Ganesh Haloi is one of the most celebrated names in the Indian art scenario, who is sought-after for his non-representational abstract images. His stylistic individuality is undeniably unique in its formal appearance and technical efficacy. Although scholars and critics have acknowledged his paintings as the harmony of senses and sensibilities,1 ensemble of ‘pictorial signs’, ‘evocative marks’,2 and ‘quantum of colour’ 3 (Image 1); they are nevertheless interpretations based on, to paraphrase Edmund B. Feldman (1987, p. 474), the ‘formal analysis’ 4 of Haloi’s paintings. They examine the organisation of different visual elements – such as lines, shapes, colours, and textures – as forms in relation to their particular locations on the pictorial surface. These visual organisations are then perceived through the lens of their personal experiences, gathered from different sources. But certainly, there could be another or a different kind of explanation for his paintings – something that is akin to Haloi’s personal experiences, and not of the critics.
Image 1. Ganesh Haloi, Untitled, Gouache on paper 17.78 X 26.67 cm, 2009. Image Credit: www.akarprakar.com
An in-depth analysis of Haloi’s biography, supported by his interviews, might guide us differently in this venture. It is quite necessary for, in ‘Steinbeck: A defense of Biographical Criticism’ (1989), Jackson J. Benson writes, “…biography provides an important clue to the philosophy that informs as author’s work.” 5 It is much like digging out or excavating the remnants of the past of an author or artist. J. Emerling suggests in his Theory for Art History (2019, p.24) that, by collecting and interpreting his/her past, or life history to be exact, significant attention can be drawn towards the aesthetic and political perspectives of the creative person under observation – it “take[s] up a new relation to the past”.6 Taking this as a premise, we can go through Haloi’s life – his experiences, and most importantly his past, that might yield a different perspective regarding his practice, as well as his paintings.
Born in Jamalpur (presently in Bangladesh) in 1936, Ganesh Haloi spent his childhood on the bank of the river Brahmaputra. As an inquisitive toddler, he developed a keen interest in the flora and fauna of his neighbourhood and used to enjoy his nomadic adventures among the dried earth, marshlands, lush greeneries, and riverine landscapes of rural East Bengal. His memoir, Amar Katha7 (2019), published by Debovasha, is filled with such memories, emotional engagements, and vivid accounts of his observance of the natural world. However, all these emotions and attachments were ripped apart all at once, when the starry-eyed teenager had to witness one of the most unfortunate events in South Asian human history – the Partition of Bengal in 1947. The hitherto integrated country was broken into pieces, and the ever fertile land bathed in the blood of fratricidal riots. The event had ceased the habitation and sojourn of many people on both sides of the border. Longing for the past and anticipation for a better future have constituted a complex web of narratives concerning these people, who continued their migration from East Bengal to West Bengal and vice-versa at the stake of their lives. New trajectories of real and symbolic lands, and identities were imagined and implicated within and without the nation (Mukherjee, 2010).8 When Haloi – the immaculate sensitive teenager – along with his family, was forced to leave his abode in 1950, he too became a part of this complex narrative of the displaced. His address was changed many times as he drifted from one refugee camp to another like a leaf blown by a gust of wind; yet, he could not forget his residence – the village he had left behind. His heart-wrenching words put forward,
"This time, it was not possible to stay at home anymore. Many families left their homes. My elder cousin said, 'We shouldn't stay either.' We also had to leave. I stuck a few of my paintings on the outside of the wooden window shutters in my study room in different Indian art scenario."9
Recollections of such events indicate the trauma and nostalgia caused by displacement, which is quite evident in the memories of many victims of partition. However, narratives of such paradigms face their limitations when mainstream historiography attempts to include them. As Dominick LaCapra (2014, p. 186) suggests, in his acclaimed book ‘Writing History, Writing Trauma’, while delineating their trauma, the victims maintain a certain distance from the trauma itself, as the traumatised individual cannot recall its source in the form of a “discrete, dated experience”.10 Thus, the addressing takes the form of metaphor and is articulated in hybrid form.
