In her one-room barsati in Delhi’s Nizamuddin East, Mrinalini Mukherjee would spend days and nights weaving and knotting hemp ropes into complex patterns. She worked intuitively, without making preparatory drawings. Like in nature, she wanted her works to grow organically.
Two days before her retrospective opened at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi in February 2015, Mukherjee was hospitalised. A week later, she died, aged 66, due to lung complications. Though she had begun to receive the long-overdue recognition, it did bother her that her art was sometimes dismissed as craft. In a statement she had written for the inauguration of her show, she reportedly mentioned forming abiding friendships with some of her peers and seniors, such as Krishen Khanna, Tyeb Mehta and MF Husain, but not finding acceptance from sculptors of her generation.
Four years after her demise, her radical oeuvre is getting acclaim in arguably the first comprehensive display of her work in the US. Her works occupy the hallowed halls of The Met Breuer in New York. Titled “Phenomenal Nature: Mrinalini Mukherjee”, the exhibition, curated by Shanay Jhaveri, assistant curator, South Asian Art, at The Met’s department of modern and contemporary art, features 57 works that highlight her experiments with fibre, ceramics and bronze. “The historic exhibition takes a deep look at Mukherjee’s crucial work, highlighting her anthropomorphic sculptures exploring spirits, deities, feminism and sexuality,” says Max Hollein, museum director.
Jhaveri says this was the first exhibition he proposed after assuming his current position. “We had opened the Met Breuer with the Nasreen Mohamedi exhibition (in 2016). One of the key strands of our department’s execution programme is to look at modernism and art history, and at practices that have been overlooked. Nasreen represented one kind of ideal with regard to modernist practice and Mrinalini is at the opposite end of that spectrum. I thought she would be a really provocative and interesting follow-up. There was also the fact that Mrinalini’s work had not been shown in America during her lifetime.
There was such a vibrant fibre art movement in the US and Europe in the ’60s and ’70s and her work was never associated with those practices,” he says. Sourced from collections across the world, the exhibition, he says, has been carefully installed following Mukherjee’s own instructions, written down to ensure that each work is displayed as she wanted.
Born in 1949 to artists Benode Behari Mukherjee and Leela Mukherjee, her artistic leanings and interest in natural forms were both inherited and imbibed through a childhood spent between Dehradun and Santiniketan. At 16, she enrolled for a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting at the Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU), Baroda, followed by a two-year post-graduate diploma course in mural design under KG Subramanyan. Her teacher’s interest in indigenous traditions and unconventional material and practice appealed to Mukherjee. “Dilu” to her friends, she began reworking traditional fibre materials. For one of the annual fine arts fairs in Baroda, Mukherjee got involved in working with hemp and made wall hangings. “She enjoyed the feel of it and continued to work with it. It gradually became her main mode of expression,” recalls her senior from MSU, Baroda and close associate Nilima Sheikh.
Chronologically, the first work in the exhibition, Squirrel (1972), was her first animal form, which followed the earliest fibre works exploring the vegetal world. The three-dimensional figure, Jhaveri notes, marked a shift from her wall-based work. “It announced a couple of things that become important for the practice. One is the allusion to nature. The other is the idea of representing an animal form and how the figures later become anthropomorphic. Also, there are two things with regard to the technicalities: she began working with knots almost immediately. She was not a trained weaver, and never worked with a loom, so in Squirrel, you can see that she had started knotting. The other aspect is creating volume and three-dimensionality. She wanted to create sculptural forms rather than wall hangings,” says the curator.
After moving to Delhi in 1972, Mukherjee’s sensibilities began to reflect her conversations with artists, architects and designers in her proximity. J Swaminathan’s interest in traditional Indian iconography was also mirrored in Mukherjee’s practice. She placed the sculptures on the floor, attempted to suspend them from the ceiling, metamorphosed myths and mythology, and started layering them with sexual overtones. On display in New York, Nag Devta (1979), for instance, resembles the serpent deity but also brings together the male and female sexual attributes.
In 1991, Mukherjee made her first fully free-standing work, Woman on Peacock, which explored a union between male and female, human and animal. Soon, Mukherjee was to find a new material in ceramic. In 1995, she participated in a ceramic workshop at the Sanskriti Kendra in Delhi, followed by a residency in the Netherlands in 1996. She used contrasting glazes, graduating from flowerets to more ornamented works such as the Night Bloom series in the late 1990s.
Though in 1977 she won an award at the National Exhibition at Lalit Kala Akademi, Delhi, and her works were shown in exhibitions and biennales in Paris, Sydney and London, Mukherjee was a lone ranger. Some accused her of catering to Western tastes and she had to defend the use of Sanskrit titles for her work and the mythological and traditional iconography, asserting that her religion was “deconventionalised”. Public commissions gave financial support and visibility. Among others, she created works for the Air India office in Washington 1973), Ashoka Hotel in Delhi (1973) and the Mahatma Gandhi Institute in Mauritius (1976).
Mukherjee strove to develop an individual artistic language and resisted affiliations. As an advisory board member of Roopankar, the museum of fine arts at Bhopal’s Bharat Bhavan, she had suggested a four-woman exhibition, comprising Sheikh, Nalini Malani, Arpita Singh and Madhvi Parekh but did not wish to participate herself. “She resisted the ‘woman artist’ nomenclature. She believed it took away from her professionalism and how she was perceived. As a woman, she had struggled. Most sculptors in India were men, and she was working in an unconventional medium which was not taken seriously,” says Sheikh.
Whenever she felt constrained, Mukherjee chose a different path. The lack of access to large kilns and particular glazes in India, for instance, led her to bronze in the early 2000s. In her final series, Palm-Scapes, she gave form to plant fragments collected from across Delhi. Even a solid metal like bronze attained fluidity. With bare hands, she prepared the wax moulds, using fingers that once knotted for hours. In the process, the artist would be one with her work. Mukherjee described it best herself, when in an interview, she once stated, “My work is physical — my body, my materials, the way of life, the environment, all work together.”
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘The weave of her world’