Secular Deities, Enchanted Plants: Mrinalini Mukherjee at the NGMA

In a world in which visual art seems increasingly dependent on the words through which it is mediated, Mrinalini Mukherjee's art manages to make you ask the question: are words the only way to think?

Mrinalini Mukherjee, whose retrospective at Delhi's National Gallery of Modern Art is ongoing. Credit: Manisha Gera Baswani

Mrinalini Mukherjee, whose retrospective at Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art is ongoing. Credit: Manisha Gera Baswani

New Delhi: In one of AS Byatt’s Matisse Stories (1995), a self-declared “artistic family” is stunned to discover that their silent, reliable, long-time housekeeper Mrs. Brown has been making more with their cast-off clothes than the patchwork tea-cozies they grudgingly display. The person most in shock is Robin, serious artist and irritable man of the house, whose repetitive paintings of single objects – ‘problems of colour’, he calls them – are summarily rejected by a fashionable London gallerist. In favour of Mrs. Brown’s dazzling cavern of creatures, knitted and stitched from scraps of wool and cloth.

Mrinalini Mukherjee was no Mrs. Brown. She was the only daughter of the artists Benode Bihari and Leela Mukherjee, and trained in fine arts at Baroda’s MS University. Today, her work is part of the public collections at Bharat Bhavan and Lalit Kala Akademi, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Tate Modern in London–and international interest is only getting stronger. But as the artist Nilima Sheikh, Mukherjee’s close friend and contemporary, points out, “For a very long time, the sculpture world, especially in Delhi and Baroda, didn’t accept her as a sculptor, because ‘woh toh kucch craft mein kar rahi hai‘. But she kept improvising, and pushing the boundaries. Her work became much more relevant [than theirs].”

Peter Nagy, curator of the Mukherjee retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art that opened on 27 January 2015, a week before her unexpected death, goes further. “She got her final revenge,” he chuckles. “Because all those men chiselling away at their chunks of marble in Garhi studio, who pooh-poohed her – very few have gone anywhere, really. In terms of scale, her work just kicks sand in their faces.”

Female, not feminine

Walking into ‘Transfigurations’, as the show at the NGMA is titled, there can be not the slightest doubt that one is in the presence of a brilliantly assured artist. The largest pieces here are the hemp-fibre sculptures that were Mukherjee’s signature for a quarter century, from the early 70s to the mid-90s. The painstaking knotted construction and fluid organic forms may have been responsible for that early, wounding dismissal of this work as ‘craft’, but what leaps out at you is Mukherjee’s ability to turn her malleable, ‘female’ material into stable, imposing, often monumental forms. Frequently, these also display a powerful sense of the sexual.

Close to the entrance, for instance, we are met by ‘Pushp’ (1993) and ‘Adi Pushp’ (1991), which despite their names, belie any idea of the floral as we usually think of it: pretty, summery, sweet-smelling. ‘Adi Pushp’, ‘the first flower’, in particular, is a marvellous evocation of organic growth, the tubular black forms at its centre unfurling into impressive red and brown ‘petals’. Nature in Mukherjee’s conception is no mild, tameable thing. Yet what also emerges from many of her figures is a harmonious continuum between plant, animal and human form; sometimes with the addition of a superhuman element.

The arresting reds and purples of ‘Aranyani’ (1996) combine the sense of some forest flower writ large with that of a female sexual form, and an enthroned regal figure. The three free-standing figures that make up ‘Vruksha Nata’ (1991-92) appear plant-like at first, with their layered stems and fronds in light brown and lime green. But as one looks at them again, their inescapably humanoid qualities come to the fore: a sad, drooping head, a bent back, what seems like the start of a slow, painful hobble towards the other.

The forest is never far away, and Mukherjee’s forms of divinity are often particular to it. ‘Vanshree’ (1994), woven of yellow and mauve, has what seems undeniably like a face. Her eyes are sunken in, or perhaps hooded, with age, or sleep. Her lips protrude, sulkily. An umbrella above her, she sits grandly upon a golden throne, and may or may not grant you an audience. ‘Van Raja’ (1991-94) is even grander. Placed in a woven alcove arched like a temple is a standing figure, very definitely male, but also animal. Is this a tiger turned god, his golden body made erect, to be worshipped amidst his unruly jungle of green?

Crafting Art

Mrinalini Mukherjee with her jute sculpture, 'Woman on a Swing', in 1989.

Mrinalini Mukherjee with her jute sculpture, ‘Woman on a Swing’, in 1989.

For Mrinalini Mukherjee, refusing the hierarchy of high art and low art came naturally. Seeing craft and art as parallel to each other was part of her artistic legacy, both from her parents, and from her mentor at Baroda, Prof. KG Subramanyan. Subramanyan himself had studied at Shantiniketan, and been Benode Behari Mukherjee’s student. “So there was a sort of lineage going on,” says Sheikh. Shaped by Tagore’s rejection of the colonial aesthetic, Shantiniketan’s teachers and practitioners had long taken interest in Indian art forms and indigenous materials. While primarily a painter, Subramanyan took craft seriously enough to have left his teaching job and joined the All India Handloom Board as a Deputy Director for a couple of years in the 1960s. Later, in 1975-76, he was also elected a member of the World Crafts Council.

But how did Mukherjee arrive at her unusual material? In the late 1960s, says Sheikh, during MS University’s annual Fine Arts Fair, the campus was thrown open to the public. Students would often make “gateways, sculptural forms, design units… to make things more festive.” One of the materials used for these was hemp fibre, and even as an undergraduate, Mukherjee was drawn to the possibilities of the material. So she chose mural design as the option for her MA, and asked Subramanyan whether she could specialise only in hemp in the final year.

