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Ganesh Pyne: Master of the Gilded Bleak House

M F Husain once hailed Ganesh Pyne as the finest Indian painter and Kabir Suman sang ‘…Ganesh Pyne, Shudhu Amaderi Janya (Ganesh Pyne he is only for us). Pyne, who died on the 12th of 2013, was one of India’s most admired artists and a quintessential Bengali. Born in 1937 in Kolkata his mind and art was shaped by his early life in this city. Part of Pyne’s uniqueness comes from holding on to local traditions at a time when other artists were turning away from the Bengal School and its nationalist moorings and seeking affiliations with a more internationalist modernism. He was the only significant artist of his generation who side stepped the progressive movement of the forties and reconnected with the Bengal School, managed to benefit from that contact, and forge a personal modernist idiom rather than slip into non-productive traditionalism.

In his sensibility and in his techniques Ganesh Pyne owed much to the memories of a past culture and to his knowledge of earlier traditions. The first significant influence on his art was Abanindranath’s. It began even before he was enrolled at the Government College of Art and Crafts, Calcutta, with an exhibition of the master’s works he saw in 1952 and continued through his student years and beyond. He described Abanindranath’s paintings, with its half-revealing half-concealing delicate washes of colour, as ‘softly intoned soliloquies.’ And this is a phrase that could also describe his paintings. In the art college, the love of mystery that drew him to Abanindranath also drew him to Rembrandt. But his cycle of influences and apprenticeship was completed only with his discovery of Paul Klee in whom he saw a confluence of the lyrical and the surreal.

Pyne’s interest in Abanindranath and Klee went beyond technique and was intertwined with his own sensibility and aesthetic concerns. Standing at the end of the Symbolist tradition, he was, like Abanindranath, an imagist. ‘Images are the bedrock of my art’, he once said and confessed to being influenced by Mallarme, the arch Symbolist, and Sakti Chattopadhyay whom he described as, ‘a magician of imagery.’ It was also as a modernist inheritor of the Symbolist legacy that Paul Klee appealed to him. He drew lessons from Klee’s engagement with the subliminal world of memory traces and disconnected images. And like Klee, at his best he stood at the door leading from Symbolism to Surrealism.

His aesthetic inclinations were also fed by his love for contemporary Bengali poetry, theatre and cinema. Although a reclusive introvert and a man of few words even amongst friends, he could be seen at poetry recitals, at the Academy of Fine Arts where the best of Bengali theatre was performed and at the Calcutta Film Society shows. He was an admirer of Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa and Tarkovsky and their use of personal symbolisms. And some of their films he watched several times over. In the sixties he also did paintings inspired both theatre and cinema.

From the outset, for his subject matter Ganesh Pyne dipped into the inner world enriched by myths and stories he had heard from his grandmother. Done in transparent watercolours or in the wash technique his early works were delicate in treatment and miniature in scale. In the early sixties, he gave up colour and began to work with ink, and produced over 400 drawings between 1962 and ’65. The graphic skills he honed during these years have remained the structural substratum of all his later work. He found his personal style and vision in the mid sixties when he began to combine symbolic images teased out from the inner world with a technique of tempera painting he had improvised using information he had gleaned from the writings of Nandalal. But to conclude from this that Pyne’s art was not touched by contemporary reality would be wrong. The inner reality, he claimed, ‘runs parallel to the world of reality in which I live.’ In other words in fairy tales, myths and fantasy he discovered symbols for his experience.

His artistic choices, different as they were from that of his contemporaries, was prompted by the same experiences that prompted others to openly engage with contemporary social realities and adopt a more noticeably modernist idiom. He was witness to the communal riots, the partition, the exodus and misery that followed, and violence in the name of the dispossessed that gripped Bengal between the mid-forties and the early seventies. Added to these were several personal loses. He did not paint any of these directly but gave expression to the pain, sense of lose, and angst they brought him. In the seventies his subject matter became more personal; myths and stories gave way to symbolic images consisting of skeletal animals, fossilized insects, and death encrusted figures that looked enigmatic and removed from everyday life.

His painterly imagination was nurtured by a strange mixture of gloomy darkness and luminous fantasy. He worked on his drawings and paintings with an obsessive patience. He went over the motifs with pen or colour and gave his drawings and paintings surfaces that recalled the decaying frames and crumbling walls of the old mansions of Kolkata and yet shimmered with jewel like preciousness. Life and death, darkness and light intertwined in his works. Speaking of his enduring engagement with death he once recalled in an interview that as a child of nine he had encountered on the riot torn streets of Kolkata in 1946 a pile of dead bodies being wheeled to the morgue; on the top of it was a the body of an old woman naked, mutilated, blood oozing from her wounds and ashen in colour with a glittering necklace around her neck. This bleakness and this shimmer of gold marked his finest paintings.

His painterly imagination was historically grounded as it was enchanting. His paintings gained in metaphorical dimension when the images sprang out of a subtle transformation of visual reality. But they also became a little literary or arcane when his symbols became either too conventional or too personal. His appropriation of the folk arts too occasionally had a similar effect. At its best it added an earthy vitality to his images, he also used the schematic forms of folk art to suggest a dehumanising puppetry but his images slipped into a soothing fantasy when it was used to idealize the human form. This led to the co-existence of idealized grace along with unsettling vision in his later works. But without doubt Ganesh Pyne was one of the most singular and engaging artists who worked on the Indian art scene between the late sixties to the eighties. With his death a sensibility that belonged specifically to our recent past and to Bengal has come to an end and it is a sensibility that cannot be resurrected again without artifice.

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