Around a month after Santiniketan announced that it will honour its eminent alumni Benode Behari Mukherjee with a gallery dedicated to the work of the visually challenged modernist master, an exhibition in Delhi traces his oeuvre, from the time Mukherjee completed his studies at Kala Bhavan. “He registered as its second student in 1919, when the institution was established,” says art historian R Siva Kumar, who has curated the exhibition titled “Between Sight and Insight: Glimpses of Benode Behari Mukherjee”. Born into a highly literate family, a childhood illness had left him blind in one eye and myopic in the other. Unable to pursue formal education, Santiniketan is where Mukherjee gave new life to the close association he had built with nature.
At a time when most other artists were instilling nationalistic fervour by turning to mythology and history, Mukherjee was painting his surroundings and the self. “He began to paint landscapes and placed himself in the work, lending a more personal vision. Some of them are quasi-autobiographical paintings. In a way, he is looking at the world through his eyes and we are made aware of that — this is something that Indian artists might do later,” says Siva Kumar, turning to some of the early works in the exhibition.
Sourced from the collection he bequeathed to his daughter, the late artist Mrinalini Mukherjee, the display, spread over two galleries, shows the evolution of the master from a young student to the pioneering modernist who did not let his failing eyesight interfere with his artistic endeavours. If in his teachers in Santiniketan, Nandalal Bose and Rabindranath Tagore, he found guidance, his travels exposed him to global trends as well as more local orientations. Influences of his brief stay in Japan in 1937-38, for instance, are visible in the manner in which he painted scrolls and flowers. “He is not directly influenced in terms of style. He would look at what is the constructional framework underlining the practice,” says Siva Kumar.
Back in Santiniketan, in 1946-47 Mukherjee designed what has been described as “perhaps the single most important work painted in modern India” — his mural Life of the Medieval Saints which featured the numerous saint-poets of India.
Appointed as the curator of the Government Museum in Nepal in 1949, he came in close contact with the craftspeople and artisans. “Their work convinced him that a visual language could be structurally simple but rich in functional and expressive suggestiveness, and this is a quality that folk and traditional styles shared with certain post-cubist painting,” writes Siva Kumar in the catalogue. In the exhibition, we see the mountainous terrain with sloping roofs and cloudy skies. The landscape changes in the ’50s, when Mukherjee moves to Mussoorie after travelling to Banaras and Banasthali. With further deterioration in his eyesight, there is a visible change in the line detailing of his landscapes. Appointed educational adviser at the Art School of Patna in 1954, he begins to draw more from memory. “The definite strokes, the graceful web of assured touches, and the measured wash of colour, characteristic of his work so far, give way to vague scribbles, harder edges, and thicker layers of pigment,” notes Siva Kumar.
By the time he returned to Kala Bhavan in 1958, he had lost his eyesight and began to find alternative mediums to experiment with; apart from drawings, he produced several collages and paper cuts, some of which were later turned into coloured lithographs. Siva Kumar writes, “Besides paper cuts and collages, he also made drawings, capturing the form, its edges and spatial disposition in a single gesture. Going further, after exploring the surface with his hands and fixing the field in his mind, he performed a sequence of gestures big and small, leaping blindfolded from island to island, to create complex compositions with several elements.”
A tribute also comes from his student Satyajit Ray. In the 1973 biographical film, The Inner Eye, playing in the gallery, Ray paints a picture of the life story of the modernist, ending with Mukherjee’s now famous observation: “Blindness is a new feeling, a new experience, a new state of being”.
(The exhibition at Vadehra Art Gallery, Defence Colony, is on till February 22)