Mrinalini Mukherjee, who passed away on February 2, was an outstanding sculptor of our times. She stretched the frontiers of plastic arts in India. It is a matter of deep sorrow that her solo exhibition, “Transfigurations: The Sculpture of Mrinalini Mukherjee”, currently on at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Delhi, opened a day after she was hospitalised. It is ironic to celebrate the lifetime works of an artist and say goodbye to her at the same time. It is tragic that Mukherjee could not be present at the opening of the show and witness the impact it made. She was constantly and meticulously involved in the mounting of the exhibition until her last days.
Born in 1949, Mukherjee was the daughter of the eminent Santiniketan artist, Benode Behari Mukherjee, and painter Leela Mukherjee. She studied fine arts at MS University, Baroda, from 1965 to 1972. Between 1970 and 1972, she explored painting and mural design under K.G. Subramanyan. Until 2001, she primarily focused on the medium of dyed and woven hemp, exploring both figurative and abstract dimensions. From the mid-1990s, she began to work in ceramics. Reflecting expansive areas of vegetation, flora and fauna as well as biomorphic elements, her visual aesthetics represent an individualistic expression. Similarly, she experimented with bronze sculptures to achieve radically different forms and textures. Mukherjee’s works have a sensuous quality with strong erotic undertones. But her primary impulses came from a feeling for the primitive forces of nature.
In 1971, she received the British Council scholarship for sculpture and worked at the West Surrey College of Art and Design in Farnham, UK. In 1996, she attended a residency in the Netherlands with the European Ceramics Work Centre, where her deep interest in ceramics developed. Her unconventional art was showcased at home and abroad. In 1994-95, an exhibition of her works was held at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford. The exhibition later travelled to different cities in the UK. Mukherjee possessed a deep spirit of experimentation. She explored the sculptural potential of so-called common craft materials like hemp and other fibres, and validated them as mediums of sculptural significance, eventually achieving monumentality. In her own words, “My early work was a response to the vegetation and the flora that I loved in the garden towns in which I grew up. Gradually biomorphic elements enlivened the plant forms and the interplay of planes grew more complex and acquired body. Scale, posture and bearing gradually bought the human, and even the superhuman, into the persona I was building up.”
Reflecting on her iconic works of art at the ongoing exhibition in the NGMA, I am reminded of her unconventional approach. Van Raja reminds me of her deep understanding of folk sensibilities — the dyed fibre and hemp are woven and constructed into human figures engrossed in their natural environs. In keeping with her non-conformist approach, both in terms of medium and material, another work of art, Pushp, created in 1993, may be effortlessly seen as a flower. But Mukherjee’s exceptionally creative piece exhibits a voluptuous red opening and directs the viewer towards a dark interior. Based on the female principle of prakriti, this sculpture, in its massive scale, is reflective of the mother goddess as well as regeneration. Similarly, her bronzes, her area of creative interest for the last decade, are mainly focused on nature and employ magnificent scale and proportion. Leaves of diverse shapes and sizes, conjoined in a stylistic way, define the creative virtuosity of Mukherjee’s expression. She was incessantly experimental in her creative endeavours and paid utmost attention to exploring the medium to attain forms with understated eroticism.
Mukherjee’s works of art are part of the collection of the NGMA as well as of institutions like Bharat Bhavan (Bhopal), State Museum (Chandigarh) and Lalit Kala Akademi (Delhi), to name just a few in India. Internationally, her works form part of the collection of the Tate Modern and have also been exhibited at the Institut Valencia d’Art Modern, the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, and the 10th Gwangju Biennale.
With its knotted surfaces intertwined in a rhythmic manner, incorporating deep folds, crevices and flaps, and its unusual play with forms and textures in bronzes and ceramics, Mukherjee’s sculptural legacy will be forever remembered. Her demise is the nation’s loss.
Her solo exhibition has been visited by large numbers. It is reassuring that her unconventional and individualistic sculptural legacy will be forever remembered. But she has not left us. She has just “transfigured” into another soul.
The writer is director, National Gallery of Modern Art.