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Elegy for art’s master fantasist

John Donne, the 17th century court poet of Jacobean England, had conquered death, it is said, by reflecting on its ultimate power through his immortal lines. ‘Death be not proud, though some have called thee/ Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so’—still remains one of the soundest meditations on the finality of death. Closer home, we had Ganesh Pyne, who had ignited the ambers of fatality with his febrile imagination, and had cast on canvas the lingering articulations of the many faces of human and animal loss. 76-year-old Pyne, who breathed last on Tuesday, leaves us with a menagerie of artistic impulses, painterly renditions that bespeak a fearless mind that excavated the deepest points of subconscious, that ravaged dreams and tilled deathly fantasies and gave colour to the ashen pallor of raggedly skeletal corpses lining the ditches of Calcutta during Partition. Pyne (1937 – 2013), a reclusive, brooding soul, had been revered by the more gregarious doyens of progressive Indian art, such as Maqbool Fida Hussain, Tyeb Mehta or Syed Haider Raza, although his personal inspiration came from Abanindranath Tagore, whom he idolised wholeheartedly.

Pyne’s ‘mysterious dream-like tempera technique’, as art critic Ella Dutt puts it succinctly, gave form to the universe of suppressed desires bubbling within the human soul. The introverted artist avoided painting with a lighted background, experimenting instead with dark, opaque colours that gave wings to the riotous musings of a mind, its farthest corners filled with the electrifying pulses of dark energy. Pyne masterpieces, including the one depicting the iconic bird (sort of a condensed archaeopteryx) on the verge of being wounded by a slung arrow (Tempera on Canvas, 1978), Swami, Head and the Black Moon (1990), Swing – all attest to this feverish engagement with mortality and transience of human existence through the metaphors of attrition, corrosive life experiences and the centrality of death within it all. The prominent jaws and beaks, the piercing claws and talons, the excess of bony white and grey feathers, the encroachment of scintillating swords and knives and other weapons of human annihilation, all speak back, in different ways, to the revolutionary art practiced by painters divided by almost four centuries, German-Dutch Hans Holbein and Mexican Frida Kahlo. Pinning down death, caging it in myriad shapes and colours had been Pyne’s idea of an eternal voyage of self-discovery. The final destination beyond this world is perhaps where his tormented soul could at last rest in peace.
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