Ganesh Pyne: A Dreamer of Darkness

Guest Author: Debmalya Bandyopadhyay

One of the first artworks I have an active memory of viewing was Ganesh Pyne’s. I was about 10, browsing through an art magazine tucked away in a corner of our house. The ensuing article had used big words such as “surrealism” and “chiaroscuro” to speak of the artwork, and of course, I understood none of it back then. However, there was something hypnotic about the picture itself that beckoned to me from inside the page, and I could not look away. For a long time, I stared at the face depicted in the picture, trying to imagine a narrative that it might be carrying, the things it had seen, what the strange dark colors in the background knew about it. It was a process I was going to repeat many more times, with stunning art that has found me again and again. It was the inception of a love that illuminates the heart in stranger mindscapes of an artist, which Ganesh Pyne had enough of. 

If one travels backward in time, the roots of Pyne’s obsession with darkness can be traced to the Direct-Action Day of 1946 in Bengal, a time wounded with riot-violence that Pyne had witnessed as a mere child of nine. As he was forced to hide in Calcutta Medical College along with his family to save their lives, Pyne had seen cartloads of corpses being brought into the mortuary, a sight that traumatized him as a child, and something that stayed with him all his life. Death has since then often found its way into Pyne’s palette, his darkness a cave where he dwelled alone.

The other notable influence on his art was the folklore Pyne heard from his grandmother. The fairy tales, the mythology that he soaked in the form of stories, had helped him create his own world of characters inside his head. This world would later narrate stories of their own, characters leaping across their own shadows, death an omnipresent ghost. 

Pyne’s artistic influences were varied. They ranged from Abanindranath Tagore to Rembrandt to Paul Klee to the Disney animator Claire Weeks, encompassing a variety of styles that he imbibed into himself to create something that was essentially his own.  Pyne is also well known to have been influenced by parallel artforms- several of his paintings have been influenced by the literature, cinema, and theatre that he enjoyed. He cites Rabindranath Tagore’s Raktokorobi, a stage production of Aurangzeb, and the films of European maestros such as Fellini and Bergman to have inspired him. In one of his artworks, a girl holds a strange flower that seems to whisper its sins to her, and it reminds me immediately of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs Du Mal. Pyne takes in influences and ideas from the world and has them contribute as added dimensions to his art.

Woman Smelling a Flower (Courtesy: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art)

As most artists, Ganesh Pyne was deeply affected by the rage of the ‘70s. The anger and violence that pervaded Kolkata in the tumult of the Naxal movement haunted him as well. It brought in one of the most active artistic periods of Pyne’s life, a time when he painted some of his masterpieces such as Before the Chariot or The Assassin. It was in this decade that the great Indian artist Maqbool Fida Husain was asked to rank the best painters in India, and he designated the top rank to Pyne. Sometime later, in the ‘80s Pyne would turn into a recluse, saddened by the intense competition and jealousy of his artist friends. He disapproved of the commercialization of art, the limelight and deliberately kept away from recognition and fame. 

There is an eloquence in Pyne’s dark dreams on canvas, which haunts me intensely. His paintings are distanced from a reality we inhabit, and etched at a distance, almost hiding in their own shadows. Something that fascinates me about his paintings is his command over dark colors – especially black and blue. As Goethe writes, “We love to contemplate blue, not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it.” The same can be said about Pyne’s usage of the color, it had drawn me in from the very first time I had experienced it. Another striking feature that mesmerizes me, is the figures that pop up in his work. The presence of humanized animals, the ribcage like a chest of drawers, the horseback rider with hypnotized eyes, Savitri sitting by a corpse – they narrate a world that Pyne constructs with utmost care. In some of his art, Pyne even paints himself, his face as if immersed in water, peering at the characters in the vessel of his mind. This is how he introspects; he dreams a dream with his hands that invokes his audience to look inwards. Pyne offers a poetic darkness that is equally disturbing as it is comforting. Perhaps in this way, he deconstructs the elements of fear and enigma and presents them to us, on his own dark plate.

Savitri (Courtesy: Christie’s)

Pyne shifts his expression from watercolour initially, to gouache, and then to tempera.  Each of these periods differ in content, and one can follow his transition as an artist via studying these shifts. The art critic and poet Ranjit Hoskote describes Pyne as a “Poet of melancholia” and Pritish Nandy speaks of his art to have stemmed from the “dark innards of his imagination”. Even though Pyne did not receive the recognition that he deserved for most of his life, he did win love’s ultimate gift following a long wait – the hand of his college sweetheart in marriage. In the ‘90s, when he was well into his fifties, Pyne married Meera Dutta, who he had first met and fallen in love with at the Government College of Arts and Crafts about 30 years back. This eventual reconciliation shined a torch into his darkness- as Nishad Avari says about this period – “the darkness is not so overwhelming anymore”. The contemporary artist Jogen Chowdhury recounts  how following his marriage, Pyne “enjoyed a comfortable life full of adda and gaaner  ashor (musical evenings) in Santiniketan and also started wearing more colourful kurtas.”

Death finds its place on Pyne’s canvas repeatedly. Often in the form of skeletons and skulls, death whispers its forebodings into human ears through his art. Skilled in these morbid conversations, Pyne was someone adept in the language of darkness. He bade his farewell to the tangible world in 2013, when a cardiac arrest got him a rendezvous with his lifelong companion – death. Thus ended the career of one of the finest flagbearers of the Bengal School of Art – an artist, a surreal poet who dreamed of the dark.

References:

  • Christie’s Artist Guide: Link
  • Artist Profile – Ganesh Pyne: Link
  • Ganesh Pyne: The Painter Who Blended Fantasy with Play of Light and Dark: Link
  • A Glimpse Inside Artist Ganesh Pyne’s Mind: Link
  • A Painter of Eloquent Silence (1998) dir. Buddhadeb Dasgupta

Debmalya Bandyopadhyay is a student of mathematics, poetry, and everything life offers in between. He is most likely to be found adrift in books, cinema, and music.
He often harbours the ships in his heart on his Instagram.

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