Form and Play: A new exhibition highlights how Ganesh Haloi's paintings oscillate between the seen and the sensed

  • Ganesh Haloi was born in Jamalpur, Mymensingh — presently a part of Bangladesh — in 1936

  • He moved to (then) Calcutta in 1950 following the partition

  • The trauma of displacement left its mark on his work as it did on some other painters of his generation

  • Since then, his art has exhibited an innate lyricism coupled with a sense of nostalgia for a lost world

  • An upcoming solo exhibition — Form and Play — brings together Haloi’s recent works on paper

Introduction: Ganesh Haloi was born in Jamalpur, Mymensingh — presently a part of Bangladesh — in 1936. He moved to (then) Calcutta in 1950 following the partition. The trauma of displacement left its mark on his work as it did on some other painters of his generation. Since then, his art has exhibited an innate lyricism coupled with a sense of nostalgia for a lost world. In 1956, he graduated from the Government College of Art and Craft, Calcutta. In the next year he was appointed by the Archaeological Survey of India to make copies of Ajanta murals. Seven years later, Haloi returned to Calcutta. From 1963 until his retirement, he taught at the Government College of Art and Craft. He is a Member of The Society of Contemporary Artists, Calcutta since 1971, and lives and works in Kolkata. He has participated in several group exhibitions in India and abroad. An upcoming solo exhibition at the Akar Prakar gallery in Kolkata — titled Form and Play — brings together Haloi’s recent works on paper.


“Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, and the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”   — Wassily Kandinsky

Ganesh Haloi is a midnight fiddler. He evokes the archetypal image of the lonely violinist from Marc Chagall’s painting. He touches us gently and quietly while we slumber the night away. With primary elements like colours, lines, shapes and immeasurable space Haloi plays out his tunes effortlessly in resonance with the longing soul. This is exactly how his art moves into our consciousness even as the artist himself remains somewhat removed because he prefers to keep his art implicit and suggestive and evidently refrains from any descriptive language. By marking and drawing the attentive lines and strokes employed with various insinuations on dark swampy colour grounds Haloi creates muffled musical notations, as it were, offering a visual experience that relies less on expressionist reading and more on evocative response bordering on what is commonly known as abstraction. The resultant visual reverberations marked by calligraphic punctuations thus induce a profound sense of contemplation relinquishing the demand for any immediate meaning. The paintings keep oscillating between the palpable and the intangible, between the felt and the visualised, between the seen and the sensed. It is this ambiguous nature of Haloi’s visual idiom that keeps the mesmerised viewers drawn to both the magical moment of his creation and the timeless quality, all at once.

 Form and Play: A new exhibition highlights how Ganesh Halois paintings oscillate between the seen and the sensed

Ganesh Haloi | Untitled | Gouache on Nepali handmade paper, 2018

Ganesh Haloi often says, "Isolation is the most important factor in these paintings. You are alone with nature, and then you become part of it –you participate in it." That makes him a conscious and watchful interlocutor in the visual dialogue he embarks on with the nature he recreates. Contrary to the seemingly silent nature of his paintings, he actively engages himself with the growth, renewal and absence of the organic elements in nature. He celebrates the budding life in nature, he broods over the absence of it as well. Instead of playing the role of a mere witness to the life and decay of nature Haloi invents a visual language to partake in their joy and agony, appearance and vanishment, in its stillness and din.

Beyond these intimate moments of creation and personal engagement Ganesh Haloi occupies a significant place in the history of post-independence modern Indian art. Historically speaking, he happened to have chosen an artistic trajectory that is exceptional not only because of his stylistic innovations but also in terms of concerns and content. His art characteristically makes him a sort of loner yet he is very much a part of the history that has encouraged the artists to eschew preset agendas and embrace subjectivity. Bengal artists of the post-independence era, who moved beyond the traditionalist-modernist binary and negotiated the cross-currents with contemporary concerns rather than ideological choices, were by and large figurative artists with various degrees of representational indexes. Ganesh Haloi is one exception who despite his initial figurative works gradually drifted towards non-figurative images and eventually became one of the most sought-after abstract painters from his generation. His paintings are about the compelling world of nature as much as they are about the autonomy of image making.

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Ganesh Haloi | Untitled | Gouache on Nepali handmade paper, 2018

From broad colour fields to minuscule dots and calligraphic lines — the entire range of visual vocabulary in Haloi’s works is played out in a way that on the one hand they function as pictorial signs and on the other as evocative marks. This ambivalence empowers Haloi to explore the possible nuances both at the experiential and metaphoric level. Interestingly, Haloi owes his tonal understanding to his painstaking study of traditional Indian murals at Ajanta. The refinement of his art and the subdued appeal of his paintings can also be attributed to the reticent character of traditional painting although he gives them a modernist turn by accentuating its formal edge and pairing down the images to bare essentials, stripping the compositions off the narrative substance. What he is left with, as far his association with traditional Indian painting is concerned and as it is conspicuously visible in his drawings and paintings, is essentially the joy and pleasure of visual composition integrally woven into his deep sense of pathos and melancholy as well. Both the transient and the eternal have been turned into magnificent visual metaphors and unique graphic insignias.

