magnum opus in this genre was the Santal Family done in 1938. In this larger than life sculpture he represented the tribal peasants of the region, giving the figures iconic presence and dignified grace that was so far limited to the images of Gods and Rulers. In a country were all public art-work was undertaken only at the behest of Government commissioning and executed in consonance with the taste of conservative ruling elites, this was a radical departure. The use of cement and laterite mortar to model the figures, and the use of a personal style in which modern western and Indian pre-classical sculptural values were brought together was equally radical. With this seminal work Ramkinkar established himself as undoubted modern Indian sculptor.
The late 1930s and early 1940s saw his emergence as a modernist thematically well grounded in the local-present, in the best Santiniketan tradition, but also open to a full range of modernist linguistic innovations in art. Already an admirer of the working class he was touched by the adverse impact natural calamities and political developments all through the forties had on their lives. And this led him to evolve as a committed artist with leftist leanings. The spectre of human suffering he saw around him led him to transform immediate facts into allegorical, symbolic and occasionally even didactic images. This gave a new thematic focus to his works, as well as an element of drama and expressive-immediacy to his execution. Coming in a period that saw the emergence of Progressive movements and anti-Fascist expressions on the Indian cultural scene he came to be seen as a radical with a bohemian slant. But, despite his marked disregard for conventional ways and occasional expressions of vexation, he remained an irrepressible humanist who kept alive a sense of joy and faith in men deep within him. Ramkinkar was singularly reticent and otherworldly as he was single-minded in his commitment to art and humanity. But this did not stop his work from being noticed and appreciated by sensitive artists and connoisseurs, even if it were to remain a small group. Although his work was passed over for quite a while, gradually it began to get both national and international attention. He was invited to participate in the Salon des Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in 1950 and in the Salon de Mai 1951. And in the seventies national honours began to come his way one after the other. In 1970 the Government of India honoured him with the Padma Bhushan, in 1976 he was made a fellow of the Lalit Kala Akademi, in 1976 he was conferred the Desikottama by Visva Bharati, and in 1979 an honorary D.Litt by the Rabindra Bharati University.