Far Away and Long Ago | Akumal Ramachander, a benevolent gadfly

After introducing the American Abstract Expressionist painter Harold Shapinsky to the world, this English professor gave up teaching in order to discover new talent in the arts and promote them 

Akumal Ramchander is a man in his mid-sixties with the energy and enthusiasm of a teenager. He is passionately committed to the arts. He is known principally for discovering the exceptional American Abstract Expressionist painter Harold Shapinsky through a happy social accident in Chicago in 1985. He had gone to the American city to visit his friend from Bangalore, AK Ramanujan, the celebrated translator and poet who taught at the University of Chicago. At a party, Akumal met David Shapinsky, a student of the History of American Diplomacy at the University. It was perhaps a hunch that David had that the dark looking man from India in his early thirties may possibly be a dark horse! He told Akumal that his father Harold Shapinsky was a great but unknown painter, and also the contemporary of luminaries like Willem De Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Would he, Akumal, like to come home and see his father’s work? His internal radar told Akumal to accept the invitation. The rest as they say is history. This story has been repeated very many times in articles on him over the years.

Today, he is just as ready to embark on an artistic adventure as he was in his youth. If there is an artiste to be encouraged or discovered, it is very likely that Akumal Ramchander will be the one to do the needful. Years and years ago, there was a Polish film festival in Bangalore in the pre-internet and pre- cell-phone era. The films that he saw there, particularly those by Andrezj Wajda, left him deeply impressed. He sought out the Polish ambassador very soon and suggested another festival of films from his country. Akumal’s love for Poland, including its literature, art and culture, deepened, and over the years, he became an ambassador of Polish culture abroad. He is a much-loved figure today in the cultural circles of Poland.

We met at filmmaker and critic Chidananda Dasgupta’s home in Delhi in 1983, and hit it off immediately. Six years ago, Akumal got a bee in his bonnet that yours truly ought to travel to Poland and talk to interested people there about Indian cinema and its attendant political and cultural implications at home. He prevailed upon the Poles to invite me there officially. It is another matter that the opportunity went a begging because the octogenarian mater was quite ill. On another occasion, on learning that Krzysztof Zanussi’s 1988 film Wherever You Are had made a terrific impression on one’s mind, he promptly called the great filmmaker in Warsaw and told him that his friend Partha Chatterjee was deeply touched by his film and would like to talk to him. “Hello Mr. Chatterjee,” said Zanussi, “we must meet when you come to Poland. Akumal tells me you are passionate about the cinema.” He did send me a DVD of Wherever You Are promptly, although the meeting never took place as the trip was cancelled at the last moment.

Helped by friends, Akumal travelled abroad. He lectured on Indian cinema on the fateful trip to Chicago when he met Harold Shapinsky’s son and through him, the man himself. Having no training whatsoever in art but blessed with uncanny intuition, he realised that Shapinsky was every bit the equal of his much feted contemporaries

Akumal had taught English at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore till his mid-thirties. All the while his passion for the arts kept growing. When he realised that his passion for his ‘loves’ had outgrown his professional calling, he left his job. He did not think of his financial well-being for a second. Instead, he decided to respond to destiny’s call. Helped by friends, he travelled abroad. He lectured on Indian cinema on the fateful trip to Chicago when he met Harold Shapinsky’s son and through him, the man himself. Having no training whatsoever in art but blessed with uncanny intuition, he realised that Shapinsky was every bit the equal of his much feted contemporaries.

Akumal got hold of a photographer to take colour transparencies of his discovery’s work and showed it around in the art world in the US and England. The Mayer Gallery in London was impressed enough with Shapinsky’s work to give a show that proved a critical success, and, surprisingly a commercial one as well. After forty years in the wilderness, the artist’s luck had finally turned. America too sat up and took notice and Harold Shapinsky’s star was in the ascendant; his canvasses started to command very respectable prices. The BBC produced a documentary on him with a narration by writer Salman Rushdie. The New Yorker, America’s leading cultural magazine, published a long article on Akumal Ramchander.

He took the accolades in his stride. He continued to write, especially well for children, though not prolifically. Discovering new talent in the arts and promoting them became a commitment. How the money was to come for these ventures was of secondary importance to him. Often his well-heeled friends lent financial support in the years past. Things are a bit more difficult now, although incomes have risen considerably in the cyber city of Bangalore today. The trouble is that the present generation of lovers of the arts has neither the patience, nor the curiosity to seek out the genuine or tell the difference between it and the ephemeral, often packaged attractively. In these trying circumstances, Akumal Ramchander continues to fight a lone battle courageously.

(Photo: Selvaprakash L/Outlook)

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