Ganesh Pyne (1937-2013) was once described by the journalist and film-maker Pritish Nandy as a man who ‘radiated a mysterious quality’. He was an intensely private artist who rarely gave interviews, which meant clues to his personality were often sought for in his paintings charged with the supernatural. ‘He raises the ghosts of the past,’ said the actor Barun Chandra in the documentary The Painter of Eloquent Silence.
In fact, Pyne was very good company, simply dedicated to his art and prepared to make sacrifices for it. For many years he lived the life of an ascetic in the ancestral family home in North Kolkata, and it was not until the late 1970s, when the celebrated artist Maqbool Fida Husain (1915-2011) named him the best painter in India, that he came to nationwide recognition for his dark surrealism.
On 18 March, paintings by the celebrated artist are offered for sale in New York in the single-owner auction, A Lasting Engagement: The Collection of Jane and Kito de Boer. The works span Pyne’s career from the 1950s to the 1990s.
Pyne was ‘obsessed with the dark world’
Pyne was born in Kolkata in 1937 during the tumultuous years preceding Indian independence and partition. Aged nine, he was profoundly affected by the widespread killings in the city during the Direct Action Day riots of 1946.
At one point the family were forced to seek shelter in a hospital where Pyne witnessed cartloads of bodies being brought into the mortuary. ‘I was shaken by the sight,’ he recalled. ‘Since then, I have been obsessed with the dark world.’
According to Nishad Avari, Specialist in South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art at Christie’s, Pyne’s grandmother was his formative influence.
‘He grew up sitting on the balcony of the family home listening to her stories, which were based on Bengali folk tales,’ says Avari. ‘His paintings are a combination of that beguiling mysticism and his visceral response to the violence he witnessed as a child.’
In an interview in the late 1990s, Pyne said, ‘True darkness gives one a feeling of insecurity bordering on fear but it also has its own charms, mystery, profundity, a fairyland atmosphere.’
He was inspired by nationalist art
As a teenager Pyne discovered the paintings of the Bengal School, established in the late 19th century by Sunayani Devi (1875-1962) and Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951). This nationalist modern art movement promoted a romantic, symbolist style based on Indian mythology using ink wash and tempera.
‘You can see their influence in his early paintings of the 1950s,’ says Avari, ‘but very quickly Pyne starts to move on. The works become more existential in theme, reflecting the post-colonial crisis of identity India was experiencing at the time.’
Pyne’s paintings are metaphysical and suffused with a primeval darkness. ‘There’s a “lost world” quality to them that is timeless,’ Avari states.
He was a skilled draughtsman and animator
After graduating from The Government College of Art and Craft in 1959, Pyne went to work at Mandar Studios, the first animation studios in India, where he became a meticulous draughtsman. The studio was run by the renegade film director Mandar Mullick, who had visited Germany before the Second World War and come into contact with Fritz Lang and Leni Riefenstahl.
Mullick was keen to establish a vibrant cartoon industry in Kolkata similar to that of the Walt Disney Studios in California. He brought the veteran Disney animator Clair Weeks (1911-1996) over from Los Angeles to train his artists.
Weeks taught Pyne how to distort and exaggerate features to convey different emotions. The artist continued to use this stylistic technique throughout his career to instil a sense of the uncanny in his paintings.
Mullick introduced Pyne to European avant-garde cinema, and gradually scenes from these films began to appear in the artist’s paintings. One recurring motif in his work is a fountain, taken from Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, while phantom-like figures recall Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.
His unique style was based on painstaking process
In the 1960s, Pyne developed his unique painting style. By applying multiple layers of translucent colour onto the canvas and then burnishing it, he created areas of penetrating light and shadow. ‘It is almost as if the paintings glow from within,’ says Avari.
This labour-intensive process took time, resulting in Pyne producing around 10 paintings a year. ‘The largest paintings are only about 2ft x 2ft because they are so intricate and time-consuming,’ explains the specialist.
He waited 30 years to marry his college girlfriend
At the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Pyne met and fell in love with fellow student Meera Dutta, who belonged to one of the richest families in Kolkata. The impoverished Pyne had little chance of marrying her, and remained a bachelor until the late 1980s when the couple were reunited.
‘There is a dramatic change in mood during this period,’ points out Avari. ‘The darkness is not so overwhelming anymore.’ The couple married in 1990 when Pyne was 53.
Recognition came late in his career
Due to his reclusive nature, Pyne rarely left Kolkata, which in turn meant it took time for the artist’s works to gain recognition internationally. In the early 1980s, thanks to the support of other artists, he had a show at The Village Gallery in Delhi, and was eventually awarded a retrospective at the Centre of International Modern Art in Kolkata in 1998.
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Avari explains that Pyne’s paintings endure because they are unlike those of any other modernist working in India: ‘They verge on the surreal. He paints these eerie twilight zones, somewhere between reality and fiction. You never know what is going to happen next.’
In 2011 Pyne was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Indian Chamber of Commerce. Since then, the market for the artist’s work has risen dramatically, and when Pyne died in 2013 he was described as one of India’s most influential modernists.