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Defeating death with tempera


Ganesh Pyne (1937-2013 ), the soft-spoken, gentle-mannered painter based in Kolkata, was a paradox. The more the demand for his temperas and watercolours soared in the 1980s and 1990s, the more he shrank from the glare of publicity. The galloping prices of his works made him inversely insecure. Over a period of time, he painted a series called Performers, where the artist is shown as a clown, an entertainer, and a performing animal attempting to please patrons. 

Pyne had a modern mind with a taste for modern poetry, theatre and cinema (Bergman, Tarkovsky, Kurosawa and Fellini were his favourites). But he nurtured deep within him a mythic imagination. Crisis and violence were transposed into an episode from the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. Consider the iconic painting, The Assassin. It shows a skeletal, crouching figure with a sword in his hand and on the top right is etched the skeletal, bejewelled body of a woman. The image refers to the slaughter of women and children in the Pandava camp in the dead of night. The painting was done in 1979. The Seventies were a decade of turmoil in West Bengal. But there could also be an earlier visual memory submerged in the image. During the 1946 riots, Pyne's home in central Kolkata was at the vortex of terrible violence. The nine-year-old Pyne and his family were shifted to a relief centre in Calcutta Medical College. There, one day, he saw bodies being brought in on a handcart. Lying on top was a naked woman wearing a gold chain and nothing else.

In 1984, in the course of my very first interview with Ganesh Pyne, the artist had stated that he was obsessed with death. For a shy and somewhat reclusive person, this was a very revealing statement to make. But it is true that death has been a leitmotif in his imagery and a forever lurking presence in his thoughts. And now that death has claimed him, these images that evoke intimations of mortality will continue to haunt us.

The transience of life and the inexorable passage of time surfaced in his paintings in many ways. He had devised a unique set of symbols to express the pain that tinged the luminal reaches of his mind. One could recognise his angst in the lonely skeletal figuration, the crumbling plaster of decrepit buildings, bleached bones, rotting wood, death masks, unsheathed ancient weapons, rickety chariots and battered boats on which one can set off on a voyage to the unknown. What made him a great artist was that he counterbalanced the darkening mood of his paintings with some source of light like a lamp, a star, a flame, an unidentifiable effulgence.
The city of Kolkata gripped his imagination. Like Orhan Pamuk evocatively describing the melancholy of his beloved Istanbul, Pyne conjured up a similar feeling about Kolkata. No other artist has distilled the poignant poetry of this derelict city as beautifully as Pyne.

His skill as an artist was well-recognised even during his student years, from the mid to the late 1950s. From the early 1960s, Pyne devised his own visual vocabulary, chose to paint in tempera, marshalled his own metaphors and motifs and worked on a fresh and original figuration to express the cyclical dance of life and death.

By 1968, Pyne was a highly evolved painter. When well-known sculptor Pradosh Dasgupta and eminent artist Krishen Khanna went to select works for the first Triennale, to be held in Delhi, they chose the works of Pyne and Bikash Bhattacharjee. Given Pyne's paradoxical personality and his insecurities, the young artist was surprised at being chosen. But Khanna was quite sure that Pyne had great talent. Grieving over his death, Khanna says, "I am saddened that we have lost a major figure in Indian art whose contributions were significant. "

Khanna was not alone in identifying his promise. By 1968, the number of his loyal collectors was steadily growing. In the late 1960s, Pyne had painted a tempera called The Beast. It had been bought by the then US ambassador to India, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Moynihan then donated it to a charity auction held in London by Sotheby's in 1970. In a curious twist, the painting's title got changed to Sacred Cow whereas Pyne had visualised the animal as a deer. It was bought by the famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin. The music maestro then wrote to Pyne, "I felt it really breathed India;the living, desiccated soil, the skeleton turned eternal symbol, the jewelled necklace and crown, and the colours and shapes. I lost my heart to this painting. "

It was quite natural that Pyne was pleased with the praise but being the complex person that he was, he was more than a little unhappy about the mistake in the title and that his image was not correctly identified. One wonders whether his reservations about participating in public auctions perhaps stemmed from this incident.

M F Husain also set the cat among the pigeons by declaring in the late 1970s or early 1980s that Pyne was the best among his generation of artists. Pyne's reaction to all this praise was a flood of insecurity and a determined withdrawal into his shell.
Following his death, other important artists who were his contemporaries had comments to offer on his style. Says Arpita Singh, "I liked his technique and the way he made his own colours. I liked the way he applied it painstakingly, layer by layer. There was something very Indian about it. " Ganesh Pyne, till the end of the 1980s, arduously produced his own pigments following the instructions of Nandalal Bose as laid down in his book, Shilpacharcha. There is no doubt that he gave a new dimension to the use of tempera in the way he experimented with texture and the way he achieved subtleties of shade.

Incidentally, both Arpita Singh and Ganesh Pyne were greatly influenced by Paul Klee. Later, Pyne moved away from Klee's orbit of aesthetic values. He told this writer once during an interview that Klee's playfulness did not suit his temperament.
A Ramachandran also comments on Pyne's style. Says the artist, "Every painter paints in the context of his life and locale. Pyne's paintings reflect the controlled light of Kolkata, the shadows of narrow streets and lanes, its congested neighbourhoods. He combines it with the illumination of the central figure much like Rembrandt. " In fact, Pyne reconciles in his work the opposing aesthetic norms of Abanindranath Tagore and Rembrandt.

Among the contradictions through which he navigated his artistic journey was the one of holding a solo exhibition. Despite the demand for his work, he resisted having a solo show till the late 1990s. He would exhibit three temperas each year at the annual show of the Society of Contemporary Artists at the Birla Academy of Art and Culture. For the rest, collectors would flock to his house at Kaviraj Row in central Kolkata. In the late 1980s, Dolly Narang of the Village Gallery mounted a show of his sketches called Jottings in which he combined text and images seamlessly. These were the kernels of his visual ideas.

It was in 1998 that Rakhi Sarkar of CIMA Art Gallery in Kolkata mounted his first solo show of temperas, watercolours, drawings and sketches. Her take on Ganesh Pyne, "He was one of the most profound persons. There was nothing literal in his work, nor did he respond to immediate reality. He was an abstract thinker who filtered all that he experienced through all that went on in his inner world. His abstract ideas got metamorphosed thus into a language of figuration and representation. That is why each painting was a challenge for him, an inevitable struggle. " At last, the struggle to express his inner vision of a fleeting world teeming in the recesses of his subconscious has ceased. The fine calligraphic signature at the bottom of his paintings has bowed out of the arena. 

The writer is the author of 'Ganesh Pyne: His Life And Times' ) An exhibition of Pyne's works is on at the Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, till March 30

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