Ever since my family has suffered a downward social mobility, there is hardly any celebrity that we have among our everyday interactions. Many years ago we had celebrities in our family circles; but since then we seem to have dropped out of the glitterati circuit. Ganesh Pyne happened to be a sole celebrity who I knew through my father. He and my father were neighbours in Santiniketan; both had extended themselves to Santiniketan as part of the same exodus in which to have a bungalow in the outlying areas of this University town is just the thing to do. Ganesh Pyne spread himself to a sprawling bungalow in the village of Boiradihi while my father built for himself a neat little cottage to compensate for the unwieldy house of Kolkata. They were neighbours. Father and Pyne were both office bearers in the resident welfare association. This was serendipity because more than twenty five years before now, my father had designed his office calendar with Ganesh Pyne’s paintings. He just liked Pyne and wanted to promote his talent. I promptly cut out these calendar reprints and mounted them on cardboard and hung around my small one room apartment in Delhi. I have two of his reprints still with me and never ever I wish to apart with them.
I do not know why I liked Pyne. I liked the colours in his painting, sometimes, slate, sometimes a brownish grey and overwhelmingly a dirty, sallow moss green. I loved staring at these works; they seemed to stare at me out of very old walls made of brick and cement, whose plasters would precariously peel off with that moss in the rainy season. Pyne’s paintings had my favourite season in them; I do not know why I would find the light of autumn emanate from them, a gloss of a shiny blue sky with occasional darkness of some leftover rain. I found that his were faces from walls that would stare at me from the gathered up moss at the end of rain. Only Bengal’s autumn could bring this effect out of old houses whose inhabitants often would have to save for years to have their homes painted.
Some silly Delhite would often comment, why do Calcutta houses look so black? Well, to have money is not a major care in Kolkata. Inflation beats our incomes in Kolkata; we do not speculate over property, we do not change locations so often; we like to have continuities and familiarities around us. No wonder then we do not buy and sell property frantically. We have little scope for money making, the city being as yet relatively free of brokerage where the most of Delhi’s and Mumbai’s money comes from. This Kolkata with its old houses, where afternoons are spent gazing lazily at walls with a small slit of the sky above them, with some anticipation of the glory of autumn at the end of the rainy months is the crux of Pyne’s paintings. And from amidst these mossed walls that speak of the Bengali’s defeat in the eyes of shining India arises images of Pyne. And what great images are they! There is Jesus with a crown of thorns, there is the Qing Emperor with his Mongolian head gear, there is Lord Krishna with his flute, but not as a shepherd boy; instead he appears fully regal as the Lord of Dwarka. Powerful faces, avert gazes, taut expressions make my wall in my apartment look good. More than decorations, I treat them as windows towards my home, my wall, covered with moss at the end of rain, with tips of peeled plaster catching the rays of the sun that seems to have momentarily been relieved of its cover of the rain bearing clouds.
I was curious to see Pyne in action when he moved into Santiniketan. I never saw him paint; it seems that he did not find inspiration in his new abode. It was too fresh, too swank, and full of shine and gloss. For a painter who saw the world and its heroes from the cramped opening of his narrow room at the end of a long alley full of moss walls with peeling plasters, this new home of open spaces and clear grounds and freshly grown poinsettias upon a meticulously manicured garden was sheer loss of inspiration.
There was a time when Pyne was a struggling artist and his paintings would hardly fetch about a twenty rupees; in those days, he struggled out of his narrow room at the end of a long alley with a wall covered with dark moss and peeling off plasters catching the glint of the blue autumn skies that were opening up after the rains. Then there is a time when each of Pyne’s painting would fetch at least half a crore and Pyne moved to the glitter of galleries, went about the wide world, saw the Empires in real and concrete world of those very faces who were once streaks in the moss walls. Pyne lost his alley with the peeled off plasters to success and with that disappeared the slit of the sky, the brown of the old bricks, the slate of the peeled plasters. Pyne lost the faces. Before he died, father tells me he had become unusually quite, recoiled in a shell of his own and did not keep too well. Sometimes, when they met, he would talk to my father. About what? Well, so many things but mostly wanted to know of his old home and if ever father remembered their mossed walls.