A LANGUAGE OF SENSE AND A LANGUAGE OF SENSATION
Visual aesthetics is founded on the organization of space so as to convey an experience of beauty. Space comes with many expected organizations, which may be utilitarian, symmetric, perspectival, hierarchic, each with its sense of aesthetics. These mundane forms of organization, with their explicit rationales and literal aesthetics, are “given” to us by the world. When we refuse these conventions, a strange land looms, whose organization arises from the play of objective and subjective singularities. To use the language of Abanindranath Tagore, this play can be called antar-bahir jog. It is the domain of abstraction, where the principles of visual organization, such as form, colour, texture, rhythm, and quality of life-vibrations, are released to become elements and categories of spatial organization forming a subjective language for the objective constituents of world-making.
Varieties of this phenomenological reduction were practised by several European modernists in the early 20th century. Prominent among its early theorists was Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), whose own art and book Concerning the Spiritual in Art became seminal influences in opening the gates of visual abstraction for modernism. Kandinsky attempted to apprehend environments at a level of subtlety where shapes lost their hard edges, and colours and textures became infused with emotional moods. The displacement of content gave no handle to the representational mind to make “sense” of the painted surface, awakening the pure intuition of sensation, operating through the eyes, but tending toward synaesthesia. A subtle rhythm in the arrangements of form and colour, for example, brought vision close to the horizon of music. The colour simplifications and design sensibilities of continental artists connected to the Bauhaus, including Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Johannes Itten and Lyonel Feininger had been assimilated by Bengal modernism by the 1930s, due to the efforts of Stella Kramrisch and the Indian Society of Oriental Art, which organized an exhibition of the Bauhaus artists in Calcutta in 1922.
However, the tendency to canonize Western movements makes us forget that modernist abstraction drew on traditions of pre-modern and non-Western art, including Indian abstraction, which can claim a vast cultural imaginary of stylized form and ornament, juxtaposed colour planes, and strong linear rhythms. Haloi may have picked up some of the design sensibility of the Bauhaus by osmosis. However, and far more significantly, his long exposure to classical Indian art—particularly the paintings of Ajanta, while working for the Archaeological Survey of India—along with his visually analytical mind and his years of teaching made him sensitive to indigenous resources of abstraction. His training in applied arts at the Government College of Art and Craft, Calcutta (now Kolkata), strengthened his inborn analytical capacities and helped to collapse the dividing line between natural and artificial form and design. At the same time, these studies exposed him to the assimilation of East-Asian typologies of brush strokes, asymmetric compositions, oblique or mixed perspectives, colour washes and the exploitation of negative space that had preceded him due to the pan-Asian interests of the Bengal School. Of course, there were many who were exposed to all these influences, but Haloi’s powerful originality is evident in his selection and creative integration of visual and painterly properties in an abstract language that exudes the fragrance, and rings with the music, of his regional roots.
As a predominant feature of this integration, one cannot but observe the mood of deep contemplation into which Haloi’s paintings plunge us. This feature, so characteristic of Abanindranath Tagore and many of his Bengal School students, has been conducive to the expression of hermetic sensibilities marking several Bengali modernists working in the shadow of the Bengal School; along with Haloi, one may think of his namesake, Ganesh Pyne, as inhabiting a similar space of interiority.
In this series of small ink-and-brush paintings, we get a significant peek at the working methods of the artist. The sensory presence of the riparian landscapes of Bengal is never far from Haloi’s paintings, even when they refuse natural recognition. Aerial views of carefully planted paddy fields, shimmering bodies of river or ocean water, mountains and homes reduced to triangles on the horizon, bird-specks floating in the distant sky, waves, directional flows, the hint of a moon: This poeticism shows us his close kinship with the entire tradition of modern Bengali poets, from Rabindranath Tagore, through Jibanananda Das to Shakti Chattopadhyay and Joy Goswami.
In a majority of his paintings from the past, colour planes and their relations were a powerful means of expressing these natural referents. In the present series, like the Taoist and Chan painters of East Asia, Haloi has reduced colour to ink and paper, revealing the pure asceticism of his structural method. All the referents of memory continue, but manifest entirely in monochrome. Here, all referents are equally analyses through reduction to elementary forms, kinship patterns that translate across borders or rhythmic punctuations that evoke musical cadences like the chanting of the wind. These elements and patterns, the dashed horizontal or vertical brush stroke, the squiggles and crosses, the triangles—large and small—migrate to another plane of symbolic memory, where the unconscious is structured like a visual language.
An uninterrupted stretch of separated vertical lines like a distant boundary may turn oblique and cascade downwards like stairs moving from plane to plane through uninhabited space. These large swathes of neutral space are zones of silence, sometimes tracts of witnessing contemplation, sometimes the muffled silence of painful or nostalgic alienation. Equally, these repeated short lines, curves and objects are metonyms for the rich narrative surfaces of the artist’s submerged world of childhood and domestic familiarity. They remind us that the deconstruction of the utilitarian and the obvious, necessary for the transition to reorganized poetic space, is at the same time an alienated ontology, a diasporic memory, so ubiquitous in our times of global transition. It is the East Bengal of the artist’s childhood snatched away from him by Partition, haunting in its absence, present in recollection, in hazy yet precise fragments and impressions, that the artist attempts to preserve through the reduction to seeds, visual bijas.
