M F Husain, arguably India's most successful artist, famously moved around without money in his pocket, borrowing what he required to pay for taxis from the gaggle of admirers that surrounded him, cadging meals for the gift of a drawing rendered on a napkin or paper snagged from a diary and now worth a fortune under the gavel. K H Ara insisted on keeping prices for his paintings of nudes and still-lifes "affordable" to the extent that an exhibition to coincide with his fiftieth birthday, in 1965, had works on sale at an extraordinary Rs 100 each, several pegs lower than his value at the time. Even by these maverick standards, artist Ganesh Pyne's abhorrence of the market was something extraordinary. But was it also, as some believe, flawed?
Since his passing away on March 12, enough has been made of Ganesh Pyne's tango with death and despair and his obsessive need for privacy. His abhorrence of profiteering was somewhat legendary, but was the resistance an articulated response to the ugly practices of the art market or borne of increasing loneliness and diffidence? Thrust upwards by the foment of Bengali intellectualism with its Left-leaning appreciation for literature and the arts, he was an artist of his times who found himself under the arclights of fame, something he appeared to resent. Whether it was fame that drove him to seek greater isolation, or traits of an already reserved personality, is open to debate, but those "close" to him blame his success for the rivalries it opened up with artists who had previously been peers and friends but in whom he glimpsed a bitterness borne of greed and avarice.
Already in the eighties the art market was finding itself drawn to rising prices, and Pyne's success was less than appetising to the incestuous art fraternity that reacted swiftly as hostile critics. Pyne blamed it on the nature of the market. His success he saw as mere happenstance, content as he was to devote himself to the craft of painting, the greatest according to some - but certainly the last - exponent of the Bengal School with jewel-like paintings, so what that the subjects were despondent with metaphors of moral decay and darkness. It was for this reason he refused solo shows, preferring to participate in group outings, working with select galleries - ironical, then, that the scarcity he created around his practice resulted in escalating prices, driving him further into seclusion.
The act of creation is a lonely one, and artists witness the overwhelming marketing and publicity machinery only when they step outside the sanctuary of their studios, when gallery-set prices and auction records are flung at them, a bazaar not of their making but in which they find themselves thrust, and in which the numbers at least provide succour for the discipline and rigour their craft demands of them. Pyne's denouement of this hoopla of hype and hysteria, of petty jealousies and competitive heraldry, of highs and increasingly of lows, was unpalatable for artists seeking their success in aspirational bank balances and lifestyles. Unfortunately, Pyne's garret-like existence was not something that benefitted the art buyer because his lien on prices reached only the dealer or middleman. This led to a widening chasm between his prices and those at which galleries sold his paintings, leading to further estrangement and friction. His legacy, therefore, is a troubled one in which his proclivity for affordability, however well meaning, appears to have thrown up more problems than solutions. Not that there is any artist attempting to follow in his frugal footsteps.
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