In 1991, Ganesh Pyne (1937-2013), then in his mid-50s, and already an important presence in modern Indian art, had his first solo exhibition outside Kolkata, the city where he had lived and worked all his life. Curiously, instead of showing his sublime paintings in tempera, Dolly Narang, the owner of The Village Gallery in New Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village, decided to feature Pyne’s “jottings" from his notebooks.

Mostly made with pen and ink, with the occasional touch of dry pastel and crayon, these drawings and doodles were Pyne’s lifelong obsession, though never intended for public display. In her study, Ganesh Pyne: His Life And Times, critic and curator Ella Datta notes Pyne’s resistance to the idea of exposing these private musings to the public eye. But once he was persuaded, the jottings became increasingly visible in the public domain, often acting as keys that unlocked the mysteries of his art, and were given pride of place on the walls of galleries next to finished canvases.

Surprisingly, these fragments became commercially viable too. If owning a painting by Pyne, usually priced above 10 lakh, is beyond your budget, you could get a jotting by him for 2-3 lakh.

In 2013, the Centre of International Modern Art (Cima) gallery in Kolkata curated Pyne’s last major solo during his lifetime —perhaps the most ambitious undertaking of his final years—Ganesh Pyne: His Mahabharata. It juxtaposed his paintings of certain characters and scenes from the epic with pages from the notebooks in which he had outlined his project. Cima’s latest venture, Jottings: Works By Ganesh Pyne, revisits the idea, albeit with a twist.

As the title suggests, the purpose of the current exhibition is to draw attention to Pyne’s works-in-progress rather than completed works—and perhaps, by doing so, to dissolve the distinction between the two. In a few instances, the scribbles indeed appear more alluring in their enigma than the painting itself: such as the panels on a sheet of paper depicting Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the 16th century mystic from Bengal.

Two of his jottings on display at the show
Two of his jottings on display at the show

Another series of frenzied jottings culminate in his famous painting of the toy horse, surrounded by a clutter of inanimate objects, except for the artist’s own face looming over the scene, a gentle mockery of the conventions of self-portraiture. Pyne fills the pages of his notebook with a welter of words, mostly critical observations on the relative scale of each component in the painting. He plays with different approaches, furiously scratches out the ones that displease him, until the imagery and narrative is fully realized in the still surface of the tempera. The churning in the artist’s mind settles by the time we get to the painting: The effect is akin to looking at the bed of a clear stream after the ripples have ceased to disturb the water.

Pyne’s absorption in these provisional panels cannot be understood in isolation from his early professional experience as an animator, a job he was forced to pursue to make ends meet. Even after he had established himself as an artist, Pyne continued to illustrate the cover of the sharadiya sankhyas of some Bengali magazines, published to mark the commencement of Durga Puja every year. His obsession with the iconography of goddess Durga probably harks back to this aspect of his career.

Pyne’s preference for plain graph paper, printed by Lokenath Agency and used by thousands of schoolchildren across Bengal, to execute these images signalled his affinity with grids, along which the sequence of an unfolding thought could be charted with mathematical precision. The rigour of such exercises was bolstered by quotations culled from Pyne’s eclectic reading—from C.G. Jung to Paul Cézanne to Rabindranath Tagore, in Bengali and in English—creating a montage of image and text where the reclusive artist’s inner self can be glimpsed fleetingly.

Profoundly influenced by literature and film—in his famous Boatman series Pyne paid tribute to the poetry of Shakti Chattopadhyay, while Metiaburujer Nawab was his nod to Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi—he came closest to crossing over from the painterly to the literary realm, from still to moving images, in the notebooks.

If the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Francisco De Goya or, closer home, Abanindranath Tagore’s graphic narrative Khuddur Jatra and Satyajit Ray’s film scripts, force us to reckon with the intellectual ferment of artistic minds, Pyne’s jottings leave us intrigued—usually with the stirrings of thought rather than with fully-formed ideas. In this sense, his jottings are as inscrutable as Tagore’s calligraphic drawings.

At times, Pyne seemed to have left a labyrinth of cryptic signs without yielding much. On one sheet, amid a nest of squiggles, he starts composing a letter to thank a friend, in another he jots down an LIC policy number, and elsewhere he starts keeping accounts of expenditure. In a rare instance, he records the time: 3am. Did Pyne, already a man of few words, become even more consciously taciturn once the last vestiges of his private thoughts began to be offered up as public spectacle?

Speaking to Rita Datta, who has written the introductory essay to the catalogue of the show, Pyne’s widow, Meera Datta, mentions the artist’s habit of working in the depths of the night. “He liked the dark," she says, a remark that resonates with the muted palate of much of his best work. “Ganeshbabu was also deeply fond of watching noir and detective films," adds Pratiti Basu Sarkar, chief coordinator of the show.

A witness to the post-Partition riots, Pyne’s work was always alert to the possibility of violence, yet it never lost the essential enquiring edge. There was place for doubt in his paintings, as well as a spirit of playfulness. The evidence of both is strewn all over the notebooks.

In spite of his sedentary life—he rarely travelled outside Kolkata—Pyne belonged to a generation of Bengali intellectuals, like writer Buddhadeva Bose, or Ray’s fictional sleuth, Feluda, who were able to take in the full measure of the world from their private perch by keeping their eyes peeled and their imaginations furnished by reading widely. His jottings are a testimony to the commitment, sincerity, intensity and discipline of such vanishing minds.

Jottings: Works By Ganesh Pyne is on till 22 November, at Cima, 43, Ashutosh Chowdhury Avenue, Kolkata (24858717). 3-7pm on Mondays and 11am-7pm on other days (Sundays closed).

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