When the artist Ganesh Pyne (1937-2013) died in Kolkata on March 12, the newspapers and television channels were full of praise for his prodigious painterly gifts. The exercise was well-intentioned, but clichéd. It mainly revealed the obvious about the artist.

Opinions were trotted out about the influence of Abanindranath Tagore and his uncle Gaganendranath and, of course, Rembrandt and Paul Klee. Rembrandt was mentioned because like the 17th century Dutch master of realism, Pyne too preferred the play of light and shade or chiaroscuro. But like the 20th century Swiss-German master Paul Klee, his imagery was playful, even mysterious. Pyne’s imagery was informed by Indian mythology, the Puranas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. His grandmother had read these stories to him and his siblings in their childhood.

What this cross-section of information failed to reveal was the elusive, poetic quality of his work. Only Jogen Choudhury, a somewhat younger colleague, was able to throw some light on Pyne’s work and personality in his moving tribute in the Bengali daily Ananda Bazar Patrika of March 13. Choudhury had known him as a senior at the Government College of Art who was admitted straight away into the second year because his work was so good. The year was 1955.

Another tribute appeared in Ananda Bazar Patrika, immediately below Choudhury’s. The only really revealing thing about it was a pen and ink self-portrait by Pyne when only 23. The fluidity of line, in retrospect, reveals his quiet, romantic personality. The quasi-geometric treatment of the nose shows that he knew what was good in Picasso’s drawing; the faraway look in his eyes, spectacles notwithstanding, suggests the traversing of other fantasy worlds, possibly inspired by Bengali folklore. Was it before he met Meera, the woman who came back to marry him in 1991 and become his sheet-anchor?

The only really revealing thing about it was a pen and ink self-portrait by Pyne when only 23. The fluidity of line, in retrospect, reveals his quiet, romantic personality. The quasi-geometric treatment of the nose shows that he knew what was good in Picasso’s drawing; the faraway look in his eyes, spectacles notwithstanding, suggests the traversing of other fantasy worlds, possibly inspired by Bengali folklore.

This is what he said during a conversation at his Jatin Bagchi Road flat, near Dhakuria Lake in south Calcutta, with this writer and Dolly Narang, owner of The Village Art Gallery, New Delhi, of his more than a quarter century wait for Meera, who had married elsewhere: “I did not become a Devdas, instead I immersed myself in my work.’’ It was clear that Meera Pyne was in charge of all that was needed to be done in day-to-day matters so that he could do what he was meant to do—paint. Without her it would have been a long haul.

We had gone there to discuss a film project on him which, sadly, did not materialise.
Pyne epitomised all that was best in the north Calcuttan’s spirit (they have longer memories as south Calcutta is a post-1940 phenomenon). He knew the history of art, particularly western art, thoroughly but was a Bengali in dress, though not in gregarious conversation. He dressed for a long time in a white dhoti and gerua kurta, both colours of renunciation. Gerua is the orange-red shade worn by monks.

All that changed, according to Jogen Choudhury, after his marriage to Meera. He took to wearing pyjamas and colourful kurtas, moved to south Calcutta and practically stopped going to Basanta Cabin on College Street to meet his old friends. He was by then a man of few words; was not earlier, though. Choudhury suggests that after Meera’s return Pyne’s world changed. Of course it did, for the better; at least to this writer he appeared a contented man. He could address himself exclusively to his pictorial problems.

Pyne’s affinity with Paul Klee is understandable. Klee never did large works; the largest he ever did was five feet long; He did not seek monumentality like Pablo Picasso when he painted the 40-foot “Guernica” in memory of citizens who perished in the town of that name during the Spanish civil war (1936-39).

Instead he sought monumentality of ideas through small, exquisitely painted works that created a parallel imaginary world. Pyne’s works are quite small, evocative and of the imagination. His favourite medium was the water-soluble tempera, ideally suited to his adventures in the play of light and in the creation of a dream-world, both dark and hopeful, though not at the same time.

He was always a bit of an outsider, especially in later years, even in Kolkata. He minded his own business and worked. There were those, particularly with strong left-wing sympathies in the 1960s, when the Naxalite movement first came up, who thought he was out of touch with reality.

In the course of a conversation, he told this writer, “They (acquaintances) took me to a place in Dharamatolla street (in central Kolkata] to see the works that artists with Naxal sympathies were doing. Their drawing was strong, composition dynamic, colour bold. Their pictures dealt with the miseries of life very powerfully. Impressed as I was, it was not the path I could possibly take: Mine was more solitary though no less real.”

He was always a bit of an outsider, especially in later years, even in Kolkata. He minded his own business and worked. There were those, particularly with strong left-wing sympathies in the 1960s, when the Naxalite movement first came up, who thought he was out of touch with reality.

Ganesh Pyne never ran from reality. He took life as it came; unambitious in himself, but ambitious in his work. When he started off, he worked as an illustrator, eking out a living so that he could paint. He lost his father when rather young, but the extended family saw to it that he went to the Government College of Art (and Craft) in the city since he had revealed such a fine talent for drawing and painting. He did not let them down.

