Pyne was a sociologist with a paint brush; his works dealt with democratic India&’s confused identity, writes asoke basu
Every morning, my eyes open to a framed print of Ganesh Pyne&’s ‘Boy and the Painted Horse’, which hangs by my bedside. The painting tells the story of an undersized boy, about six, who is clothed in an oversized tattered shirt, baggy pants, and a handmade paper hat. He is grasping a stick as his face stares straight at me with a plea. In the print&’s distant background, I notice a rocking horse, standing motionless.
Unmistakably, the wide-eyed motionless child has a begging question for me: Where is my future? What has Free India done for its children?
The first time I laid eyes on the original painting was in an art exhibition at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai, which was organized by CRY ~ Children Relief and You. Then, as now, I was struck by the artist&’s poignancy ~ his ability to simultaneously demonstrate textual complexity at both the general and the particular levels. Pyne was a sociologist with a paintbrush ~ a master at creating lifelike tensions between tradition and modernity, myth and material, past and present.
There are days when I decode the print literally, observing the wish of all boys to mount a horse and go off to fight a war, pretending to be a Rajput warrior. This boy is adventurous, as are all his peers at this stage of life. The stick in his hand speaks to his power to whip a horse to obedience. And yet, after scrutinising the picture at a more meta-level, I am drawn to a larger meaning. The boy&’s stare is unambiguously honest. His eyes beg for an answer to India&’s unrelenting poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, and violation of child labor laws. According to the 2012 Unicef report, in India, hunger, malnutrition, and infant deaths remain a persistent problem. The horse represents the Indian Constitution, which for the weak is unreachable and powerless.
Ashva is the mythical horse that dates back to the migration to the South Asian subcontinent around 1600 BCE. In the earliest classical literature, the Rigveda, the maruts are referred to as riders. The myth informs us that the famous avatar of Lord Vishnu is worshipped as the God of Knowledge. Yet, in the religious rituals described in the Yajurveda, as many as 108 horses are slaughtered as offerings by wealthy kings to the Gods.
Pyne demonstrates both the creative and destructive tensions in India&’s on-going biography. He portrays the modern hero as forged both by the sacred and the profane. The boy in the picture depicts the folkloric tale in ‘The Face of Glory’, in which Rahu, the demonic messenger of King Jalandara, mimics Shiva, the Supreme Being. Rahu is the poor street urchin, who starkly reminds us that children&’s rights and needs must be addressed.
The sociology of Pyne&’s art requires us to consider democratic India&’s confused identity, pulled between prayer and politics. In postcolonial India, Pyne was bridging two archetypical worlds: chaos and order. In his paintings, these two worlds confront each other. Elsewhere, in ‘Before the Chariot (1978)’, the reverential Lord Chaitanya, the Vaishnava minstrel, stands at a distance from a toy-like chariot. In another of Pyne&’s paintings, ‘Night of the Puppeteer (1994)’, a mother confronts her child in primordial darkness with grazed look of idealism.
For Pyne, art was not linear or causal, but eternal. Cause, effect, and time are nonlinear, indistinguishable from one another in the tug and pull of the spirit of solitude. Pyne viewed life as epic theater in text, form, and style. His images depict the dialectical riddle of modern life as a mixture of mimetic and cathartic. In ‘Boy and the Painted Horse’, the child&’s innocent mimicking of the make-believe world of toys and war calls for us to cleanse our souls through art.
Did Pyne paint (write) narrative (sociological) discourses? Clues to the question can be found when we closely examine the critical contests (texts) ~ for example, class, status, and power, which Pyne linked to the biographical structures of India&’s sociology of knowledge. Above all, a Free State should protect the Constitutional rights for all. It should allay existential anxiety and offer hope for the future. In ‘The saints and the Officials (1991)’, he showed that religion, like government, could be an anodyne to social solidarities.
The sociology of art of Pyne decried abstracted realities and institutions that claim to have an absolute origin. As Friedrich Nietzsche foretold: ‘How can something arise from its opposites, for example, reason from unreason?’
The writer is a California-based sociologist