Sitting it out: Bir Bahadur, Ganesh Pyne, 1988
The monkey sits even as its maker has departed. The fact that it's sitting with the kind of glazed smile that appears after an interminable tiredness has already crept in and settled down, marks this monkey apart from other primates of its kind.
With its hands folded near its knees and its body slouched forward as if to look - and be looked at - more clearly, it is at peace. But as the slackened rope around its neck confirms, peace has been forced upon it. So this monkey, made extra humanoid by the robe and red cap that he's wearing, is not at peace at all. In fact, if you cover its crazy smile with one finger, all that is left is a fog of violence. You could then, with some imagination, guess that the monkey may have, at some point in time, been the victim of an old act of violence. You could also, with a little more imagination, start believing that the monkey is harbouring a genuine wish of wreaking havoc on his world.
Ganesh Pyne painted this phantom painting in 1988. At the height of his power as an artist, he would go on to depict the extraordinary forces that lie trapped and bubbling within mythologies, whether those entirely invented by him (such as the 1996 work titled The Throne depicting a standing figure wearing a death mask and looking away as he rests his elbow on an imposing seat) or those plucked by him from epics including the Mahabharat.
But it is this painting of a monkey - unofficially titled Bir Bahadur, roughly translated from its Bengali as 'Braveheart' - that is my favourite Ganesh Pyne painting and one of my favourite paintings by any artist.
There's something unavoidably mawkish about describing a powerful work by one of the most powerful artists of our times as 'my favourite'. This implies giving value to a work of art not according to its objective features and strengths, measured and confirmed by those whose understanding of beauty is far more dependable than mine, but according to an intimacy between the painting and myself. And yet, there it is - a framed reproduction of the painting printed in an Okhla Industrial Area press, its colours straying from the original even as it maintains the original dimensions of 54.5 cm x 49.5 cm, leaning on the sofa, echoing its subject's act of being precariously seated, in front of me now.
Pyne's works are awash with a sense of doom, of pain and suffering that isn't hysterical like those depicted in, say, the paintings of Caravaggio, Edvard Munch (of The Scream fame) or FN Souza. They are closer to the works of Paul Klee which Pyne so admired, the paintings being a running contemplation of pain. In this, his art reminds me of the writings of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and the playwright-novelist Samuel Beckett with its portraits of anguish and illogical suffering.
Pyne depicted the horrors of being human. He had once said that his encounter with a naked corpse of an old woman with bleeding breasts and a shining necklace round her neck during the pre-Partition communal riots in 1946 (born in 1937, Pyne must have been not more than nine years old then) "had opened my third eye and was my biggest inspiration". It is the shadowy, literally multi-layered medium of the tempera - a painting medium of pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder such as egg yolk or glue - that Pyne would finally turn to for depicting his greasy, dark visions.
Thanks to my friend and journalist Soumitra Das, I had the utter pleasure of poring over Pyne's sketches, jottings and doodles in his trademark graph paper notebooks in the mid-1990s in Calcutta. The power of his draughtsmanship, which on proverbial paper seems to be the opposite of his more famous lineless gouaches and nightmarescapes on tempera, showcase the bone on which he built his flesh. It never came as a surprise to me that he was an admirer of Walt Disney. (Pyne had even worked as a sketch artist in an animation company in Kolkata for some time.) For Bir Bahadur and so many of his figures, whether humans or animals, are cartoons dipped in Pyne's dark materials.
Bir Bahadur is supposed to have been inspired by Emperor Akbar's pet monkey - and a 1972 ink sketch titled Sitting Acrobrat shows a less eerie, illustrative version of the monkey leering madly now from the sofa opposite me. Despite its darkness and readiness for violence, Bir Bahadur's world is not hell. It is purgatory. With no resolution except the one that appeared before the monkey's maker on Tuesday when he died of a cardiac arrest.