In these paintings of formal exploration, Haloi often lays out his tools: stippled rectangles or triangles, horizontal, vertical or oblique, laid alongside their inverse, obverse or reverse ideas like matter-spirit couples; a vocabulary of strokes, a gradation of shades, lines with arrowhead or other ends. Natural flowers transpose to stylized relatives from the world of regional arts. Leaves turn emblematic or their presence in the wild is kindled in unlikely urban objects, such as books or manicured forms of interior design. Absence returns in presence and vice versa, often in juxtaposed doubles, territorializing unidentified or fragmented landscapes with flashes of beloved familiarity, or abstracting lines, curves, rhythms, movements, textures from nature. With nature and culture, the materiality of artistic execution is an equal partner in the world of these paintings: brushstrokes that invite related brushstrokes for the rhythmic play of anonymity or random smudges that are made to emulate natural objects and further slowed down for the visual analysis of their abstract properties.
A tentative memory of bird necks yields curvatures that awaken other memories and related patterns, an exploratory practice that results in the capture of a stroke in the artist’s bag of living forms; each known intimately by the variation it allows in its animation in the process of painting. In the symbolic plane, these elements collocate forming visual ideograms for an abstract language that is as much a part of the phenomenological space of the painting as the intimations of nature to the language of sensations. Lines may buzz like flies or tangle like barbed wire whirring supernaturally in a fantasy of flight. Or, they may stabilize into surreal alphabetic constructions that crouch and leap between stairs and planes. Little squares of different shade-intensity can code for static objects or pennants flying in the breeze. They can band together into stick figures like scarecrows or like connective constructions of paper or cloth. Like humans holding hands in dance and inspired by stars or birds flying or suspended in the sky, they express their delight of existence, obedient to their physicality, in fantasies of togetherness and levity. Or reversing the impression, a formation of small dashes, like a distant swarm of migrating birds, floats and weaves like a ribbon in the sky.
The space between objects, already drawn attention to, is evocative of interiority—a contemplative silence—which is sometimes smudged or washed with emotional mood, and sometimes subject to a dynamism of differentiation in the form of pressures. These may be directional wedges or arrows or a watermark of subtle dots and dashes that stand between the uniform monotone and the objective foreground, as the astral space of tendencies, between the symbolic space of grammatised memory and the objective space of actuality. They stimulate the emergence of movements, rhythms and forms.
These thirty paintings constitute a welcome to the magic work of Ganesh Haloi, at once the fragrance of regional culture and sensitive riverine landscapes of Bengal, and conceptual abstraction that co-exists like a generative grammar with nature: a language of sense and a language of sensation.
The yoga (jog) of the artist is the union of the inner-outer (antar-bahir) self of the artist with the inner-outer (antar-bahir) of the material world and the way of that union (jog) is the discipline of harmonizing imagination and reality.” Abanindranath Tgaore, “Antar Bahir” in Bageshwari Shilpa Prabandhabali, Rupa, 1969, p. 103.
About Ganesh Haloi
‘I can sense, feel and even see everything out there and in my works. Not only the tangible physical world and its nurturing forces, but I can also see the elusive atmospheric elements – the ethereal ones like the wind, air, light, darkness, sound, resonance, silence, movement, vibration, rhythm, everything. You can find all these elements in my works.’
Ganesh Haloi was born in Jamalpur, Mymensingh- presently a part of Bangladesh- in 1936. He moved to Calcutta in 1950 following the partition.
The trauma of displacement left its mark on his work as it did on some other painters of his generation. Since then his art has exhibited an innate lyricism coupled with a sense of nostalgia for a lost world. In 1956, he graduated from the Government College of Art and Craft, Calcutta.
In the next year he was appointed by the Archaeological Survey of India to make copies of Ajanta murals. Seven years later, Haloi returned to Calcutta. From 1963 until his retirement, he taught at the Government College of Art and Craft. He is a Member of The Society of Contemporary Artists, Calcutta since 1971, and lives and works in Calcutta. He has participated in several group exhibitions in India, Greece/Germany (Documenta 14 at Athens & Kassel), California (Architecture of Life, at Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archives (BAM/PFA), Berkeley), Berlin (8th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art), London (A Special Arrow Was Shot in the Neck, David Roberts Art Foundation) and New York (Past Parallels: The Art of Modern & Pre-Modern India at Aicon Gallery). He is represented by Akar Prakar Kolkata and New Delhi, and has had various solo exhibitions in Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai and Dhaka. He has recently been awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award (2019) by India Today. In October 2020, a retrospective of Haloi will be hosted by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), Mumbai, in collaboration with Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), with the support of Akar Prakar. The retrospective will be curated by Roobina Karode, Director and Chief Curator, KNMA. His artworks were exhibited in Asia Week New York (AWNY) in March 2020.