He won a top prize for his painting of the Rani of Jhansi (Jogen Choudhury). The queen, who fought the British in mid-19th century India, is lying under a tree resting, with her horse standing behind her. The painting was appreciated for its play of light and shade.

He always had a playful streak. There is a pen and ink drawing from 1957 when he was a student, of a tall, thin man, dhoti-kurta clad, lighting a cigarette from a burning coir rope hanging outside a paan kiosk. The handling of the figure through flowing, witty lines in black and white brings out the humour in the situation.

He was already a draughtsman capable of subtlety. This drawing gives pleasure and brings a smile.

His paintings and drawings always had a certain mood, tending perhaps towards melancholy but not despair. His ouevre taken over a period of 60 years or more including his fine, and in certain instances, moving work from boyhood, always have a romantic and sad feel, to use that overworked word.

He was aware that humanity did not live in the best of possible worlds but that one had to make the most of what was on offer. He was, to be sure, both aware and admiring of the works of the medieval Western master Hieronymous Bosch; but unlike him, Pyne’s treatment of the bizarre did not have religious connotations of hellfire or of mortal sin.

He was taken aback when the veteran Baroda artist K K Hebbar came to Kolkata to collect a painting for a group show and asked for the painting of Jesus Christ. Then Hebbar elaborated he wanted “The Fisherman”, which had nail holes in the knuckles of both hands of the subject. He called it Christ the fisherman, much to Pyne’s surprise. It is a magisterial work in tempera on canvas, with shades of blue and grey to suggest a nocturnal world.

Whether he worked on paper or canvas, his choice of tempera over say, oil, is telling. He took to tempera while still an art student and over 50 years acquired an unrivalled virtuosity in it. His works, usually finished matte, nevertheless reflected light with a beguiling sensitivity; and therein lay his mastery. He was respectful of other artists’ discoveries of various techniques and expected others to do the same.

His wife Meera told this writer and Dolly Narang during the 1994 that a certain persistent art historian was pestering him to reveal his painterly techniques. Agitated, Pyne turned to A S, his friend and an avid art collector for advice. A. S. told him to reveal the inessentials, that too for reasons of diplomacy!

Despite his middle-class origins, Pyne knew economic hardship, the pain of loneliness and the existential dilemma associated with artistic creation. He did not think “technique” was a trick that would enable the recipient to fathom the secrets of a work of art. After all, in the best of circumstances, art is a difficult business.

Economically, it was touch and go till the early Eighties. Discerning collectors like Professor Mukund Lath and Prakash Kejriwal, who taught engineering at Jadavpur University in Calcutta, were among the first to recognise the enduring merit of his work. They collected his paintings avidly and encouraged their friends to do so; they bought his work cheap. Kejriwal then started the Chitrakoot Art Gallery and sold Pyne’s pictures for high prices. It was a point that rankled with the artist, though he always acknowledged that Lath and Kejriwal had done a lot to promote his work in the early years.

Living in modest circumstances at Kaviraj Row in north Kolkata, struggling to make ends meet despite the unstinted support of his leder brother Kartik over the years, of his elder brother Kartik, Pyne knew what it was like to live on the edge. The struggle for daily existence was particularly tough on the streets of old Calcutta.

Unable to find a job, he had got himself hired as an animator for virtually nothing by one Mandar Mullick, a maker of cartoon films from Cornwallis Street, a poor rundown locality. This Mullick, a slightly batty idealist, had gone to Germany in the 1930s and come back with an Oerlikon 35mm motion picture camera that enabled single-frame shooting; with it he made some animation films for children.

Over 20 years later he found Pyne, who could draw beautifully and humorously. Of all his efforts at cartoon films, Pyne remembered one about a naughty black cat. It made all the kids who saw it laugh quite a lot.

Mullick, though much older than Pyne, earned his admiration for his dogged idealism. He believed, like the great Lotte Reineger, that all you needed to make elegant, entertaining and touching animation films was a camera with a good lens and single-frame shooting facilities, a sturdy stand, and plenty of imagination.

He knew how to communicate with children, his target audience, but he rarely had the bare minimum required to do a cartoon film. Mullick and his wife died in abject poverty, like the French magician turned filmmaker of the silent era, George Melies, one of the first poets of the medium.

Perhaps because of his early association with Mullick, Pyne retained an abiding love for the cinema. He admired Fellini; one can sense his affinity with the Italian master director’s vision of the comic and the absurd in life. He perhaps shared the Swede Ingmar Bergman’s pessimistic vision and the Russian Andre Tarkovsky’s sense of mystery as well.

Pyne did a series of drawings in mixed media in 1990 called “Metiabruzer Nawab”. It was about Wajid Ali Khan, Nawab of Awadh, exiled to Calcutta along with his entourage by the British, after the failed War of Independence in 1857.
They are narrative in character and drawn with feeling, droll humour and energy. They could easily serve as the basis for a moving animation film on the subject. Pyne may subconsciously have felt the pull of cinema and of his association with Mullick when he did these works.

