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Artist Profile2
A tribute to Ganesh Pyne
Ganesh Pyne, who died at the age of 76 last month, created disquieting work that portrayed a sort of tragic and dark world drawn from folklore and mythology. The Bengal school of art, a major artistic movement, which was aligned with the then prevailing nationalist aspirations did create an aesthetic, which was deeply rooted in India’s own artistic traditions. Pyne, though he belonged to it, his vision was far darker and sharper. He not only moved away from nationalist and romantic themes, but also explored more profound existential questions. ‘An impressionable child’, witness to the chaos and violence of phase prior to India’s independence, his thinking was shaped by political and intellectual upheaval while in Kolkata as a young man. The early years of his life resulted in works carrying dark, unsettling images.

In an apt obituary, Shahnaz Habib in The UK Guardian outlined several influences on Ganesh Pyne's art, especially artists like Rembrandt, Paul Klee and Abanindranath Tagore. The writer recounts an oft-repeated story about Pyne’s first ‘encounter’ with death during the Kolkata riots in 1946 when he happened to come across a gory sight of a handcart of corpses. In several painting, motifs like skulls, piercing arrows, phantasms and skeletons indicated a tragic vision of the life and world around. Instead of primary colors, there were ashy blues and amber browns, marked by overlapping layers with no precise or defined blocks of color.

Starting with watercolors, he gradually shifted to gouache, and ultimately settled in the medium of tempera. He attained mastery over layering both light and dark so as to create highly intense glows, constructing enigmatic images. In his highly evolved painterly realm, the technique and the medium together built a somber mood of distortion, a realm of demonic animals and misshaped people. Summing up his progression as an artist, Habib observed, “He was not prolific, producing nine or 10 works a year. Although he participated in the 1969 Paris Biennale and other international shows, he often shied away from solos and preferred not to explain his art. As if paralleling the movement from transparent to opaque in his medium, he also became increasingly averse to publicity. Towards the end of his life, Pyne painted a series depicting the characters of the Indian epic the Mahabharata.

Born in Kolkata, into an elite family that had fallen on hard times, he grew up listening to his grandmother's folktales and credited her with ‘opening his third eye’, the storehouse of imagination. The artist didn't exactly remember when he took to painting, but often recounted the anger of his family over his decision to turn an artist. 'Winter's Morning', apparently his first painting, depicted himself and his brother both going to school. He did his graduation from the Government College of Art and Craft, Kolkata, in 1959. He worked as an animator and contributed to advertising films. While this honed his skills as a draughtsman, for someone with reclusive nature, it might not have been easy to work in the collaborative domain of film-making. In 1963, he quit his job and joined the Society of Contemporary Artists, an organization of painters, sculptors and printmakers based in Kolkata.

During this phase he executed drawings in pen and ink. The young man didn’t have enough money to buy color, but he continued to experiment largely driven by the despair and anger of the 70s that led to one of the most productive and fruitful periods' in his career, culminating in works such as 'The Assassin' and 'Before the Chariot'. He nearly shunned the outside world sometime in the 1980s. ‘A Tribute to Ganesh Pyne’ show just hosted at New Delhi-based Vadehra Art traced various features of his captivating oeuvre. A gallery note elaborated: “Ganesh Pyne grew up in a decaying mansion in Kolkata, listening to stories told by his grandmother. He spent several evenings in smoky Kolkata cafes discussing communism and Picasso with his friends. Initially, Pyne painted watercolors and sketches of misty mornings and wayside temples. Equally devoted to cinema as he was to painting, he also drew inspirations from movies made by Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. Death finds its way back into his canvas through different motifs. His paintings are rich in imagery and symbolism.”

Among the foremost exponents of Bengal Art School tradition, he blended interplay of light and dark with romanticism and fantasy in his paintings wherein the imagery was formed by labyrinths of subconscious. The bold, precise and controlled lines and the deft drawings were potent in terms of form as well as content. His personal experiences of solitude, alienation, and pain impacted his style, albeit interspersed with moods of serenity and tenderness. The motifs at times seemed to emerge from an idea randomly passing through his mind, or would resonate with verses at others. Nearly stripped of color, the images conveyed the architectonic virtue in their structuring. His childhood memories invariably revolved around the city of Kolkata, its sounds and bewildering smells that filled his being. They remained with him till the end…