Subramanyan himself had worked a little in hemp, but Mukherjee’s conception of the material was very much her own. For one, she was remarkably invested in scale. As early as 1972, she was commissioned to produce a 30-foot fibre sculpture for the DCM pavilion at the Asia 72 trade fair. She then did a 45 X 4 foot one for the Ashoka Hotel, and a 14 X 70 foot mural for the Gandhi Memorial Institute at Mauritius. (The Mauritius work still exists, it has recently been photographed by an art enthusiast, hung on the wall on either side of what appears to be an auditorium stage—sadly somewhat robbed of its original grandeur by large black speakers.)

Her second crucial departure was to make her sculptures freestanding, or at least viewable in the round. Mural design, which she trained in, involves working on walls or ceilings: think Italian frescoes, or the Ajanta caves. But after early works, like the Mauritius one, and another on display here, Water Fall (1975), Mukherjee seems to have consciously abandoned murals. A couple of other works at NGMA do lean against a wall, like Sitting Deity (1981), whose trunk-like form and playfully disc-shaped ‘stomach’ gesture to the elephant-headed, pot-bellied Ganesh. On the whole, though, there is a clear progression being marked from hemp netting as a ‘decorative’ element—something to enhance the look of an already existing structure, like a doorway or wall—to independent forms with a definite structure, shape, bulk. Mukherjee’s work gave hemp heft, metaphorically and literally.

Material matters

But it wasn’t quite enough. In the 1990s, Mukherjee slowly stopped working with hemp. We don’t quite know why. She had been working in a single material since the beginning of her career. Also, from the mid-70s, she had been aided in the laborious knotting and twisting by a woman she had trained, known as Budhiya. By the 90s, Budhiya was too old to assist her, and the work seemed tedious to do alone. There is something interesting here, about the collective labour demanded by craft.

Whatever the reasons, a chance workshop at the Sanskriti Kendra in Anandgram, followed by an invitation to the renowned European Ceramic Work Centre in Den Bosch, the Netherlands, enabled her to explore ceramics. Almost immediately, she began making larger works than most ceramic artists do. A decade or so later, in the early 2000s, she moved into bronze, perhaps the most traditional material for sculptors. “She chose bronze for its longevity, its stature, its seriousness,” says Nagy, who showed her bronzes at a solo show at Nature Morte in 2013, and had earlier curated her ceramics at Lokayata Gallery in Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village.

Looking at the bronzes, one feels, first and foremost, a sense of loss at the disappearance of the deep reds, forest greens and coal blacks that had made her hemp work so vivid. The ceramics, happily, are a mix of unglazed flesh tones and glazed vermilions and purples. All her work is striking, but to me the hemp sculptures remain the most memorable. I would even say she went from a complex mediation of organic forms (in hemp fibre) to a more simple translation of them (in ceramic and bronze).

Natural, sexual, human

But it is nature that brings her work together. The lovely arrangement of ceramics called ‘Lotus Pond’, Nos. I to VIII, gives us overlapping lotus leaves on the water surface, tubular stems turning into chutes and spongy thalamus-like forms. Several of the glazed ceramics are cabbage-like, with veined leaves. Others are flowers opening slowly to the sun, upturned half-globes erupting into life—and yet preserving a sense of hidden orifices.

That keen eye for the voluptuous complexities of nature also extends to the cast bronzes. Most of these are purely vegetal in inspiration, the pleasure of them arising from making us see naturally-occurring textures and shapes anew: the stippled interior of a calyx, the gleaming smoothness of an outer stem, the single palm frond slowly detaching itself from a trunk. Here, too, you see a scalar progression, from the smaller Natural History series (2003-2004) to the bronzed plant limbs of Palm Scapes (exhibited in 2013), massive pieces whose precise sense of balance once led Peter Nagy to describe them as “only slightly perturbed by gravity”.

Speaking at the inauguration of the NGMA retrospective, with her friend Mrinalini in hospital, Nilima Sheikh spoke of the child ‘Dillu’ growing up between Shantiniketan and Dehradun (she studied at Welham School, where her mother Leela taught art). Both were places where people went to be with nature, where artists lived with flowers. “Flowers were planted and grown in gardens, worn, sung in praise of, painted, worked into shorthand in textile and rangolis.” But that childhood love of plants and flowers was transformed, in the artist’s hands, into something anthropomorphic and awe-inspiring.

Talking about art

Credit: Ram Rehman

Mukherjee rarely spoke of her artistic process, and even less of what her art ‘meant’. “No, she would never explain the themes,” laughs Pankaj Guru, her assistant on the bronzes for the last sixteen years. “She would just come to the studio and say, I want to do this. She dreamed those works.”

“She used to resist interpretations of her work at first, even the gender politics in it,” agrees Sheikh. “Later she came to accept various interpretations, and was helped by it, I’m sure.” But on the whole, Sheikh suggests, Mukherjee prized spontaneity. Like her mother, who sculpted in wood and later in bronze, (and unlike her more famous father), she was averse to theorising. “Her intellect, her judgement, her connoisseurship was unparallelled. But she didn’t intellectualise.” In a world in which visual art seems increasingly dependent on the words through which it is mediated, Mrinalini Mukherjee’s art manages to make you ask the question: are words the only way to think?

The Mrinalini Mukherjee retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, continues until May 31, 2015.

Trisha Gupta is an independent writer and culture critic based in Delhi. Follow her on Twitter at @chhotahazri.