The solitary Indian painter who would immerse himself in the enigma of death is himself no more. On the morning of March 12, Ganesh Pyne (1937-2013) died of a heart attack in his beloved city of Calcutta. With his small, jewel-like works made with tempera on paper or on canvas, Pyne had carved out a niche for himself as the ‘artists’ artist’, with no less than violinist Yehudi Menuhin and painter M.F. Husain naming him as their favourite Indian painter. Extremely modest and private in person, he had led a reclusive life, shunning both publicity and the market, although in the last two decades he came to be hugely sought after and his paintings fetched top prices at both Indian and international auctions.
In many ways, Ganesh Pyne could be hailed as the last great painter of what has been celebrated as the Bengal School. Inspired equally by Abanindranath Tagore and Paul Klee, Pyne’s was an opus where dream and mystery, fantasy and fable found melancholic depiction, and death was a frequent muse. Despite his fame in rapidly globalising times, he remained rooted in the ethos of north Calcutta, the very Bengali heart of the erstwhile capital of the British Raj. He was brought up in the family home on Kabiraj Row and cherished the culture that had developed in Calcutta over the last two hundred years. Even more enduring was the impact of the stories his grandmother told him as a child at dusk each night. Demons and heroes, fabled queens and crafty shylocks, mythical animals and crumbing palaces populated his imagination throughout his life. Later, these were to emerge dramatised and frozen in gesture and spotlighted with a chiaroscuro effect that he took from Rembrandt on one hand and the masters of black-and-white cinema, like Bergman, Wajda and Fellini, on the other.
Pyne was a quiet, soft-spoken and introverted child by nature who was happiest when left alone to draw and paint. He had studied at the Government College of Art and Craft in Calcutta and later worked and earned as an illustrator of books and animation films for several years. In 1963 he joined the Society for Contemporary Artists, which included painters like Bikash Bhattacharjee, Shyamal Datta Ray, Dharmanarayan Dasgupta and Ganesh Haloi. It was only in the mid-1990s that Ganesh Pyne had his first solo exhibitions. Till then, he had only participated in group shows. Mukund Lath, the thinker and cultural theorist, was an early collector of Pyne’s works, as was Victor Banerjee the actor. Later, the American millionaire Chester Herwitz bought many of Pyne’s works, as did the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. The Village Gallery in Delhi and the Centre for Indian Modern Art (CIMA) in Calcutta held extensive exhibitions of his works, but these too were few and far between in the last two decades.
Although he had several individual friendships, Pyne was a loner at heart. A solitary figure, often lost in himself and the world of his own making, he was effectively quite removed from the world he lived in. He never socialised, he shunned exhibition openings and rarely, if ever, did he travel out of Calcutta. In all his life he had only travelled once to Kashmir and once to Puri, and that too during his college days. “I feel travel would eat into my time for work,” he gently told me once, adding, “I carry my own world within me, it runs parallel to the world outside.” Quite the opposite of his older admirer Husain, who was constantly in the limelight and travelling non-stop to the extent that he had no fixed home address.
Interestingly, the world of art has always been polarised between artists like Picasso and Husain, who thrived on flamboyant public personas, and Klee and Pyne, who sought refuge in an inner world. For one the public persona is an essential to self-expression; to the other its denial is the only way to keep sanity. One blazes a trail of spectacular performances for gaping, gasping audiences; the other moves you subliminally by his solitary song.
Ganesh Pyne obliterated his self in his works, and through them he ensured immortality.