In a dialogue with the universe

PASTMASTER Ganesh Haloi at his art table  

Landscapes of nature to landscapes of mind. The journey reflects in Ganesh Haloi's musings on canvas. The minimalistic zen-like art evolved through multiple experiences accumulated on this journey. A childhood which suffered Partition in 1950, uprooting him from his birthplace Jamalpur in Mymensingh, he now lives in Bangladesh. The times that he spent at the Ajanta Caves while making copies of murals for Archaeological Survey of India, witnessing other historical marvels like Eklakhi Mausoleum, Lattan Mosque...all of it has contributed to Ganesh Haloi's art.

Now the 81 year-old artist is marking his presence at Documenta 14 , one of the most reputed showcase of contemporary art which takes place every five years in Kassel. The artist represented by Akar Prakar gallery is showing 27 paintings and two sculptures at the famed venue.

On the occasion, the Kolkata-based master abstractionist responds to questions giving a peek into his art practice. Excerpts from the interview.

Nature has been a muse for several artists over the centuries. How has it inspired your art?

When we think of the universe - we think of whole. In the same way when we think of nature - we think of an entire creative spirit all around. Nothing is as unnecessary in this beautiful world except our interference. One might not be identical in appearance to another person. Behind this superficial or apparent identity, there is a hidden soul - which is homogeneous with completeness, fullness, and wholeness of our life. So when we speak of true art, this is very much responsive to our inner soul.

While your art is deeply rooted in the Indian miniature and folk art forms, there is also the influence of western techniques of geometry and cubism.

If you look at my body of work during my formative years in college, 1951-56, it has a stream of consciousness quality in them. I tried to carry the outside world indoors as I painted from multiple memories. Memory has always proven crucial to me and enables me to function during periods of anxiety, torment and pensiveness. My readings and childhood found a way into my works surreptitiously. In the mid-50s, my associational and automatic working procedures intended to echo those being practiced by writers and poets at the time in Calcutta, notably Jibanananda Das, Tarashankar and Manik Bandopadhyay. Moreover, I was interested in exploring the art of the past, Ajanta, Persian and Indian miniatures, early Bengal oil paintings and the neo-Bengal school, Buddhist philosophy, the history of early India and the affinities it might share with my contemporaries.

Tell us something about your initial interaction with miniature art and how it has shaped your own art oeuvre.

Identification with Ajanta and tradition of Indian miniatures brought me to a more intense consciousness of our heritage and quickened my memories of the temple carvings of lower Gangetic delta, water bodies of Jamalpur where I was born, decorated manuscripts, Jataka stories I had seen or read as a boy. Much more important, however, was the fact that I still carry these landscapes inside me, some even in startlingly concrete and detailed. Memory plays a strange and fascinating role, in that it feeds on images of the past, all the more so if we are separated by time and place.

Over the years, you have moved towards work which is highly minimal, almost reaching the shunya of abstraction.

There is geometry in nature which suggests firmness of its existence. There is no question of influence of western or Indian miniature painting. We learn by seeing.

For me abstraction becomes a figure of speech that opens the unconscious mind and allows the truth to emerge and to re-establish a lost contact with the unconscious and the primordial past. During successive visits to Malda (WB), I had witnessed some medieval mosques in Gaur and Pandua, erstwhile capitals of Illyas and Nizam Shahi dynasties of Bengal like Eklakhi mausoleum (1432), minar of chota Pandua, Lattan mosque (1493-1519) or the Adina mosque (1375) built during the Bengal Sultanate. Successive experiences of seeing and feeling and passion for history were later incorporated in my architecture series done during 1990-92. Here I tried to paint not only the mausoleum of an old fort or a magnificent arch but rock faces, tops of hills and drifting mist interspersed a restraint of vast blank spaces above, below and in-between- an abstraction of a landscape. The process gave rise to an abstraction and architecture that is at once rigorous, intuitive and sensitive and an inner spiritual vision and not a matter of means. One critic called it as ‘hermetic explorations’.

Tell us about your time spent at Ajanta caves and how that experience has continued to inspire and reflect in your work.

I came back to Calcutta in 1963 to join the art college as a lecturer. It was a time of introspection. You know a sense of despair and pain got etched at the very beginning of my life. The pain of detachment leads to a reunion with the wholeness that brings a strange delight. I feel that the various sound, smell and forms that the external world reveals in a kind of grandeur to us daily -- our inner self experiences them internally. The urge was to create a new language, a new way of seeing, expressing a visual landscape, a struggle so grand and precious, that will make the soul tremble before the pulsating drama of abstraction-symbols. The geometric forms Sahyadri hills ultimately seeped into my work.A chance visit to an exhibition of British sculptors taking place in the city in 1967, gave me some visual clues. Their use of the jagged surface had a stream of consciousness in them that prepared me for my all important encounters with my language and quickened my memory to the landscapes of my mind.

How does it feel to be at DOCUMENTA 14?

DOCUMENTA is a global platform, and I am happy to be part of it. I am especially thankful to the curator Natasha Ginwala, who has taken my work to this edition of Documenta.

(In a first, this edition of Documenta is happening in two cities - Kassel in Germany, its traditional home and Athens in Greece. Haloi's works are on display in Athens from April 10 to July 16 and Kassel from June 19 to September 17.)

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Printable version | May 12, 2021 12:54:15 PM |

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