Undoubtedly, quietude and silence overwhelm most of his images. Yet he leaves ample scope for dialogue between the various juxtaposed formal elements within the paintings, between the viewer and the work, between nature and human consciousness at different registers. Despite the fact that Haloi’s works are essentially non-narrative tales of a lost land do emerge albeit in whispering tone. His evocative abstractions in semi-opaque and translucent colours encode an elegy of lost landscape, a nostalgic poetry, and a mapping of the poignant past either radiating a bliss or frozen into a pensive mood. Unlike Kandinsky who deliberately courted obscurity as part of his visual language Haloi’s art is extraordinarily lucid and coherent. The transcendental quality one feels in Haloi’s works is embedded in the very perceptual logic and pictorial making of his paintings. The viewer is enchanted by the sheer dexterity acquired by the artist over the decades involving meticulous research and practice on the techniques and methods of gouache and paintings. Though his paintings follow a reductionist, non-mimetic and often symbolic idiom they essentially embody a poetic and lyrical vision – poised between the seen and the sensed.

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Ganesh Haloi | Untitled | Gouache on Nepali handmade paper, 2018

It is generally believed that at the core of abstract art lies a sense of the true self that is truly human and nourished immensely from the pristine moves of nature. It involves, as Clement Greenberg has written, ‘a pure pre-occupation with the invention and arrangement of forms, spaces, the exclusion of whatever is necessarily implicated in these factors...  a tendency towards purity or absolute abstractness’. Ganesh Haloi’s abstract art for all its non-representational values can also be seen as a pretext; a pretext to explore another realm of senses, within. It is undeniable that his refusal to represent the world of shared visual reality is inseparable from his passionate responses to the details and particularities of nature or their sheer absence.  As one gradually engages with his paintings one is inclined to feel that the abstract in his works exists more as a tendency, as a linguistic strategy and certainly not as an aim, not as a final realisation. It is therefore not surprising that Haloi is never willing to attach the term abstract to his works either as a stylistic category or as an aesthetic nomenclature. During a recent conversation with this writer Haloi reiterates, ‘I don’t subscribe to the idea of abstract as far as my works are concerned. I can see and perceive all the forms I visualise in my works.’ He clearly denies the non-representational connotations embedded in the term abstract and proposes the idea of a sensual abstraction which allows us to consider all the corporeal responses including the non-visual ones as indispensable factors that shape his paintings. ‘I can sense, feel and even see everything out there and in my works. Not only the tangible physical world and its nurturing forces but I can also see the elusive atmospheric elements — the ethereal ones like the wind, air, light, darkness, sound, resonance, silence, movement, vibration, rhythm everything. You can find all these elements in my works’. Obviously, he does not mean it literally.

This particular set of paintings in the present show has a specific association with the nature in water bodies. His observation of the submerged and floating aquatic plants, their gentle movements and lifecycle has been an enchanting experience which resurrects continually through glowing layers of colours and floating shapes and lines. He also induces a sense of drama, an incessant drama that seems to be an organic part of nature and independent of any human intervention. Life goes on in the aquatic lands and the artist is a quiet participant. But when this hydrosphere dries up or disappears, Haloi reacts profoundly with an inevitable pain. He begins to feel and even see everything despite their undeniable stark painful absence. In fact absence affects him as deeply as the presence; it also stimulates him to imagine, to visualise the lost space. The underlying pathos in relation to this sense of loss can be alluded to his own experience of departing and migrating in the wake of Partition, leaving behind the loved and lived land. The pain is personal as much as it is historical.

Does this kind of visual language allow the artist to exercise an unconstrained freedom in this particular way? Does this pave way for the artist to paint with greater amount of independence? When asked, Ganesh Haloi responds spontaneously to say, ‘When I was young I used to think that painting was mainly a playful act. I still paint freely and playfully and that keeps me going. You cannot imagine how much freedom I enjoy. And because I feel that sense of infinite freedom I can create my own land. It is my own world – parallel to and different from what you call reality.’ His visual creations are his islands longing to speak, he says. His eyes glow when viewers respond to his art. No matter what, Haloi seeks communication. He knows exactly what the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi meant when the latter said, Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can talk with him?’

At Akar Prakar, P 238 Hindustan Park, Kolkata, from 18 January-11  February 

Soumik Nandy Majumdar teaches at the Department of History of Art, Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan

Updated Date: Jan 16, 2019 19:55:14 IST