On a wall in a corridor of Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery, where I worked a few years ago, hung a painting by Ganesh Pyne called The Head (tempera on canvas, 1977). It was a portrait of a monkey wearing a wreath of thorns on his head. Each time I passed by the work, the monkey’s droopy eyes and unsure smile affected me. He always seemed to be in between states. Right when he began appearing animated, I would realise that he is a lifeless image made with measured brushstrokes. And right when I would pin his smile to being sinister and mocking, would I begin to feel sympathetic towards him. Isn’t he the victim here, this wearer of a crown of thorns?

Pyne (1937-2013) was born and raised in Kolkata. At the age of nine, he witnessed the riots that preceded the Partition. Walking through the streets, he saw a cart carrying a pile of dead bodies. Right on top was the naked body of a woman with her breasts slashed. The image left a lasting impression on Pyne. Death lurks in almost all his works. Rather than painting skin taut over fleshy bodies — signs of health and beauty — Pyne focuses on the bones below. The frame that holds it together is wispy, constantly reminding us of the body’s impermanence. But this preoccupation is not contemplation on the pointlessness of human existence. Instead, it often manages to hint at man’s extraordinary ability to wrong his fellow beings.

In Harbour (tempera on paper, 1971), which is currently on display at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), Delhi, as part of the exhibition over the edge, crossing the line: five artists from Bengal , we see a man-canoe floating on water. It is modelled on Polynesian war canoes decorated elaborately with the faces of protective ancestors on the bow. We see him — the man as a war canoe — gently sailing towards a tulsi mancha , painted to look like an open-mouthed skull waiting to devour the warrior. Here, death is deliberate, a force of evil no matter which side the warrior is on. His condition is made even more absurd by the dainty flowers that ornament his destination; the Earth exists as paradise irrespective of the destinies of man.

A similar political commentary emerges in The Puppet (tempera on canvas, 2001), where a disjointed head and body, held in place with strings, looks ready to command an army of followers. But it is in his portraits of monkeys that Pyne manages to capture the absurdity of violence. Many of his monkeys wear flowing robes, suits, crowns, paper hats and wreaths of thorns. Unlike humans, they do not carry within them the bony sign of mortality. Pyne presents these monkeys without context, but they are clearly demarcated as leaders and conmen. Their loopy gazes and half-smiles make their malice seem more mischievous than villainous. For Pyne, violence has no deep meaning; it is the action of a monkey strutting and fretting, babbling with sound and fury.

At the exhibition at KNMA, Pyne’s creations hang alongside works by Meera Mukherjee, Somnath Hore, Jogen Chowdhury and Ganesh Haloi. Each of these five artists was affected by the many violent events that occurred in Bengal during their formative years — the Bengal Famine, Partition, Tebhaga movement and the Bengali Language Movement in East Pakistan — but chose diverse visual vocabularies to express themselves. Ganesh Haloi’s works, for instance, are in stark contrast to those of Pyne’s.

Haloi was born in 1936 on the banks of the Brahmaputra in Jamalpur, now in Bangladesh. He moved to Kolkata in 1950 following the Partition. While Pyne’s work is dark and brooding, Haloi’s is lyrical as he chooses to ignore humans altogether. Haloi’s works are abstract renderings of landscapes — swathes of green or blue that represent meadows and rivers and little geometric birds, trees and rocks. Haloi has often said that nothing is as unnecessary in this beautiful world as human interference. And in his works we see a world that is pristine and joyous — without the darkness that mankind brings to it.

In between these registers of feelings lies Mukherjee’s sculptures. Mukherjee (1923-1998), apart from studying art formally, apprenticed with sculptors in Bastar, now in Chhattisgarh, to learn the traditional dhokra method of casting. Her men and women are part of nature. They are humble beings who work and play under the life-giving shade of banyan trees. These sculptures are, however, not without a sense of menace. Hands locked in an embrace sometimes appear to be chains of slavery, for instance.

Pyne, Haloi and Mukherjee were contemporaries with similar concerns. But through their works, they each arrived at a different conclusion or truth — a personal truth. Their works don’t bear the marks of any particular context but they remain relevant with their ability to communicate their maker’s truth to us. The monkey wearing both a crown of gold and a crown of thorns tells us that Pyne believed that an oppressor was, in a way, also a victim.

‘over the edge, crossing the line: five artists from Bengal’is on display at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art till September 25

Blessy Augustine is an art critic based in Delhi