Reanimating Ganesh Pyne’s younger days in the arts: Exhibition highlights artist's early work
An ongoing exhibition at Kolkata's Akar Prakar highlights the early animation work of the artist Ganesh Pyne — and prompts a fresh inquiry into how it influenced his later, better known art
The ongoing exhibition at Akar Prakar Kolkata is divided across two spaces. The smaller, closed space has fifteen frames from a stop-motion animation film while the large, airy space, has ten landscapes meant to be used as backgrounds for different animation projects. These twenty five works are but a few leaves from the two decades (1959-1978) of day-long back-breaking toil of a younger Ganesh Pyne (b. 1937), freshly out of Government College of Art & Craft (Diploma in Drawing & Painting) employed at Mandar Studio, 209 Cornwallis Street (now Bidhan Sarani).
Only this much is absolutely certain about these works. And also the fact that, said gallery proprietor Abhijit Lath, Ganesh Pyne strictly instructed these should never be exhibited during his lifetime. The rest is shrouded in contradictory oral and written histories making them ripe for a ‘lost treasure rediscovered’ story. But let’s not lapse into that yet.
When we look at the first set (the fifteen frames) which depicts a morality tale starring a humbug lion, a wily fox, a socialist monkey, a delicious deer and a poisonous snake (with a supporting cast of other lovable beasts) our Disney-saturated vision remains underwhelmed. By 1959, when Pyne joins the studio, the Golden Age of Disney films had already passed [Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Dumbo (1941), Bambi (1942)]. In 1956, Clair Weeks, a Walt Disney Studio veteran, had arrived on governmental invitation to train Indian animators. In Calcutta, animation was familiar enough for brands to commission in-cinema promos. Perhaps that was the boost behind the second innings of Mandar Mullick, the owner of the two-man set-up, Mandar Studio. By most accounts he was an irrepressible idealist from a zamindar family, doomed to be driven into penury, heartbreak and death. But armed with a German Oerlikon 35mm motion picture camera and ingenuity, this man had already made himself count among the pioneers of the fascinating era of early Indian animation with his film Akash Pataal (1939). That history remains to be written.
Why should we deliberate over these works then, even when the artist didn’t want us to? If we judge their worth by the traces they have left in Ganesh Pyne’s later masterpieces, that’s fluffing the obvious — two decades of daily engagement is bound to leave its mark. Even Ganesh Pyne’s storyboard-like minute sketches on graph papers could be arguably traced back to this practice. But if we concentrate on the probable answers to his denial, it couldn’t be the usual vanity of artists not showing incomplete works. After all, he agreed to exhibit his sketches. A bitter ending to the Mandar Studio chapter in his life could be partially responsible (after Mandar Mullick’s death in 1978, he was requested to continue his own work there; he stopped going in 1986.)
If we stroll into the second space (with ten landscapes) to look for answers, the question looms larger instead. Unlike the derivative aesthetic of the animal tale, these cool and warm landscapes (with a blank footer and a faint hand-drawn ruler) soothe and smoulder masterfully. The sequences suggest another morality tale, this time of an ecological kind. The deft layering of transparent colours (in contrast to the opaque animals on translucent backgrounds) although, are more innocent in impact than his signature tempera gleam of mature years. But with its stash of subtle visual pleasures — a familiar foliage here, a glinting mineral rock there, and a pronounced mood overall — this suite of works doesn’t warrant disownment from Pyne.
To surgically remove a part of his past (in this case, one third of his lifetime) was most uncharacteristic of the man, according to those who had known him and his art intimately. The eighties’ art boom (which went bust in the noughties) must have soured him when he saw ghosts from his past who commissioned him for gratis graphic design, make a beeline to mint money from those works. Not that he could hold on to his fellow artists’ support either. From the 1974 MF Husain interview in Illustrated Weekly of India which anointed him as the best Indian artist (getting him ‘discovered’ by the art world) to another 1994 interview where Hussain demoted him to merely the fifth best, he persevered with a wan smile. Ganesh Pyne was unlike most artists who do a strict division in quality of labour between bread-and-butter work and studio work. Pyne’s excellent works in numerous books of Bengali poetry, prose, little magazine covers, especially those in his intellectual compatriot Dr Mukund Lath’s book Ardhakathanaka, ( based on miniature paintings ) were as meticulously researched and exquisitely rendered like his standalone works. There’s no reason to believe his Mandar Studio works were embarrassing exceptions.
Should we then chalk his reluctance to show these up to his much-written-about ‘obsessive need for privacy’ and ‘mysterious reticence’? Unfortunately, it would be playing right into that stale stereotype of a garret-living, ill-understood artist, re-heated and served repeatedly, in his English obituaries and Bengali hagiographies. The quiet Ganesh Pyne did run away from pestering art historians and was indeed shy of lengthy ‘learned’ monologues, but for the most part in his life, was never hesitant spending his time and energy with sahRdaya-s , those individuals whose love for the arts were equipoised between their heads and hearts. Since his early Mandar Studio days, he was an active participant in the vibrant public sphere of the arts — especially cinema and literature — as an avid pair of eyes, a patient listener, precise commentator and an indefatigable writer of elegantly worded and illustrated letters, besides being a faithful member of Society of Contemporary Artists. Both outside and inside ‘Basanta Cabin’ eatery, spaced atop a rich mineral vein of older Calcutta culture, on which Cornwallis Street, too, was precisely mapped.
His reserved nature was not of a timid, uninitiated one but that of a tempered aesthete. In the blood-and-fire seventies’ Calcutta, only art that visibly communicated suffering or revolutionary potential of the oppressed masses was kosher in the city's art world and all else was bourgeois reactionary expressions. In those younger days, Pyne’s candour and insistence for a more nuanced narrative in his works won him more enemies than friends.
As per Ganesh Pyne, dense mythic-Puranic-poetic narratives were not meant to be illustrated but to allude to timeless structures in human condition. Those structures trigger images and it is up to artist to hew his own parallel visual world to host those images. It was not a paved path, but a tortuous one — just like one line from Octavio Paz and another from Rabindranath Tagore once made him visually translate the famous Trevi fountain scene from Fellini’s ‘La Dolce Vita’ (1960) to his own satisfaction.
But all this still doesn’t answer the question we began with, which is just as well. Because contrary to what simplistic auction catalogue biographies would make us believe, great artists don’t go to art school in order to struggle valiantly, then to have group shows, followed by solo shows, then retrospectives, in order to win national and international awards and then die in blaze of multimedia glory.
Much remains and should remain unanswered in their lives. In order to teach us asking better questions.
‘Ganesh Pyne | Mandar Studio | Cornwallis Street’ continues at Akar Prakar (P 238 Hindustan Park, Kolkata 29) till Saturday, 18 March 2017.
After an Engineering degree and a decade in the advertising industry, Sourav Roy has completed two masters programmes in Modern & Contemporary Indian Art History as well as in Indian Arts & Aesthetics. He occasionally contributes to publications and is currently a'research vagrant'.
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