In his old age, Pyne was dismayed at the rank commercialisation of art in India. Utterly mediocre works sold for unbelievably high prices because the art market had been tampered with by the dealers. The true merit of a piece of art ceased to count; it was the merciless, aggressive promotion that guaranteed high prices.

After seeing a private projection of this writer’s film on the artist Bhabesh Chandra Sanyal at Rabindra Nandan, Calcutta, in 1994, he had said, “You have made such a clean, transparent film on Bhabeshda, I wonder what will be your approach to a film on me?”

“Not as direct or simple to be sure. It will take a lot of work to maintain clarity in a film on someone as complex as you,” I had told him. He laughed.

The film, regrettably, never got made in spite of his enthusiastic co-operation. One could not raise the `20 lakh required to make it in 35mm and Eastman Color. He approved of the film treatment in general but was critical about the inclusion of a particular collector. In retrospect, he was right.

The better aspects of the proposed film would have been visuals of water, with perhaps no sound, and then, sounds of lapping water, distant temple bells and kirtan singing in lowish volume, over certain paintings. If memory serves, there were to be shots of Pyne’s doppleganger at various points in the film, at times preceding or succeeding shots of the artist himself.

The paintings were to be filmed for maximum colour fidelity. A conversation with the artist about this that and the other, including art, his own, and that of the others in art history, East and West, was to feature as a counterpoint on the soundtrack.

Pyne was an avid reader. Apart from Bengali folklore, he enjoyed the Puranas, Ramayana and Mahabharata, Rabindranath Tagore, Jibanananda Das, and his own contemporaries like the mercurial poet Shakti Chattopadhyay.

In the mid-Nineties he did a series of drawings accompanied by text called “Jottings”. There were quotations from T. S. Eliot, Blaise Cendrars, Carl Gustav Jung, Joseph Campbell. Reading sustained him as a person. His explorations in art were his own, lonely and arduous.

The “Jottings”, done on graph paper with pen and black ink, sometimes tinged with a sepia wash, reveal, and on occasion not, a lot about his aesthetic concerns. Like any artist worth his salt, he was aware of the magic of art and was zealous in guarding the wellsprings of his inspiration.

He was, however, willing to share his discoveries with the viewer without revealing how he had processed these materials in the innermost recesses of his mind or the impact it had on his soul. It was perhaps not possible to describe how he created his art. The “Jottings” also reveal his ability to draw powerfully and with feeling in the small, cramped space he had allotted himself on the graph paper teeming with quotes in his clean,elegant writing.
There was never a time when his paintings did not reveal a dream-like quality. There has been no one like him in Indian art before, or since, who has managed to combine eloquence and mystery in equal measure. Where did this approach come from?

As a student he was exposed to the works of Odilon Redon and Paul Klee through reproductions in art books. He may have internalised these influences and brought his teeming imagination into play. Later on, of course, when he became famous and went abroad he must have had his fill of the two masters, particularly Klee, in museums.

In his old age, he was dismayed at the rank commercialisation of art in India. Utterly mediocre works sold for unbelievably high prices because the art market had been tampered with by the dealers. The true merit of a piece of art ceased to count; it was the merciless, aggressive promotion that guaranteed high prices. As an artist Pyne always did his best, though like any true artist, he had his ups and downs. His creations sold at consistently high prices, certainly in the last 20 years of his life.

He had earned his money and the accolades. Not for nothing did India’s premier artist M F Husain call Ganesh Pyne the finest painter in India. It is difficult for an artist to remain himself after becoming famous. Pyne and Husain managed the impossible in their own ways: Pyne remained a quiet, self-effacing man, and Husain retained his flamboyant personality and generous heart till his last breath.

One does not know how he reacted to Buddhadev Dasgupta’s documentary on him. The film was hardly seen or talked about, which is unsurprising, as documentaries get shown in India during film festivals or at odd hours over Doordarshan, the state-sponsored TV network.

Ganesh Pyne is a terrific subject for a documentary film, not the least because his work lacks intellectual pretension and has abiding beauty. Without ever claiming to be narrative, his work, mainly through indirection and playfully conjured images creates a fantasy world that is inspired equally by the goings on in this world as it is by its poetic transformation between the hours of sleeping and waking.

It is indeed rare for a boy of a barely middle-class background where the cares of everyday life are overwhelming, to have such a fertile imagination; rarer still is the transformation of such a gift into works of art that are most likely to stand the test of time.

It would not be an exaggeration to say Kolkata, more accurately north Kolkata, made Pyne the artist he became. He had once observed that Kolkata was the most generous of cities, she gave without demanding anything in return. The crumbling facades of old buildings, poor, starved but lively people, many still capable of retaining a rich inner life, made an important contribution in his becoming an artist. The city has a resilience like the humans and animals in his paintings and drawings.

His images, particularly in colour, suggest a link with objects unearthed during archaeological excations, which resonate with the memory of lost time. Traditionally, time is perceived to be static in the plastic arts; it becomes dynamic, as if by magic, in many of Ganesh Pyne’s creations.