Ganesh Pyne: the brooding Modernist

There is a quiet intensity about Ganesh Pyne’s work. In his paintings, be it The Animal, The Gardener or The Puppet, there is a contemplative feeling about the figures. They seem to be either lost in a reverie or are gazing into a distance. Skeletons, animal figures and derelict buildings are recurring motifs in his paintings—the presence of the former often taking one by surprise, feeling incongruous somehow to the setting. Take Savitri, for instance. When you look at it first, the woman, dressed in bright red, with a pot on her head, arrests the gaze. And then one sees that her hand rests on a skeleton, lying on a wooden platform.

Ganesh Pyne, The Puppet, courtesy DAG

The initial effect on the viewer is one of shock. However, there is a melancholic depth to the work, which prompts you to look at the different layers to the painting. “Pyne’s paintings are metaphysical and suffused with a primaeval darkness. There’s a “lost world” quality to them that is timeless,” stated Nishad Avari, Christie’s specialist, in a 2020-article on the auction house’s website about the artist. It’s no wonder then that art critic and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote calls Pyne the poet of melancholia.

The sociopolitical events in Bengal —the communal riots, the Partition—impacted each artist of the generation, be it Somnath Hore, Jogen Chowdhury or Pyne. Each of these experiences manifested themselves in the works of these masters differently. Pyne, born in Kolkata in 1937, grew up on a hearty dose of his grandmother’s stories. However, the communal riots of 1946 changed his world completely. As his family was forced out of their dilapidated mansion, Pyne roamed the streets of Kolkata. “…he stumbled upon a pile of dead bodies. On the top was the body of a stark naked old woman, with wounds on her breast. No wonder then his paintings rarely have light backgrounds, and blue and black happen to be his favorite colors. Death also finds its way back into his canvas through different motifs. Working mostly in tempera, his paintings are rich in imagery and symbolism,” mentions an article on the Saffronart website. 

Ganesh Pyne, The Animal, Courtesy Christie’s South Asia Modern and Contemporary Art

The derelict buildings, often devoid of habitation, in his works are reminiscent of his family’s abandoned mansion. Pyne until his death was a recluse, of sorts—largely disillusioned by the rising commercialism in Indian art. However, one can find elements of his personality scattered as clues in his paintings. Take, for instance, his love for European cinema, especially for films by Fedrico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. Scenes and motifs from their movies began to seep into Pyne’s works.

Though his family wasn’t in favour of him becoming an artist, he took admission in the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Kolkata, and in 1963, he joined the Society for Contemporary Artists. At that time, he turned to drawing with ink and paper as he did not have enough money for colours. His love for cinema stems from these years too. After graduation he went to work at Mandar Studios —run by Mandar Mullick– one of the first animation studios in India, where he became a draughtsman. When Mullick brought in animator Clair Weeks from Disney Studios, Pyne learnt the art of exaggerating features to express feelings.

“This was also the period of experimentation. The anger and despair of the 70s fuelled one of the most fruitful periods in his life as an artist that culminated in works like ‘Before the Chariot’ and ‘The Assassin’. However, sometime in the 80s, he shut himself from the world,” mentions the Saffronart piece. It is when M.F. Husain named him the best painter in India that Pyne came into the national spotlight. Keenly influenced by the likes of Abanindranath Tagore, Hals Rembrandt and Walt Disney, Pyne is today known as one of the key figures of the Bengal School of Art alongside Hore, Chowdhury and Bikash Bhattacharjee. 

However, the likes of Hoskote feel that Pyne’s style can not be confined to a genre or school of art. In a 2013-obituary in Tehelka, titled ‘Poet of Melancholy’, Sanjay Bhattacharya, Pyne’s junior from the Government College of Art and Craft, Kolkata, mentioned that one shouldn’t just use the Bengal School brand for him. “His blend of skill and his intellect make him Ganesh Pyne. But his abstraction carried a universal appeal, which is why his work can stand side by side with the masters,” he said.

Ganesh Pyne, The Gardener, 2004, Image courtesy of AstaGuru

Though Pyne’s work is largely characterised by melancholia and a certain darkness, yet there is tenderness to be found in his paintings as well. An example of this is Bird from the Shadow and Woman and the Bird, in which a female figure and a bird are locked in gaze, assessing and observing one another. Even in works such as The Masks, in which the artist beckons us to look at the inner selves of people, pared down to the bare bones, there is a reflective touch to the paintings as opposed to the grotesque. As Pyne himself said in a rare interview from the late 1990s, “True darkness gives one a feeling of insecurity bordering on fear but it also has its own charms, mystery, profundity, a fairyland atmosphere.”

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