Ganesh Haloi at his studio in Kolkata (Photo: Rohit Chawla)
ONE MONSOON MORNING in July 2018, I travelled from Ballygunj to Salt Lake to meet the 82-year-old artist, Ganesh Haloi, a longtime Kolkata resident originally from Jamalpur, Mymensingh, now in Bangladesh. Though he’d been unwell, he was finally in a frame of mind that allowed him to receive guests. In any case, Abhijit Lath, co-founder of Akar Prakar, a gallery that has represented Haloi for years, had accompanied me. I trusted he might help me engage Haloi in conversation and fill in the blanks.
His daughter, Aparajita, was present, too, offering us hot tea and, later, mishti. She told me privately, while Haloi and Lath were catching up, that the reason her father had long been reluctant to visit his studio upstairs, was because of his continuing state of grief. Her mother had died some months ago, rendering him helpless. Theirs was a co-dependent relationship, yet her role was clearly immense, its full scale only evident now, in her absence. Her efficacy as a homemaker and a partner facilitated his artistic routine. Aparajita, who has become her father’s caretaker, has been urging him to return to his studio practice, but he still feels unsure. He tells her that while he knows well how to paint, what to paint is a question he is unable to answer. He’d been making do, working downstairs, in his study that hosts his extensive collection of terracotta figurines. Aparajita describes her mother as a dignified and beautiful woman. “As my father is a very systematic person, my mother used to keep all his things in order. She had a sense of beauty, and likewise, she maintained our home, she kept it very clean, had things properly arranged; flower pots and plants were kept to beautify our indoors,” she says. Her mother was supportive of her husband’s artistic practice, and they seemed to have had an unspoken agreement by which she didn’t concern him with household work, keeping that as her domain. She went to the market, the bank, filed their taxes, shopped for the house, even went to the doctor on Haloi’s behalf, because he was reluctant to do so. “She used to describe his symptoms, and then bought his medicines.” Her role went beyond just maintaining the house, crossing into the upkeep of his studio, too. “She cleaned his table, washed his brushes and plates every day,” Aparajita said. “She even used to hold the rain water for him in bottles as he needed the distilled water for paintings. She helped him in attaching Nepali paper on board, which was done using Fevicol diluted with water. She helped in holding the paintings when my father took the photographs. She kept all his documents in place. My father called her now and then, whenever he needed something.”
Haloi’s reluctance to go upstairs to his studio after his wife’s death made sense, given how urgently present she had been within the environment of his every day. I made peace with the fact that while he’d grant me the luxury of an interview, I would probably not be given a tour of his studio.
Haloi was warm, friendly, forthcoming; keen to communicate bits of his vast repertoire of knowledge, from his six-year stint at the Archaeological Survey of India from 1957, fresh out of art school, during which time he meticulously studied the cave paintings at Ajanta, to his research on artistic documentation of the Bengal Famine of 1943. This proclivity manifests as an almost greedy desire to educate anyone who might listen to the vicissitudes of artistic techniques and methodologies and the impact of various art historical moments on his own practice. I wondered if it was a hangover from the many decades Haloi spent teaching at the Government College of Art and Craft in Kolkata (from 1963 until his retirement).
“When I paint, I reach a space where a kind of shimmering feeling sets in, as if I have created a new land,” says Ganesh Haloi, artist
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Haloi possessed a seasoned mannerism when he delivered anecdotes, or quotable quotes; when he arrives at the profound bottom-line, you wonder if he had rehearsed the thought. For instance, when I asked him about his commitment to painting as a medium; he responded by throwing the question back at me, but not without first rephrasing it. “What is painting?” he said, then paused. “It is a response. A kind of response you feel, from the inside. In primitive ages, people who were arty, they started dancing, moving their body, singing… these come automatically. It is said that philosophy starts from wonder and ends in an understanding; painting starts from an understanding and ends in wonder. It’s like that. It’s wonder.” He continued. He was warming up. “When you go through old scripture, there’s a story in which a student asks the guru, ‘You can’t see god, you can’t touch god. How do you paint god? The guru says, ‘See the stone, it is god; touch the stone, you touch god.’ You should have your own world, like the poets, Rabindranath Tagore, like Jibanananda Das. Every artist has his own world, they cultivate their own world.” He communicated all of this as one oral block, revealing much about the flight-path of his stream of consciousness.
I asked him what references informed his world. Who were the painters he had been dialoguing with through his imagination? He was sure-footed in his response. “My works can resemble many forms of artwork,” he said. “It may resemble Ajanta paintings made millennia ago; there is an essence of Kandinsky, a spiritual essence; Paul Klee, Joan Miro…” Then he paused. He spent time thinking about whether he should continue, and what he should say next. Then, he continued. “Paul Klee captured me like a magnet. Jibanananda Das captures like a magnet, takes you somewhere else, you don’t know. I try to establish myself like an archaeologist. You resemble your father, mother, sister, brother, in gesture, voice, face structuring… but you’re quite different in thought. You have your own world. You are very alone there. Nobody shares that. The isolation sticks.”
