DISCOVERING GANESH PYNE AND MODERN INDIAN ART
Over the years, Jane and Kito de Boer have put together one of the most comprehensive holding of works by Ganesh Pyne as part of their collection of modern Indian art. Spanning half a century from the 1950s to the late 1990s, and including several of the artist’s finest and most important works on paper and canvas, this group not only represents one of the focal points of the de Boer collection, but also its very beginnings.
It was one of Pyne’s paintings that ‘cast a spell’ on the couple, introducing them to modern Indian art and kicking off their journey as collectors. Going back to the moment this happened at Kumar Gallery in Delhi, Jane and Kito recalled, “We were at the opening of an exhibition at a point when we were just finding our feet in the city. We knew nothing of India’s art: we had never heard of Husain or Souza. Paintings were purely images shorn of any contextual meaning. We had no intention of buying, let alone starting a collection. We were socializing, chatting with a stranger, when it happened. Across the room hung Ganesh Pyne’s Lady before the Pillar. It was a magical moment: the work cast a spell on us. It was too expensive and too strange to simply buy on the spot. We went home and talked about it. We went back to the gallery to find out more. We went back again to see if the spell continued. We went back again to negotiate. We went back to bring her home. She is still with us. She has hung on our wall ever since. The spell she casts is as strong as ever.” (R. Dean and G. Tillotson, eds., ‘An Interview’, Modern Indian Painting: Jane & Kito de Boer Collection, Ahmedabad, 2019, p. 13)
Since that moment in Delhi when the de Boers' connection with Pyne’s work was forged, they found themselves travelling across the country to see more of his drawings and paintings and to meet his collectors and gallerists in their quest to learn more about the reclusive artist. Jane remembered visiting Kolkata for an exhibition of Pyne’s work. “A key event was attending a great Pyne retrospective at CIMA (Centre of International Modern Art) Gallery, which included many of the most important works of his career [...] The work we saw in this exhibition confirmed again our love of Pyne’s early work. Image after image moved us – such sadness, dignity, stillness and introspection.” Kito continued, “The closest analogy is Mozart’s Requiem – magnificent heartache in the face of the spectre of death and, as a result, life affirming. The exhibition fueled our compulsive quest to build a Pyne collection.” (R. Dean and G. Tillotson, eds., Ibid., 2019, p. 278)
Although the couple met Pyne on several occasions, their relationship with him was primarily shaped and modulated by his works and by what they learned about him through his friends, collectors and dealers. This in turn led the de Boers to meet and develop lasting relationships with gallerists like Virendra Kumar and Prakash Kejriwal and collectors including Neerja and Mukund Lath in Jaipur and Rakhi and Aveek Sarkar in Kolkata, who opened their eyes to the work of many other artists. Jane reminisces, “Our journey to understand Pyne better unlocked a world of friendship. We discovered a group of generous collectors, who invited us into their homes to show us their collections and share their understanding of Pyne’s works.” (R. Dean and G. Tillotson, eds., Ibid., 2019, p. 281)
One of the earliest works by Ganesh Pyne in the de Boer collection is a watercolor from 1954 titled Light Light (The Golden Bird). Pyne’s works from the 1950s draw inspiration from those of Bengal School artists he encountered in children’s magazines, and later at the Indian Museum in Calcutta, as well as from early Bengali literature and the stories his grandmother told him as a child. In this painting, Pyne portrays the interiors of a factory where the gears and machinery appear to have anthropomorphized into a menacing predator ready to snap its jaw shut. Its large glinting teeth are trained on a small canary, desperately trying to escape its cage and fly towards the single beam of sunlight entering from a skylight. Even as the cage violently swings and golden feathers fly, the bird’s fate seems inevitable at the hands of this “mechanized horror”, perhaps symbolic of the industrialization sweeping through a newly-independent India.
Speaking about this early work in 2012, a year before he died, Pyne recalled, “the painting is based on a story by Abanindranath [Tagore], about a golden bird that died, trapped in an industrial world [...] The theme in The Golden Bird work is an early version of the monkey, which appears many times in my work [...] I have often felt relegated to the status of a mere performer. This is the meaning attached to the caged bird and the [tethered] circus monkey. I feel saddened by the poor status of the artist in our society. He does not really have a powerful voice that is heard.” (R. Dean and G. Tillotson, eds., ‘Ganesh Pyne in Conversation with Sona Datta’, Modern Indian Painting: Jane & Kito de Boer Collection, Ahmedabad, 2019, pp. 215, 218)
Other works by Pyne in this auction represent his work across the next three decades, and include the seminal paintings The Animal (1972, lot 420), Relics (1982, lot 402) and Savitri (1999, lot 445) as well as fine works on paper like Untitled (Monkey) (1963, lot 419) and Untitled (Lady with Lamp) (1982, lot 404) among others.