When a sage or a great artist dies, all are his kin and all are in mourning. The death of Ganesh Pyne on Tuesday morning was one such moment when time stood still to mourn and pay homage to one of India’s greatest painters. Pyne’s life reveals the strength of commitment, discipline and genius. In his early life, he struggled against deprivation but refused to surrender his artistic quest. This quest was his own, nurtured by the stories he had heard as a child from his grandmother, by his immersion in aspects of Western and Indian art and by the world as he saw it from his house in a lane in central Calcutta. Pyne was fond of saying that there was a universe inside his head; that universe was reflected in his paintings. It was a dark world — the predominant colours of his palette were black, brown and dark red. These were the colours of night, earth and blood, as it were. He had the rare gift of representing pain in his paintings. His paintings were never large. They were profound, often bringing to mind the influence of Mughal miniatures. But the three major influences on his paintings were Abanindranath Tagore, Rembrandt and Paul Klee. The play of light and dark in Rembrandt’s work and the importance that Klee bestowed on line and colour inspired Pyne. He, however, transcended these influences. The world of his paintings, and the craft and technique he brought to them, were his own. He refashioned the tradition he imbibed. It is difficult to think of another painter like him: he was his own comparison.
Solitude was the key to Pyne’s paintings and personality. He was an introvert and reflective, so was his art. He was not, however, a recluse. He loved the theatre, films, modern Bengali poetry and Hindusthani classical music. He internalized these experiences, and in some ineffable way, these came out when he painted. Bengal, India and the world were slow to recognize Pyne’s genius. In fact, it was M.F. Husain who, in the 1970s, marked Pyne out as India’s leading painter. Success did not change Pyne in the least. He retained his dignified solitude and painted as he wanted to in his own inimitable manner. Death, often the subtext of his dark and introspective world, came to him sudden and untimely. But even the finality of death cannot diminish the haunting and brooding power of Pyne’s oeuvre — which brought a touch of greatness and the sublime to all who stood before any of his paintings.