IS THE STUDIO isolating? I asked. His face lit up a bit. “When I paint, I reach a space where a kind of shimmering feeling sets in, as if I have created a new land, it is not apparent, it is quite different from what I see, but it is there. I never call these abstractions. I can see these lands.” It sounded like his paintings came from a space of joy, I told him. “Pain too. Pain in the beginning, joy in the end,” he said, pleased with his articulated thought. “Art is not the question, art is not the answer. It is a continuous process. You cannot separate heat from fire in the end. If there is heat in fire, you feel it. There is continuity. It is transforming, it means it is continuing. There should be continuity in your life, in things. I was born, like a proverb, I have become old. We cannot stick to one point. You can’t step into the same river twice, because it’s never the same river.”
Satisfied, he uttered the magic word, “Chal,” inviting us to follow him upstairs. He had already explained that his studio had been unused for months, so I was unlikely to find works in progress. That was irrelevant to me. Mostly, I wanted to understand the spatial universe that was responsible for the suite of works by him that I had seen at documenta 14 in June 2017 (at the music conservatory in Athens), all dating between 2009 and 2016. Much has been written about how his works seem to intersect between landscape and abstraction, about the sighting of geometric shapes that communicate contours. But beyond all these details lie the magnetic lure of his use of colour to create dimensions, to evoke feeling. As someone who studied the cave paintings at Ajanta, there was no denying that Haloi must have evolved a heightened understanding of pigment. I wanted to find evidence of his approach, which is why the site of his studio mattered.
We reached upstairs and walked past a curtain and entered a vast room that seemed to be notionally divided into two areas. To the right of the door that lead to the terrace was Haloi’s workstation, where he kept all his brushes and pigments, to the left was an area he reserved for viewing. Lath later joked about how Haloi’s studio seemed to follow a purdah system. Precious new and old works had been hidden from plain sight under different kinds of fabric.
Haloi went about quietly from one corner to another, revealing works all dating to 2018, making us realise that he has been creating. Lath is genuinely surprised. Haloi tells him not to tell his wife, Reena, aware that she might cajole him into displaying them at a solo. The works amaze me, especially the verdant quality of his green and how brilliantly the turmeric yellow strokes seem to glisten in contrast. Some works feel notational, as if he has distilled all his thoughts into clear codes. There is often no single colour that dominates but a dense field of opacities that exist across a spectrum.
We stood over the paintings, mostly tempera on paper, which Haloi would ask his daughter to spread over the floor for us. Right next to where we were was a window. I asked Haloi what intuitive means he used to decide when a work was ready. He explained that he would place the painting on the floor, walk away from it towards the window. “I just turn my head and look, and I can see if it needs anything.” But he didn’t just explain it, he enacted it. He walked towards the window, then tilted his head as if to gaze beyond it, then suddenly turned back towards the painting on the floor. All through the demonstration, he was gleaming like a child. “It sounds like a method you’ve perfected,” I said. “Go away… come back,” he repeated. “Here is the best light.”
In between, while he and Lath start chatting in Bengali, I sneak in a word with his daughter. She tells me how her father often slumps into depression. “He needs continuous boosting,” she said. I had witnessed first-hand how much he had transformed during the span of my visit. How he seemed to feed off your levels of interest before deciding whether he wanted to share an effusiveness with you. By the time we reached his work station area, he was feeling exceedingly generous and began to talk about how tempera, as a medium, is soluble in water, but when it dries, is insoluble, going on to speak about the merits of emulsion. “Linseed oil and water,” he said. “Linseed oil is thick. Can you mix both?” he quizzed me. I knew better than to attempt to answer. By now, I was familiar with the rhetorical routine. “They have different densities, they don’t mix. But I can do it. With emulsifying agents. Egg yolk, oil, and water… they will mix,” he added. “What happens is that egg yolk contains oil, with emulsion, oil and water mix. Even milk is an emulsion, it has butter, oil, and water too. When opposite things like water and oil mix together, it becomes an emulsion; water evaporates, oil detaches.”
I ran into Haloi again in September this year, at the opening of Jogen Chowdhury’s retrospective in Kolkata. I asked him if he’d been making work. He told me he’d been too occupied recovering from a bypass surgery. He wasn’t well, he was weak. Aparajita confirmed the fragile nature of his body. I’m hoping for a chance to revisit him soon enough. I feel confident he’ll magically retrieve from under curtained heaps tempera drawings on Nepali paper he’s been making in secret. For that look of wonder, that “shimmering feeling” was still imprinted on his face.