Ganesh Haloi

Ganesh Haloi, Untitled (2016), tempera on paper, mounted on board, 47 × 72.5 cm, courtesy Ganesh Haloi and Akar Prakar, Kolkata

Ganesh Haloi, installation view, Athens Conservatoire (Odeion), documenta 14, photo: Mathias Völzke

Ganesh Haloi, installation view, Hessisches Landesmuseum, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Michael Nast

During one of my initial visits to his Kolkata home, Ganesh Haloi sat me down with an offering of Bengali sweets and then explained how one reads elemental shapes in our organic world. How the line, circle, and triangle exist as natural forms of geometry yet become entangled in the complexity of the world’s geographical contours. In his drawings and in his paintings on handmade paper, these figures are then decoded once they are placed on the page. Likewise, Haloi’s works are exercises in bringing life to the genre of landscape painting through the assembly of disparate symbolic forms. Throughout his oeuvre, as in his thinking, there is never a separation between the nature within and the nature without.

Haloi joined the Archaeological Survey of India as a senior artist in 1957, soon after the completion of his artistic education in Calcutta. Over six years, he meticulously studied the paintings in the caves and monasteries at Ajanta, an ancient Buddhist site that has inspired artists for centuries. There he pioneered a comparative reading of the religious iconography of the cave murals, and began to understand the role of light and natural pigments in mobilizing figuration as shadow play. Haloi supplemented his monument studies with anthropological sketches of Indigenous communities living in the area.

Buddhist philosophy has had a deep influence on Haloi’s artistic thinking and the conceptual language he has carved out. When considering the phenomenon of truth, the artist quotes a sacred text: “But in the changing things there is a constancy of law, and when the law is seen there is truth.” And yet the work is equally conditioned by the political events that have marked his lifetime. Born in a suburban district of East Bengal that is now part of Bangladesh in 1936, his aesthetic language distills memories of events such as the Bengal famine, rural-urban migration, and the genocidal partition of the Indian subcontinent that began in 1947.

Over time, Haloi has given shape to an earth-toned abstract vocabulary that draws on a vast breadth of iconography, ideas, and movements: across sacred architecture, the Indian miniature painting tradition, the pilgrim city of Varanasi, and geographic terrain (the character of agrarian topography, flora, and stratification of rocks). In his paintings, Haloi is an itinerant traveler and so is the viewer—within strangely unbound time, one takes passage across the vastness of landscape, a floating geometry, the seduction of lines.

—Natasha Ginwala

Posted in Public Exhibition
Excerpted from the documenta 14: Daybook