Requiem for The Masters

The art world has lost three greats this year. Jagmohan Chopra,Bal Chhabda and Ganesh Pyne have individually left behind legacies of printmaking,a vast collection of artwork and a series of black paintings respectively. We look back at their lives and works.

Written by Vandana Kalra | Published: April 1, 2013 10:03:51 pm

The art world has lost three greats this year. Jagmohan Chopra,Bal Chhabda and Ganesh Pyne have individually left behind legacies of printmaking,a vast collection of artwork and a series of black paintings respectively. We look back at their lives and works.

Bal Chhabda

Born in 1923

He is the least-publicised member of the Progressive Artists Group. Although Bal Chhabda began painting in 1958,he didn’t exhibit his works for 30 years,organising his first solo at Jehangir Art Gallery in the late ’80s. “Unlike MF Husain,Bal was not a showman,” says artist Krishen Khanna,comparing the temperament of the two close friends. Belonging to a privileged family from pre-partition Punjab,Chhabda helped numerous artists in the initial days of their careers; among them was Akbar Padamsee,who owes his first solo to Chhabda. The gallery established by him,Gallery 59 — Mumbai’s first — did not operate for too long,but Chhabda did patronise the young artists and built a collection comprising some of the earliest works of the Masters. This collection reportedly includes a wall-sized painting by VS Gaitonde. “We would all meet in his house,located on the seventh floor. We called it The Seventh Heaven,” says Khanna. Chhabda’s passion for films took him to Hollywood,where he studied filmmaking. After his return,he made Do Raha. It sank at the box-office but that did not deter Chhabda from attempting to gather funds for another film. That was the time Husain took him to Bhulabhai Desai Institute in Mumbai,which was the meeting point for creative minds such as Pt Ravi Shankar,Ebrahim Alkazi,Tyeb Mehta,and SH Raza. It is believed that Chhabda started painting on the insistence of Husain and Gaitonde. The self-taught artist’s works come across as abstract,but critics laud his distortion of different shapes and play with colour.

Ganesh Pyne

Born in 1937

His first brush with death came in the summer of 1946,when communal riots set Kolkata aflame. The youngster was forced out of home and onto the streets,where misery and death were to paint his mind forever. “He attracted attention even before he graduated from art school,where in an exhibition celebrating the centenary of the 1857 mutiny,he won an award. He painted Rani of Jhansi,not the leader but the victim. He did not care much about legends and built his own narrative,” says art historian Pranab Ranjan Ray,among the few confidants of the reclusive artist. He adds,“One thing that haunted him was the flickering light against the envelope of darkness,and light shadowed by death.” After graduating,Pyne became the king of dark fantasy,known for his brooding imagery in black and blue,replete with skulls and skeletons,on mediums that ranged from watercolour to tempara. Protagonists from tales narrated by his grandmother were translated onto his canvas — with monkeys and talking grasshoppers. Dressed in courtier’s robes,the monkey named Bir Bahadur remained his favourite. In Pyne’s oeuvre though,it was the grim tale of bloodshed,where jewels were replaced with neck pieces of bones. With least interest in commerce,his first solo took place after he was well past 50.

Jagmohan Chopra

Born in 1935

He was described as an “artist’s artist”. The medium of printmaking might still play second fiddle to the more popular canvas,but Jagmohan Chopra embraced it back in the ’60s. His efforts led to the establishment of Group 8,an organisation which cherished the singular aim of promoting printmaking. A cash award Chopra got for his graphic work as well as his savings were used to mount a printing press in his drawing room that was available to those practising printmaking,including members of the group such as Anupam Sud,Jagdish Dey,Laxmi Datta and Surindra Singh Chadha. By mid ’60s,the group was showcasing its art at All India Exhibitions,devoted exclusively to graphic works. “He helped us understand ourselves and strengthen the desire to know in each one,” says artist Anupam Sud,who studied printmaking under Chopra at College of Art,Delhi.

Extensively producing collographs (that uses soft materials such as glue,paper,cardboard),he also adopted colour photography. His frames had a poetic quality and the themes ranged from nature to more surreal subjects. “During the Indo-China war,some of the materials used by us to produce prints were not available as they were used to make bombs. He did not stop the course,but reinvented the methodology,” says Sud. While his work found place in international collections,the artist is also remembered for his contribution to the Chandigarh Lalit Kala Akademi,where he was the principal for more than a decade,after the retirement of Sushil Sarkar in 1976.

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