Ganesh Pyne at the CIMA Gallery before the opening of Mahabharata, his last exhibition, held from December 3, 2010. The exhibition featured 44 works created over two years — in tempera, charcoal, crayon and pastels — based on the Mahabharat. Picture by Amit Datta See Metro
The reclusive Ganesh Pyne, one of the greats of contemporary Indian art who held a mirror to his turbulent inner life in his crepuscular paintings, died of a cardiac arrest on the way to a private hospital in Calcutta on Tuesday morning.
Pyne, 76, complained of chest pain around 11am. By the time he was wheeled into Peerless Hospital off EM Bypass, he had passed away. He is survived by wife Meera and son Indranil.
Death as the obverse side of life, and darkness and its complement light, were a constant presence in his work, which avoided any direct political commentary.
He saw himself as an artist working in the tradition of the three great Tagores — Rabindranath, Abanindranath and Gaganendranath. But who could doubt the contemporaneity of his painstakingly done temperas in which he, magician-like, conjured up such archetypal figures as the boatman of Lethe, the fanged and snarling beast, isolated and crumbling pieces of architecture bathed in baleful moonlight, the assassin, and the conjurer drawn, as it were, from our collective consciousness, and his self-portraits in which he depicted himself as a monkey, a clown and an ambivalent, Medusa-like mask in a snaky turban?
He said these were chimeras of his imagination. “If that is a shortcoming, as many say, then so be it,” said Pyne in an interview.
His self-portraits afforded a rare glimpse into what he called his “ambivalent” existence. The front of respectability checked wild emotions within. These lawless urges, which we try to bury in our unconscious, are released in the twilit world of Pyne’s paintings.
He was much sought after at international auctions. He consistently sold higher than many other Indian artists. Yet, paradoxically, his hauntingly beautiful paintings that opened charmed magic casements harked back to the stiflingly dark and cramped rooms of the century-old house in central Calcutta where he grew up.
Pyne was born in 1937 and lost his father in childhood. He joined the Government College of Art & Craft in 1955 after an uncle was impressed with his ability to draw.
From childhood, Abanindranath’s paintings had attracted him, and Pyne got to know him and other Bengal masters in art school. Here he, for the first time, encountered Rembrandt and at a later date discovered Paul Klee (at a lecture by Paritosh Sen).
Klee’s The Thinking Eye gave Pyne a fresh vision and he saw the relation between form and space in a new light. He learnt about the motion of life and its emotions. These are the three artists who cast a spell on his consciousness though this never overshadowed his identity as an artist.
Pyne’s early self-portrait rarely seen today
After he left art college and was practically jobless for a while, Pyne joined the studio of Mandar Mallik, a creative filmmaker of the 1930s. In his studio, Pyne drew innumerable cartoons whose obvious inspiration was Walt Disney. This left an indelible mark on his later work, where the grasshopper, the tiny bird, the lion and the monkey kept reappearing.
In 1968, he chose to work in the medium of tempera, which has now become synonymous with Pyne’s work. His paintings began to reflect the inner workings of his mind and he would revert to his childhood to dredge up images that lay concealed in his subconscious.
The bedtime stories his grandmother often told him, and the oleographs and the image of Chaitanyadeb that he saw in a neighbouring shrine, surfaced in his paintings. This gave his temperas an intense poetic feeling as the images of death and decay are juxtaposed with those of the enchantment and richness of life.
Flowers bloom in a ribcage. Spring like a luscious maiden entices a skeletal ascetic. A queen converses with a mythical bird: half-man, half-bird. The twilight haze crackles with sinister eroticism.
Pyne never churned out images but worked on each with the meticulousness of a skilled jeweller. His palette was quiet. Ambers, blues, greens and warm reds sing in a low key, suffusing the atmosphere with melancholy. His paintings glowed with the light of lamps and led viewers into a fantasy land of terrifying beauty.
Pyne raised the ghosts of the past that we erase from our memory. But childhood was no state of innocence. He had said in an interview: “The visual experience of my art is an extension of the colours and forms absorbed in childhood.”
Later experiences were “scanned” in this light and assimilated. Nimble-minded, he reinvented myths and made viewers “more aware of the deeper, unnamed feeling which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate”, to quote T.S. Eliot.
He was greatly affected by a Sakti Chattopadhyay recitation in the 1960s of a poem that spoke of roaring and turbulent waters, a corpse and the lawless wind. Pyne created its visual equivalent in a celebrated painting. His mind was like a melting pot: diverse myths, stories and influences took an independent shape here.
Pyne suffered great privations in those early years as an artist. He painted ceaselessly. In retrospect, he felt that hardship and toil contribute to the growth of any artistic sensibility. Where others would have given up in despair, he went back to painting every evening for consolation.
After his marriage to Meera, Pyne moved from north to south — to a flat adjacent to Vivekananda Park. Here his style changed significantly. He favoured lighter shades, but painting was still his raison d’etre. The walls of his studio became his canvas and are alive with his fascinating scribbles and doodles. Quite as fascinating as his notebooks that crawl with sketches and commentaries.
Pyne fell ill a few years ago but recouped and continued to paint with renewed vigour. He worked on the theme of the Mahabharat and his last major exhibition was based on that theme. The world of the Mahabharat, where not a single character is blameless, continued to fascinate him, and he took up the theme recently once again.