Haloi’s experience is no different from this. Instead of depicting his memories vividly on the picture plane, Haloi embarked on the trajectory of metaphor – where two seemingly unrelated domains are linked to each other through the resemblances between senses (Lakoff, 1993),11 and accentuates particular feelings or emotions. Thus, his keen observations of the natural world of his childhood village found their way into his paintings in a somewhat performative manner (Image 2).12
Image 2. Ganesh Haloi, Untitled, Gouache on board, 50.16 X 74.93 cm, 2016. Image Credit: www.akarprakar.com
Generally, he uses different watercolour painting techniques, including wet-in-wet, wet-on-dry, broad flat and graded washes, dry brush, lifting of pigments, and application of pigments in several layers. Along with those, he incorporates different textures in his paintings by employing the techniques of granulation and flocculation of pigments that resemble the granular appearance of the earth (Image 3). Surprisingly, all these techniques and their effects closely recur to the geological process of sedimentation and erosion, which is why it is hard to believe that they are mere resemblances. Undeniably, Haloi tries to link the domains of these geological processes and his painting method through his performance of applying earth pigment on the pictorial surface – a performance that recurs to and draws its inspiration from the fragmented memories and reminiscences of his past. But memories are susceptible to intrusion. Perhaps this is why the contours
of many of his forms are blurred, fluid, and ambivalent as if endlessly shifting their shapes. No matter how concrete they might appear their contours have a swaying characteristic. Concurrently, the natural world is reduced in his paintings to their bare essentials as per Haloi’s imagination (Image 4). The hybrid mode of vision, that he had developed, has pushed him in the searching and restoring a land of his own through this imagination. One of his comments can be referred to in this context, where Haloi (personal interview, September 15, 2018) exclaims,
“I wish to create a land of my own – my land with my rules... The landscape is in my root. My ancestral house was on the bank of the river in Bangladesh. I used to make sketches of marshland, water plants, dried earth, fishes, insects, and their reminiscent marks. Yes, landscapes are there in my root!”13
Image 3. Ganesh Haloi, Untitled, Gouache on board, 50.16 X 74.93 cm, 2014. Image Credit: www.akarprakar.com
Image 4. Ganesh Haloi, Untitled, Tempera on paper pasted on board, 36.83 X 46.99 cm, 2014. Image Credit: www.akarprakar.com
Therefore, it would not be unjust to assume that Haloi's paintings are but the reflection of his memories that were deposited in his soul like silt. In paintings after paintings, fragments of these memories have found their way on the pictorial plane. His longing for his ancestral land oozes from each of his paintings. Yet, it must be acknowledged that no reading of art can be considered a decisive one. There will remain the cobwebs of misreading and over-interpretation. However, in this instance, it might not be wrong to presume that Haloi’s past, memory, trauma, and nostalgia can be pondered as a guiding factor to appreciate the images that he creates in the form of Leela or cosmic play of visual elements.
The author is grateful to artist Ganesh Haloi to share his precious time for the interview and to Mr. Abhijit Lath and Akar Prakar (www.akarprakar.com) for granting permission to use images of artworks of Ganesh Haloi from their collection.
1. Majumder, Manasij. 2011. Ganesh Haloi [exhibition catalogue]. Kolkata: Akar Prakar.
2. Majumdar, Soumik Nandy. 2015. “Ganesh Haloi.” In 8 Bengal Masters: Miracles of Existence. Kolkata: Akar Prakar.
3. Thacker, Jesal. 2016. “The Quantum of Colour: Works of Ganesh Haloi.” Academia. Accessed on August 13, 2021.
4. Feldman, Edmund B. (1987). Varieties of Visual Experience (3rd ed.)New York: Prentice Hall, Inc. Englewood Cliffs, N. J., Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
5. Benson, J. J. (1989). Steinbeck: A Defense of Biographical Criticism. College Literature, 16(2), 107–116. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25111810
6. Emerling, J. (2019). Theory for Art History (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.
7. Haloi, Ganesh. (2019). Amar Katha. Kolkata: Debovasha.
8. Mukerjee, Madhusree. 2010. Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II. Haryana: Penguin Books.
9. Das, Prakash. (Ed.). (2014). Ganesh Haloi Naishabder Chitrakar. Kolkata: Chhatim Books. Author’s translation.
10. LaCapra, Dominick. 2014. Writing History, Writing Trauma. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
11. Lakoff, George. “The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor.” Chapter 11. In Metaphor and Thought, edited by Andrew Ortony, 2nd ed., 202–51. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139173865.013.
12. Enacting the past memory are acknowledged by LaCapra as “performative discourse”.
13. Author’s translation.
Debasish Ghorui is an independent artist and researcher. He completed his PhD in the Fine Arts at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur after pursuing his bachelor’s and master’s in Painting from Govt. College of Art and Craft, Calcutta. His interest lies in the Ancient and Modern History of Indian Art and Aesthetics, along with methods and techniques of painting. He has participated in several national and international academic conferences, art workshops and exhibitions. He has also taught visual art in Govt. College of Art and Craft, Calcutta and St. Xavier’s College (Autonomous), Kolkata.